The deal with Iran: Why narratives matter

July 17, 2015

The nuclear deal concluded with Iran this week—which was meant to close the nuclear file so that, in the words of chief US negotiator Wendy Sherman, Iran would never obtain a nuclear weapon—is a far cry from the stated goals of the US administration when it embarked on this negotiation. In fact, dangerous concessions were made to Iran on almost every important issue, such that the openly aggressive Iranian regime—which views the US as an untrustworthy and arrogant Satan—is being legitimized as a nuclear threshold state. Infrastructure will not be dismantled; the possible military dimensions issue was not resolved; verification of suspicious facilities has been watered down to “managed access”; and research and development will continue on all of the advanced centrifuges that Iran has been working on so far, with a green light for even more advanced models down the road. So when the deal sunsets, or if Iran decides to exercise one of the provisions that enable it to exit the deal before that time, this regime will be poised to move quickly to a military capability. There are little grounds to assume that there will be an effective means to stop Iran at that point.

It must also be said that the US administration’s stance that there was no alternative to every step taken in the negotiation is an opinion, not reality. Indeed the most obvious alternative was to bargain more effectively, using the leverage of the biting sanctions. Statements to the effect that critics of the deal did not want any deal are politically motivated and simply not true. There was much valid critique, including good ideas about how to get better results, that was brushed aside and dismissed.

But a rarely discussed aspect of the process regards the power of narratives. Specifically, the fact that Iran’s narrative that it has “done no wrong” in the nuclear realm gained it concrete dividends at the negotiating table. The United States tended to ignore Iran’s statements, preferring an approach that focused on the future rather than clarifying past activities and that basically advocated that what Iran said did not really matter as long as the US knew the truth.

But Iran always understood that this narrative was essential in order to realize its goal of getting all sanctions lifted in return for minimal nuclear concessions —the reason being that if Iran had “done no wrong”, it clearly had no obligation to comply with international demands. Rather, concessions to international powers were voluntary. Indeed, Iran was adamant that the negotiation was about resolving a political dispute, and each side had an equal obligation to make concessions to reach a mutually satisfactory goal.

But this narrative should never have been accepted. The United States knows that Iran has done wrong in the past—as Secretary of State Kerry said recently: We have “absolute knowledge” of what Iran did in the past—but has refused to confront Iran with the evidence and force it to provide answers. Moreover, the United States resisted making this an integral part of the political negotiation. Armed with its narrative, Iran also pressed its case for the bizarre sunset provision and a verification mechanism that includes Iran as a party to the deliberations.

All this would have been harder to frame in this manner if it were exposed that Iran was a clear violator of the Non-Proliferation Treaty—a state that has cheated and deceived the international community for decades. A roadmap for the PMD investigation is now set to end later this year. But what is the basis for expecting Iran to now agree to do what it has refused to do for years? Especially when its narrative hinges on stonewalling the investigation?