Ali Afshari is an Iranian political analyst and pro-democracy activist. He is a former student leader and member of the Central Committee of the Office for Consolidating Unity, which was the main and largest student organization in Iranian universities during the Reformist era. He received his Ph.D. from George Washington University in systems engineering, working as adjunct faculty member, and contributes regularly on current Iranian political events in Persian- and English-language media outlets. Diwan interviewed him in mid-June to ask him about the ongoing negotiations to revive the nuclear deal with Iran, and the impact this may have on the broader Middle East.
Michael Young: How do you anticipate that the talks currently taking place in Vienna for a return to the nuclear deal with Iran will proceed? From what are you hearing what will be the outcome?
Ali Afshari: It seems the negotiations are moving forward and there is cautious optimism that it will lead to a revival of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), or the nuclear deal with Iran. That said, the main disagreements are still unresolved and will overshadow the future of the talks, which are now at a critical stage. The Biden administration believes that the full restoration of the JCPOA is the most effective way of blocking Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons, and hopes to use an agreement as the basis for dealing with other issues—Iran’s threat to regional stability, its support for terrorism, its missile program, and its violations of human rights. However, Iran’s past behavior suggests that the administration is being too optimistic on this front. Most probably it will face the same obstacles as did the Obama administration when it sought to address these issues in separate phases, which did not work.
MY: So you’re effectively saying that the sides ultimately will not address Iran’s missile program and its regional influence?
AA: I am skeptical that the current trend we are seeing in the talks will lead to any change in Iran’s missile program or its malicious regional policy. It is understandable that the present U.S. administration wants to halt the “maximum pressure” campaign inherited from the Trump administration, which failed to bring Iran to the negotiating table to address the missile program and Iranian regional actions. However, lifting the sanctions reinstated by the former administration without guaranteeing tangible changes on these issues could lead to new failures. What caused Iran to agree to engage in indirect negotiations with the U.S. government to revive the JCPOA, despite its initial refusal to negotiate, were Washington’s crippling unilateral sanctions. For the U.S. to give up this leverage could allow Iran to more freely engage in its policy of expansionism in the Middle East and increase the influence of its network of regional proxies. This would help the Iranian establishment to refuse to make any deals beyond the JCPOA in the future.
MY: What do you anticipate will be the outcome of Iran’s presidential election, and how will this feed into a revival of the JCPOA?
AA: The developments in the power circles of the Islamic Republic, particularly what happened in the qualifying stage for candidates in the upcoming presidential election, should be considered seriously. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, as the dominant Iranian decisionmaker, appears to have decided to give permission to President Hassan Rouhani’s administration to secure a deal on the JCPOA, albeit within defined red lines. Once this is done, a more hardline Iranian administration—a likely outcome of the fact that all serious challengers to presidential candidate Ebrahim Raisi were eliminated—will criticize the deal and reject greater engagement with the West. What we would see is a recurrence of what happened after the JCPOA in 2015. The agreement provoked no major change in Iran’s attitude toward the United States or Israel, or in its regional actions. So it is preferable for the Biden administration to take its time and avoid rushing into an agreement that is unlikely to be a good one.
MY: What would you advise, more specifically?
AA: Returning to the JCPOA without addressing the other issues I mentioned earlier or finding some general agreement for achieving complementary deals in the foreseeable future is too risky. At best it will create a fragile accord. The Biden administration’s return to the JCPOA should be conditional and involve strategic patience. A stronger and more long-term agreement is required to mitigate threats to instability in the region. Of course, in any new agreement nonnuclear matters could be considered as complementary to the JCPOA. Due to the difficulty of achieving this objective in the short term, it may be best to consider an interim accord to break the current deadlock on widening the scope of negotiations—one in which the United States could lift some sanctions, while Iran halts some of its nuclear activities that violate the JCPOA. However, lifting all sanctions simultaneously only increases uncertainty with regard to peace and stability in the Middle East and beyond.
At the moment Iran is not in a strong position to continue resisting, because of its declining influence in Iraq and Lebanon as well as the catastrophic economic situation at home. Iranian officials are under considerable pressure to compromise and manage external challenges so as to mitigate threats to their own survival. The Middle East fundamentally changed after 2015. The restoration and strengthening of the JCPOA with complementary agreements may be more viable if these steps take place through negotiations with Iranian officials who are in the circle of the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei.
MY: Where do you see Iran in five years if the JCPOA is revived?
AA: It is difficult to predict accurately, but based on what is going on today there is a low probability that Iran will change its strategy. Iran seeks to conclude the Vienna negotiations before the end of Rouhani’s term, and allow Raisi, the most likely successor for the presidency, to benefit from the ensuing sanctions relief. However with respect to the growing domestic challenges, such as the regime’s lack of legitimacy, environments issues, economic hardship, and counterculture movements, the regime’s survival is in question.
Iran has faced many challenges that have destabilized the system, but these have not lead to the regime’s collapse. Iran’s standing in the region will depend on realities on the ground in Iraq and Lebanon. If the current uprisings in these countries are unable to alter these countries’ policies, Tehran will continue to expand its power through its proxies in the Middle East. Iran is close to reaching the peak of its regional influence, which will have implications for the domestic and external aspects of the government’s policy.