U.S.-Iran: An Unwritten Agreement on the Horizon? – Trita Parsi

Trita Parsi, Executive Vice President of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, discusses reported negotiations between the U.S. and Iran to agree to an unwritten deal. The JCPOA, or Iran nuclear deal, which was a legacy of the Obama administration, seems to be a thing of the past; yet de-escalation and an agreement on a smaller range of issues would be advantageous to both the U.S. and Iranian administrations. As in the case of Saudi-Iranian rapprochement, the role of China, Oman, and Iraq in facilitating these discussions is politically noteworthy. While the U.S. and Iran are nowhere near signing a comprehensive written deal which could be legally enforced and regulated internationally, a more limited unwritten deal would unfreeze at least 7 billion US dollars’ worth of Iranian assets, which would go towards purchasing food and medicine for Iranians.

Talia Baroncelli

Hi, I’m Talia Baroncelli, and you’re watching theAnalysis.news. I’ll shortly be joined by Trita Parsi to speak about a potential unwritten deal between the U.S. and Iran. If you enjoy this content, please go to our website, theAnalysis.news, hit the donate button at the top right corner of the screen, and also get onto our mailing list; that way, you’re notified every time there’s a new episode. You can also go to our YouTube channel, theAnalysis-news, and hit the bell; that way, you’ll be notified whenever a new episode is published and like and subscribe to the channel. See you in a bit with Trita Parsi.

Joining me now is Trita Parsi. He is the Executive Vice President at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. Thank you so much for joining me again, Trita.

Trita Parsi

Thank you for having me. It’s great to be back with you.

Talia Baroncelli

Great to have you. So Iran and the U.S. are reportedly negotiating an unwritten deal which would unfreeze at least $7 billion worth of Iranian assets in exchange for the release of U.S. prisoners. Iran would also have to commit to stopping uranium enrichment beyond 60%. What else is at stake here?

Trita Parsi

Well, what’s at stake here is that for the last almost two years now, there’s been growing escalation on both sides. The Iranians have been enriching uranium at higher levels. They’ve gone above 60% as well. That seems to have not been necessarily deliberate but nevertheless amassed a tremendous amount of enrichment. This means that if they decide to make a bomb, they will have the material in just a few days. Whereas as long as the JCPOA [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action] was in place, it was a minimum of one year before anyone would have the material, forget about having the bomb.

To a certain extent, as long as the escalation was not too fast or too aggressive, there was some sort of a very uncomfortable but nevertheless stable status quo. I call it the zombie state in the sense that the JCPOA was not really alive, but no one dared to declare it dead because the minute you say it’s dead, then you have a crisis. If you pretend it’s alive, then you can pretend as if you don’t have a crisis. That only works as long as the escalation is not too aggressive. We were reaching a point in which it was becoming increasingly difficult to sustain that status quo.

You saw the United States was essentially committing piracy– taking Iranian ships or ships with Iranian oil on the high sea, saying that they’re circumventing American sanctions. Well, American sanctions are American sanctions. They don’t apply to international water. It’s a different thing if there was a UN Security Council resolution behind this, but there isn’t. So the Iranians started retaliating by taking ships that were associated with the U.S. In one case, I think the ship was actually taking oil to Houston. This is getting very tense.

Then we have the tense situation in Syria in which militias aligned with Iran were attacking American bases. At one point, they killed one American contractor. It was really risking a major military confrontation. So, under those circumstances, the two sides slowly and carefully started talking directly again. They can’t go for a formal agreement for political reasons.

On the American side, they want a bigger agreement. They were willing to go with the JCPOA with the amendments. The Iranians said no to that specific proposal in August. That same draft right now the Iranians wanted. The U.S. and the Europeans are saying no to their own draft because they rightfully point out that the circumstances on the ground have changed. Iran has escalated their nuclear program since August of last year.

The Americans would be okay with a smaller deal, which means that they would do some sort of a freeze, formally. The Iranians will not go for that because they see that as devaluing their leverage. It would essentially mean that they would give up a lot of their leverage, but they actually won’t get real sanctions.

There’s another aspect on the American side, which is any agreement formal or centered on the [inaudible 00:04:42] deal would kick in what is called [inaudible 00:04:45]. It’s a law in the United States that says that anything of that kind has to go to Congress. Congress doesn’t have to approve it; they just have to fail to disapprove it. That’s a huge fight in Congress that would take a lot of political capital. The White House is not really in the mood for that. Most of their allies on Capitol Hill, the Democrats, are also not in the mood. It seems like an informal agreement, one that can be smaller than the JCPOA without activating the concern the Iranians have of devaluing their leverage. At the same time, avoiding a congressional battle is the most that can be achieved at this point because of a lack of political will on both sides. At the same time sufficient to make sure that this status quo that was starting to be destabilized can be stabilized again. It doesn’t resolve anything, but perhaps there can be another year and a half or whatever in which we won’t see a very dangerous escalation take place.

Talia Baroncelli

Well, since 2018, when the U.S. withdrew from the JCPOA, there hasn’t been much progress on this front, especially since September 2022. I do feel like an unwritten agreement and an informal interim deal would be cause for celebration. One of my concerns would be how do you enforce such a deal. In international law, there are certain regulations and standards that need to be upheld. The U.S. did not uphold their part of the bargain when they withdrew from the deal. So how do you manage or enforce such an unwritten agreement?

Trita Parsi

It’s a great question, and that’s one of the main problems and one of the reasons why these types of informal understandings are not necessarily terribly common because the enforcement and the ability to trust it is very limited. Again, it comes down to political will. If you want all of those things, the enforcements, guarantee, etc., then you have to go for a bigger deal. At this point, there’s no bigger deal that the two sides seem to be able to agree on, but there can be a smaller informal deal that they can agree on, potentially. It’s not done yet, but that can prevent an escalation. If any one of them violates it, well, then it does fall apart, and then they’re back to where they are right now if not a worse situation.

The difference is that with the JCPOA, the U.S. could cheat, and the U.S. could betray it. The U.S. could walk out of it, and the only sides that would be paying the price for it were maybe Iran and then all of the others. The Europeans lost a lot of business when the U.S. pulled out of the agreement. The U.S. itself hardly paid a cost. So it was very asymmetric in that sense.

This informal agreement is more symmetric in the sense that if you withdraw, you pay the price, and the other side pays the price. It’s not such that, for instance, on the Iranian side, they would have given up a significant amount of leverage or the U.S. isn’t going to spend any political capital on this, they’re not going to lift any sanctions, etc. Neither side would be in the red in that sense.

You’re absolutely right. The only thing that keeps this together is the confidence that both of them actually want to avoid a crisis, a direct crisis. That’s the only thing that keeps it together. There’s no other mechanism.

Talia Baroncelli

How much of this is actually influenced by this view toward the 2024 presidential elections? Is this the White House or White House diplomats setting up this deal? Is Biden, in any way, shape or form, behind this?

Trita Parsi

I think it actually goes both ways. First of all, the elections are definitely a big part of this. There’s a reason why they want to have calm on the Iran front for the next year and a half. They’re too busy with Ukraine. Secondly, Taiwan. They don’t have the bandwidth for Iran. Anything with Iran is very domestically and politically costly. So if you actually get something, you have to go to Congress. No U.S. politician would like to have to deal with an Iran issue in an election year. It’s the same thing on the Iranian side.

The Iranians have been told over and over again by the United States that the Biden administration cannot guarantee what the next president of the United States will do. Any agreement that would cause the Iranians to give up significant leverage or sanctions relief, well, if the next president comes in, in a year and a half from now and reverses it just like Trump did, then the Iranians have made a huge loss. So it seems like the Iranians, too, are coming to the belief that perhaps it is better not to have anything right now because who knows who the president is going to be in 2024. At the same time, it is definitely better not to have a crisis either.

The Iranians need to have a degree of calm on the U.S.-Iran front in order to be able to proceed with a regional [inaudible 00:10:03] that they’re having with Saudi Arabia and the regional states. There’s a limit to how far they can go with that unless tensions between the U.S. and Iran come down. So they have an incentive to make sure that this happens. Not a full deal, but making sure that there’s no crisis.

Talia Baroncelli

The Europeans were very much involved in the JCPOA, in the negotiations of the JCPOA. I haven’t really seen them be present in negotiating this unwritten deal or even saying anything which would try to calm the waters. They’ve been a bit more adversarial towards Iran. What is going on there?

Trita Parsi

The Europeans are not playing any significant role in this; that’s absolutely clear. In fact, Europe has lost a tremendous amount of leverage vis à vis the United States. Europe is so dependent on the United States today after Ukraine, and it’s in the process of making itself even more dependent on the United States. The failure of the Europeans in earlier rounds was that when Trump pulled out, the Europeans were not strong enough to be able to pursue an independent policy. They objected to Trump, but they abided by every sanction that he imposed, even though they said that those sanctions were illegitimate and illegal.

Back then, there were talks. The Germans were talking about a degree of autonomy from the United States, being able to do things on their own instead of being so dependent. Now they’re actively, as ECFR put it in an article they published yesterday, in the process of self vacillation, they’re turning themselves into actively a vassal of the United States. At the same time, they are losing significant influence in the middle east. Their ability to deliver the U.S. from an Iranian perspective is more or less gone. 

How the Europeans handled the protest in Iran is something, of course, that the Iranians are now in some ways retaliating against the Europeans on, and it has further reduced their role. What you’re seeing is that it’s actually regional powers that are at the center of these mediation efforts. Qatar and Oman are playing a very important role in all of this. Then, of course, China has come in and played a significant role with the Saudis and Iranians.

In many ways, I think one can say, ultimately, this movement towards stability and resolution of conflicts is good for the Europeans as well. But it is at the same time happening within the process of Europe losing significant influence here.

Talia Baroncelli

Well, unlike the Europeans, the Chinese have been filling this diplomatic vacuum left behind by the Americans. How does the U.S. see China’s success, diplomatic success in the region? Do they view it more as being at odds with their interests in the region, or perhaps being a boon because they’ve just failed recently at trying to make any negotiations actually be successful?

Trita Parsi

So I think it’s a great question, and I think there are several layers. The initial reaction of the United States was not a particularly cheerful one. They were, first of all, taken completely by surprise, even though the Chinese, within 24 hours, came to the White House and briefed the White House on what had happened and showed complete transparency. They were not briefing the U.S. in the midst of the talks, but that’s rather normal. For that to work, you need to first make sure that it’s completed.

In fact, take a look at this. The United States has been having some conversations with the Iranians through the Omanis and the Qataris. The Chinese have not been briefed on that. Now, of course, it’s not led to completion, but that’s my point. Up until the point of completion, there cannot be any real expectation of that. In fact, to the best of my knowledge, the U.S. did not fully brief the Europeans either. In 2012 and 2013, when the U.S. and Iran negotiated secretly in Oman, the Europeans knew nothing about it. Once they found out, they were actually very, very upset. One can be upset at the United States for it but had the United States shared that information, there’s also a significant likelihood that they would never have been able to be successful.

At first, it was negative, and because of the optics, the optics are problematic for the United States because it shows that the U.S. is no longer an indispensable power in the Middle East. It showed that the Saudis were very pleased to snub the American side and essentially humiliate the United States a little bit.

If you take a look at it in the sense of the policy outcome, I think there are positives and negatives. The positives are overwhelming in my view. If you have greater stability in the region, it reduces the security burden on the United States. It actually helps the United States leave the region militarily, which is what presidents have said over and over again that they want to do, and it’s certainly what the American public wants to do. It is not helpful to the U.S.’s Iran policy currently because if the policy is to pressure Iran and tighten sanctions and isolate it, well, then having normalization between Saudi Arabia and Iran through China is a clear count against any success in isolating and containing Iran. In my view, that was not going to be successful anyways. The United States has tried to contain Iran for 40 years; it’s not worked. It’s only made matters worse. So I would still put it as an invalid negative point. It’s mostly the office.

Here I think the calculation on the American side has been highly problematic because it was constantly this fear that the Chinese were going to come in and fill the military vacuum if the United States left the region militarily. That’s not what they did. They didn’t bribe the Saudis and Iranians with arms deals and ask them to open military bases on their territory or offer security guarantees, all the stuff that the U.S. always does. Instead, they came in, and they helped facilitate, and they are acting as the guarantors of this deal. They filled the diplomatic vacuum that the United States had left because of its miniaturized foreign policy. That’s where the Chinese were coming in. We weren’t even looking at that space because we felt that they had no interest in playing that role.

Talia Baroncelli

Well, you say that the U.S.’s policy over the past 40 years towards Iran has been unsuccessful. I wonder if the Carter Doctrine, though Jimmy Carter was the president of the U.S. during the Iranian Revolution in ’79, and I guess it was maybe in 1980 when he proclaimed the Carter Doctrine, meaning that the U.S. would be very interested in defending their military interests in the Persian Gulf and in the region. I wonder if this unwritten deal, if it doesn’t actually contribute to de-escalation and if there is some sort of military conflict with Iran, if this would reinforce that Carter Doctrine or where does that stand?

Trita Parsi

Well, first of all, it is not clear that it is a military benefit for the United States in terms of a conflict with Iran to have so many bases in the region because that means that there would be targets that the Iranians could attack. The Iranians have the capacity through missiles, thousands of them, to rain down on all of these different bases. If the United States were to have an off-the-horizon, over-the-horizon posture in which it would have military assets out in the seas but the ability to move them in, it would still be able to take on Iran militarily, not a full-scale invasion perhaps, but without Iranians having the same ability to retaliate. So if the point actually is that Iran is a threat and there’s a build-up for that, it’s not clear to me that it actually makes much sense to have all of these bases that the Iranians easily can target.

I think the Carter Doctrine and the Reagan Doctrine, the essence of it, was that the United States would not allow any other power, external or internal, to gain hegemony in the region or disrupt the oil flow. To a certain extent, some of that essence is still there. That doesn’t necessarily mean, however, that the United States needs to have a constant military presence in the Middle East.

When the Carter Doctrine was put in place, the U.S. didn’t have bases in the Middle East. In fact, most of the bases that the United States has in the Middle East came after the mid-1990s and even more so after 2003. We’re sometimes talking about this as if the United States has had military bases in the region throughout all of its history. It’s absolutely not the case. When these things were put in place, even when it was revised and extended by President Reagan, the U.S. still did not have anything near the military presence.

Talia Baroncelli

Well, why don’t we speak about Israel? Israel is obviously a huge player and has always been opposed to the JCPOA and to any sort of rapprochement or agreement between the U.S. and Iran.

Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu has been under a lot of pressure recently with all the different investigations into bribery and corruption. He hasn’t really been able to visit the U.S. for any official means or purpose. What is his stance toward the development of an unwritten deal between Iran and the U.S.?

Trita Parsi

Netanyahu is completely opposed to it. I think the key reason as to why we even know about this taking place right now is because the Israelis leaked this information, and they leaked it with the purpose of sabotaging it. The Israelis have been leaking a lot of different things about these negotiations throughout the years for the purpose of sabotaging it. In fact, there was a moment during the negotiations of the JCPOA in which the American side was briefing the Israelis even before the negotiators returned to Washington, DC. Then U.S. intelligence picked up that these Israelis were actively manipulating that information and leaking it in a selective strategic way to sabotage the bonds. That’s when the U.S. side stopped those briefings.

There is a report now that Jake Sullivan, the National Security Advisor, talked to the Israelis and was very upset that they had leaked this. So a mystery to me as to why the administration wants to share this type of information so generously with these Israelis when the pattern of leaking is so clear and so extensive.

The Israelis are opposed to this. The problem with the Israelis is that they’re opposed to the JCPOA. They’re opposed to a bigger JCPOA. They’re opposed to a smaller JCPOA. They’re opposed to an unwritten JCPOA. They’re opposed to having no deal at all. So it’s not really clear what on earth they’re in favor of except war, I guess. It’s a mystery to me why the Biden administration has not figured out quite yet that if they want a nuclear deal with Iran, they’re going to have to have some level of managed unhappiness in Israel. There’s no way around this. If they’re trying to please Israelis and still get a JCPOA, then they’re going to be exactly in the situation they are in right now in which they have neither.

Talia Baroncelli

One of the priorities of Supreme Leader Khamenei as well as President Raisi, has been sanctions relief. As part of these unwritten deal negotiations, they’ve been trying to get Iranian assets unfrozen—so $7 billion worth of Iranian assets. I was wondering if these assets could benefit the Iranian people or if they would just get siphoned off to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps or potentially to other elite in the country.

Trita Parsi

So, first of all, as this deal is structured, the money would actually not go back to Iran. It is Iran’s money, but it wouldn’t go back to Iran. It would stay in a couple of banks, and the Iranians would be able to use that money to buy food and medicine. The argument that is being used is that, oh, if you give them more money, it would be used for wrong things or bad things. There’s a certain element of truth in that, in the sense that some of the stuff that the Iranian government would buy is probably not particularly good, probably not to the benefit of the Iranian people. But if you let that be the guiding star of how you do policy, it means you actually have to starve the entire country. You have to starve all of them until you manage to get to the political elite. That’s what we’ve done in Cuba, in Venezuela, in Iraq, and it never works. You make a population absolutely miserable for the sake of not making sure that the regime makes it miserable; you’re making it miserable instead. These regimes tend to survive. They tend to become worse, and the repression tends to become worse. It’s part of the problem of trying to approach these things solely from some sort of a misguided moral dimension or direction. It ends up actually backfiring tremendously.

We know that once the JCPOA took place, according to U.S. intelligence monitoring how the Iranians were using money, the vast majority of the money that the Iranians made during those short two-and-a-half years that the JCPOA was being implemented actually went back to internal investments and the rebuilding of the country. This is what the U.S. intelligence testified to us in the U.S. Senate. But facts are not particularly exciting, drawing out all kinds of misinformation. However, it tends to be far more effective.

Talia Baroncelli

Well, one last final question. Do you think that if this unwritten deal is successful and the money goes back to the Iranian people, we’ll see more protests on the part of Iranians in the future because they’ll actually have the money to maybe even stop working and go out on the streets, some form of a general strike?

Trita Parsi

Well, $7 billion is not going to create that situation, but it’s going to take a step in that direction. If you actually had a significant improvement of the economy and a strengthening of society vis à vis the state, and a greater desire to not just be so focused on economic circumstances but also your political rights, then that is a trend that we have seen. That’s where countries are moving towards seeking greater political openness.

When you’re starving and you are fighting day to day to just make ends meet, political rights are not your priority. That pattern has been very clear in Iran as well. The economic pressure that sanctions bring about increases the likelihood of protests. It may also increase the frequency of protests, but it also dramatically reduces the likelihood of success in the protests. To be able to change things such as giving women in Iran their basic human rights on these issues, that’s not a three-month fight; that’s a lengthy fight. Peak populations that are starving and that are at such short, limited margins economically cannot sustain that fight. They need to have some degree of economic well-being to be able to sustain that fight. That’s one aspect.

When it comes to other things with the process, lack of leadership and things of that nature also were, of course, huge challenges that they did not manage to truly overcome. I was fascinated to see it. I heard it myself from people but was fascinated to see it. I think it was the Wall Street Journal that quoted one person who said, “I’m still angry. I still want to protest, but I also cannot risk being killed because my family will starve.” So again, there is a desire in some elements just to punish you. The fact that it punishes the rest of the population, they either cognitively just manage to ignore it or they justify it one way or another. But in reality, you have almost no examples in history in which a strategy like this has been successful in a country with the specific context that Iran has.

Talia Baroncelli

Well, we can’t ignore the realities on the ground and how the brutal sanctions and U.S. policy towards Iran have shaped Iranian society and socioeconomic issues. Thank you so much, Trita, for joining theAnalysis.

Trita Parsi

Thank you so much. Great pleasure being with you. Talk to you soon.

Talia Baroncelli

Thank you so much, Trita, for joining theAnalysis. It was great to have you. Thank you for watching theAnalysis.news. If you’re able to donate to the show, please go to theAnalysis.news and hit the donate button at the top right corner of the screen. You can also get onto our mailing list and subscribe and like our YouTube channel, theAnalysis-news. See you next time.

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Trita Parsi is the co-founder and executive vice president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, as well as the founder and former president of the National Iranian American Council.”

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