Why Iran has little interest in a 'Trump Deal' with the White House

Iran’s growing tension with the U.S. might seem irrational from a Western perspective, but seen from Tehran’s point of view it makes perfect sense, writes James Devine.

Tehran is essentially playing a game of 'chicken'

In this photo released by the official website of the Office of the Iranian Presidency, President Hassan Rouhani speaks in Tehran on Jan. 16. He said there is now 'no limit' to the country's enrichment of uranium. (Office of the Iranian Presidency via The Associated Press)

This column is an opinion by James Devine, an associate professor at Mount Allison University in Sackville, N.B., whose research focuses on the politics and foreign policy of Iran. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

Iran's growing tension with the U.S. might seem irrational from a Western perspective, but from Tehran's point of view it makes perfect sense.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson called on Iran last week to accept a new "Trump Deal" to replace the old, now defunct, Joint Comprehensive Plan Of Action (JCPOA) nuclear agreement. Given the extreme events of recent days, which saw Tehran narrowly avert war with the United States, shoot down a civilian airliner and face renewed domestic unrest, one might think that the regime would be ready to talk.

However, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, often described as a moderate, rejected Johnson's appeal outright.

Boris Johnson says if U.S. President Donald Trump doesn't like Barack Obama's Iran deal, he should make up a new one 0:20

There are a number of reasons why Tehran is not interested in negotiating with the Trump administration.

First and foremost, Iran thought it already had a deal.

Western critics of the JCPOA are quick to point out the many compromises Barack Obama made when the U.S. signed the 2015 agreement, but Tehran also felt it had made painful concessions.

The JCPOA did not put an end to all sanctions against the Islamic Republic, only those related to its nuclear program. Moreover, when the deal was in effect, the Iranian government complained that the U.S. used loopholes to keep as many sanctions in place as possible.

Even if we are not sympathetic to Tehran's complaints, it would be unrealistic to expect them to reopen talks. If they were to negotiate a "Trump Deal," what would there be to stop future U.S. administrations from demanding more concessions later on?

U.S. President Donald Trump holds up a proclamation declaring his intention to withdraw from the JCPOA Iran nuclear agreement after signing it in the Diplomatic Room at the White House in Washington on May 8, 2018. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

Tehran is also reticent because Trump would surely insist that Iran give up its regional influence, forcing it to withdraw from Syria, Lebanon and Yemen.

While Tehran may have extended its reach during the Arab Spring, Iran's leadership likely sees its latest regional moves as defensive rather than ambitious. The instability in Syria and Iraq threatened to sever their alliance networks and create dangerous power vacuums that could be occupied by hostile Sunni extremist groups or the U.S.

Trump would also undoubtedly call for Iran to decommission its extensive missile system.

From the West's perspective, these weapons are part of Iran's strategy for regional hegemony. From Tehran's perspective, they are essential parts of its deterrence strategy. Without nuclear weapons, Iran's missiles are the main thing standing in the way of potential American and/or Israeli military strikes.

A man holds a picture of late Iranian Major-General Qassem Soleimani, as people celebrate in the street in Tehran after Iran launched missiles at U.S.-led forces in Iraq on Jan. 8. (Nazanin Tatabaee/WANA/Reuters)

Complying with Trump's demands would therefore leave the state defenceless, and invite the U.S. to keep pressuring the regime until it is finally toppled.

Given the weight of U.S. power, one might think that Iran has no choice but to renegotiate, particularly if Washington is truly committed to forcing the issue. The Islamic Republic, however, has been remarkably resilient, and probably feels like it still has some cards to play.

When Trump scrapped the JCPOA, Iran looked to the Europeans as a means of escaping economic and diplomatic isolation. Once it became clear that the EU could not play that role, Tehran turned to brinksmanship, provoking crises with the U.S. by shooting down an American drone, reportedly having allied militia forces in Iraq fire rockets into American installations, and possibly bombing Saudi Arabian oil facilities.

U.S. troops prepare for a deployment to the Middle East on Dec. 28 in Fort Bragg, N.C. Additional troops have been deployed in the region in recent weeks as tensions increase with Iran. (Andrew Craft/Getty Images)

Tehran is essentially playing a game of "chicken," predicated on the belief that the U.S. is at least as averse to war as they are. Therefore, with each escalating crisis, Iran is presenting Trump with a choice; ease-off his strategy of "Maximum Pressure" or allow America to get dragged into an all-out conflict.

By killing Qassem Soleimani, the U.S. signaled that they could play the brinksmanship game, too. However, earlier last year when Trump called back airstrikes after Iran downed a U.S. drone, he tipped his hand. He may want a new deal with Iran, but not at the cost of war.

So, despite U.S. claims to have "re-established deterrence," Iran is unlikely to embrace a "Trump Deal" with the White House. And in Tehran's perfect world, the Democrats will win the next election and the new president will walk U.S. policy back from the brink.

In the meantime, Tehran will likely continue its strategy with cyberattacks and lesser provocations until it builds to another crisis.

About the Author

James Devine is an associate professor at Mount Allison University in Sackville, N.B. His research focuses on the politics and foreign policy of Iran.


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