On May 8, 2018, President Trump announced unilateral withdrawal of the US from the Iran nuclear deal, officially known as the JCPOA. In order to bring Iran to the negotiating table to make a “better” deal, he wanted to pursue a strategy of “maximum pressure” by reapplication of sanctions which, in practical terms, had only been marginally relieved under the JCPOA. He had decided to almost immediately reinstate US sanctions on Iran. Somebody should’ve reminded him before he made his announcement, “what about UN sanctions, Mr. President?” And in all likelihood, somebody did. His reaction to that likely reminder is not public knowledge, but given the erratic nature of his presidential commands documented by as varied a repertoire of witnesses as it can be, it might have been anything from “don’t we own the UN?” to “we will reinstate them too,” or even “we will withdraw from the UN too.” An undeterred, responsible reminder should’ve insisted, “but, Mr. President, there are procedural issues at stake...” One could only imagine his possible reaction to such insistence.
Procedures, however, do matter. Under the JCPOA, as Iranian critics of the deal had fairly pointed out, the US was given an almost free hand to trigger snapback mechanism, leading to reinstatement of UN sanctions on Iran. Using that procedural privilege, President Trump as a participant to the JCPOA could unravel the whole deal without much of a real consequence or controversy. But a combination of personal ignorance, bad advisors, and institutional arrogance made up the recipe for a blunt foreign policy mistake. The mistake became abundantly clear to him almost three months later when Mike Pompeo, his secretary of state, pushed the UN to reimpose its sanctions on Iran but met with a humiliating – though not necessarily humbling – defeat. In a rare instance of universal support of Iran’s position against that of the US, the international community essentially declared, “if you wanted to snap back the UN sanctions under the terms of the JCPOA, Mr. President, you shouldn’t have pulled the US out from the deal. You can’t have it both ways.”
Even though America’s failure to reimpose UN sanctions under Trump didn’t bring about any material advantage for Iran and is not likely to do so in the near future, it was a moment of significant diplomatic gain for Iran. With Trump gone, the new US administration began its (so far) nominal efforts to revive the JCPOA. The negotiations started under Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and stretched to the new administration of President Ebrahim Raeisi. Diplomatic negotiations might sound too technical or complicated at times, but what Americans seek to achieve, bared to its essentials, is to be readmitted into the deal as a first step. Or in other words, they simply, and still quite arrogantly, want Trump’s mistake simply undone and forgotten for their benefit with no compensation for the damage it inflicted upon Iran.
From Iran’s perspective, being readmitted into the deal is not their right to be given, rather a privilege which Americans have to earn. Granted, it may be a bit arduous for them, given the fact that they have lost any credibility they might have had in the beginning of nuclear negotiations some eight years ago. But in all fairness, it was their system of governance which allowed a president of theirs to dishonor its commitment under an internationally endorsed agreement, a misstep he took for no more sophisticated a reason than making a fool of his predecessor. That doesn’t reek of a real party to a serious partnership.
Iran is now negotiating from a position of diplomatic strength, seeking real, verifiable advantages in exchange for letting the US back in the game. The ball is roundly in the court of Americans – they may counsel with VAR as much as they like. And as for the Iranian negotiators, the diplomatic game is theirs to lose.