Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi, depicts the heartbreaking story of a girl who grows up during the Iranian Revolution of 1979. She experiences a confusing time, facing many pressures from her surroundings to become someone she’s not, and she questions the country she belongs to whenever she encounters an authority figure. Finally, she flees the country with her parents’ help to seek a better place for her upbringing. But this oppressive and overwhelming atmosphere is not the Iranian reality anymore: much has changed. Politicians worldwide have seen this shift and they have sought to forge new relationships with the nation. However, many still believe the Iranian government to be West-hating radicals. As Michael R. Pompeo, the Secretary of State himself, puts it, “their nuclear deal didn’t make them moderates; it made them wolves in sheep’s clothing”.
The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action is an international agreement dealing with Iran’s nuclear program signed in 2015 in Vienna. In 2012, stakeholders feared there would be war: to avoid conflict, negotiations were the only alternative. Nonetheless, the hope of the deal went beyond the prevention of war. It intended to stop nuclear proliferation, to increase regional stability in the Middle East, to normalize U.S.-Iran relationships and to extend the power of Iranian moderates, even hoping to push Iran towards democracy. Now, with Donald Trump pulling out of the deal, uncertainty is the rule. Thus, it’s important to analyze what influenced the administration’s decision, and to realize that the politicization of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action and the spread of disinformation harms negotiations. A more objective approach would help to reach rapprochement between the parties: no one wants escalation once again.
A change of heart
The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action was signed by the Obama administration, but began earlier. It was a deal that took a long time to take shape, 12 years. One of Obama’s goals was to include Iran in the international arena and to increase its role as a regional player. The country was seen as an asset in negotiations of major regional conflicts in the Middle East. However, before this came to fruition, Trump breached the deal. How did this happen? He didn’t break the JCPoA as soon as he became President, but when the fight against ISIS was over (September 2017). This shows his real motivations: if he really thought the JCPoA was as harmful as he argues, he wouldn’t have waited to exit the deal. He used the situation to his advantage. After that, he gave three main reasons to justify the withdrawal: Iran’s alleged support for U.S.-designated terrorists, the inherent flaws in the deal (especially the sunset clauses) and the narrowness of its objectives – for example, its failure to address Iran’s ballistic program. Now, the European Union is going to great lengths to keep the JCPoA in place, even without U.S. support.
Domestic and international reactions to Trump’s decision varied across the political spectrum and international alliances. Few were surprised by the Israeli and Saudi support for the U.S.’ decision, while the rest of the international community lamented the loss of the deal. In the Belgian Prime Minister’s words, “No #IranDeal means more instability or wars in the Middle East. I deeply regret the withdrawal by @realDonaldTrump from #JCPOA. EU and its international partners must remain committed and Iran must continue to fulfill its obligations”. Domestically, support varies across partisan lines: Republicans such as Senators McConnell, Ryan, Thornberry and Rubio have expressed their support for the dismissal of the deal. Democratic leaders, such as Nancy Pelosi, completely disagree: “This rash decision isolates America, not Iran. Our allies will hold up their end of the agreement, but our government will lose its international credibility and the power of our voice at the table.”
Even though opinions about the deal’s appropriateness differ, Iran’s investment in the JCPoA is clear. The election of Hassan Rouhani in 2013 signaled a turn towards a better relationship between Iran and the West, reflective of the Iranian public’s opinion: there is a clear indication of support for the deal. If the JCPoA were to function properly, it would ease Iran’s normalized reentry to the oil market. This shift in the market would cause a drop in prices and competition with the rest of the Gulf and other oil economies, which explains Saudi Arabia’s firm stance against the deal. It would entail the lifting of economic sanctions, which would greatly expand Iran’s economic power. However, despite the provisions contained in the deal, so far little economic relief has reached Iran because of the uncertainty that surrounds it.
Common misconceptions about Iran and the deal
Both in the press and among the public we find many articles and opinions about Iran that are inaccurate. As Trita Parsi writes in his piece for The Washington Post, these myths include the view that the deal only delays the inevitable nuclearization of Iran or that killing the deal would help support Iranian democratic activists. He explains why the Iranian Green Movement wasn’t a failure and how the country has its own internal divisions with disagreements between factions. He highlights how Iran’s enmity with Israel isn’t ideological and immutable and that not all Iranians hate Americans. Misconceptions about Iran go beyond those he details: another important one is the belief that Iran is not complying with the JCPoA. Most scholars agree that the country is fulfilling all provisions; and even Trump has had to admit so, though reluctantly: he had to issue a statement about how Iran was in compliance with the nuclear deal. Then, he asked a group of White House aids to create a report saying it was not, actively manipulating American intelligence to pursue his political agenda.
To further illustrate the extent to which Iran is being falsely depicted in international media, we have to examine the role of Iran as a regional player more closely. Many times, it has been portrayed as seeking an influential role among Gulf states. This narrative has been followed by the media and reinforced by Iranian officials, who even claim to have taken full control of the Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz. However, this affirmation isn’t backed up by the data: the impact of Arab Gulf military spending vastly exceeds that of Iran: “Iran is on its own”.
Fig. 1: Estimate Iranian vs. Arab Gulf State Military Spending in Current U.S. $ Dollars, 1997-2014
This is not the only way in which the media failed to adequately explain Iran’s nuclear capabilities and intentions. It belittled the role of stakeholders besides the US and the benefits of the deal. Their coverage of the issue was not exhaustive. It focused extensively on U.S. and other Western interests, not covering many stakeholders’ views, especially Iran’s. The media and pundits also placed the burden to resolve the deal entirely on Iran and gave too little importance to countries’ national motivations. In general, we could see reflections of anti-Iran sentiment in many opinion pieces, and more detailed reports of the situation were mostly absent.
As is evident from this analysis, the politicization of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action and the spread of disinformation creates obstacles that impede the resolution of the issue. A turn towards objective analysis will help to reach a rapprochement between the parties. Analyses should be shaped into policy proposals, since a return to the deal is a necessary step. In addition, stakeholders and the media have to change their rhetoric and support a more nuanced approach that balances Iranian views. The U.S. should shift back to Obama’s more moderate stance, for example, through lowering the amount of time dedicated to the issue in Congress and the Senate, as well through the depersonalization of the conflict – stopping the Trump v. Rouhani discourse. It is also strategically desirable for the U.S. to do so: recent problems between Saudi Arabia and the U.S. make it reasonable to step back from close American-Saudi relations and grow closer to the other powerhouse from the region, Iran. Last, the media should write exhaustive and comprehensive reports instead of publishing an incredibly high amount of opinion pieces.
Iran is one of the key players in the Middle East. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action was signed in 2015 between Iran, the P5+1 and the EU, and it aims at controlling Iran’s nuclear program. At the time, it was seen as the first step towards deescalation and a historical landmark for Iran-West relations since 1979. In May 2018, the Trump administration withdrew from the JCPoA. The regional balance of power in the Gulf will be affected by the alterations to the nuclear deal, especially if the uncertainty over its future continues. It will also impact all future Iran-U.S. relations. The media, the political establishment and the public should pursue more comprehensive analysis of the deal that includes more views and reflects its real impacts, as well as that of the U.S.’s withdrawal, or the international order could be facing a comeback of escalation in the Middle East.
Featured Image Source: David Fitzsimmons for Standard Examiner