JCPOA: If We Get to Agreement, what will it Mean?

By Norman T. Roule

Norman T. Roule is a geopolitical and energy consultant who served for 34 years in the Central Intelligence Agency, managing numerous programs relating to Iran and the Middle East. He served as the National Intelligence Manager for Iran (NIM-I) at the ODNI from 2008 until 2017. As NIM-I, he was the principal Intelligence Community (IC) official responsible for overseeing all aspects of national intelligence policy and activities related to Iran, to include IC engagement on Iran issues with senior policymakers in the National Security Council and the Department of State.

After recent hurdles in the nearly year-long talks aimed at re-instituting the nuclear agreement with Iran known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), negotiators appear ready to come back to the table. While there are remaining issues, what kind of deal (if any) will these talks produce?  The Cipher Brief spoke with expert Norm Roule, former National Intelligence Manager for Iran at ODNI, who now travels frequently to the region for talks with officials, about what kind of deal we should expect and how it will affect the region. 

The Cipher Brief:  Let’s start with the basics.  Will we have a nuclear deal? 

Roule: A nuclear deal with Iran is not guaranteed, but it is highly likely. We can have a deal as soon as Iran believes it has hit the bottom of the barrel of Western concessions, and any further demands it might make will be counterproductive. I don’t think we are there yet, but when Tehran makes this determination, a conclusion to the deal will likely come quickly. 

Of course, Russia must drop its demands for sanctions protections and commit to fulfilling its role in executing the deal. I think this will happen for couple of reasons. The deal gives Moscow a role in Iran’s civilian nuclear industry that offers leverage with Tehran and the U.S. A deal also maintains Russia’s prominent role in international nuclear nonproliferation.

The Cipher Brief:  Will the nuclear deal outlast its predecessor?

Roule: We are into crystal ball territory. At the very least, we need to wait until the deal is published to understand its contours. However, if the deal matches the outlines already leaked in the media, I think Tehran will execute its requirements if it perceives the U.S. is doing the same. This doesn’t mean we should expect Iran to publicly acknowledge our positive actions. We shouldn’t be surprised if Tehran instead complains that the U.S. isn’t doing enough to encourage businesses to deal with Iran in the weeks and months after a deal. Doing so offers advantages.

First, such claims will mask Iran’s economic mismanagement, allowing it to ascribe any economic gains to its economic policies, and reinforces the existing hardline narrative that the Iranians should not trust the West. Second, Iranian diplomats will be able to argue that the lack of benefits is causing the dominant hardliners to question the value of remaining in the deal. They will argue that any further pressure on non-nuclear issues could risk Iran’s nuclear commitments.

At the same time, the deal does nothing to constrain Iran on non-nuclear issues and will probably enable Iran to further cement its hold on the region. Iran’s proxies are no doubt anticipating additional resources once Tehran resumes oil sales. Victims of Iranian proxy attacks have good reason to worry about how the deal will empower proxy attacks.

Unfortunately, the lack of bipartisan and regional support for the deal tells us its foundation is no stronger than that of its 2015 predecessor. Future policymakers will weigh the value of nuclear constraints over how a deal enables Iran’s non-nuclear aggression. In the unlikely case that Iran moderates its actions, the threat of the deal collapsing recedes.

The Cipher Brief:  What would increase the likelihood that the deal will survive?

Roule: The administration needs to develop an Iran policy that addresses issues beyond the nuclear file. This would include better support to regional partners and a campaign of collaboration with Congress. Opposition to the deal is based on valid concerns that should be satisfied. I am not sanguine our political environment will allow this will happen.

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The Cipher Brief:  Are there credible alternatives to the current JCPOA framework?

Roule: The short answer is no. A renegotiation of JCPOA would require a strategic framework that doesn’t exist. The original deal took years of sanctions pressure that wasn’t easy to develop. Europe routinely questioned the value of sanctions over economic engagement. Unity among the P5+1 partners has vanished. The U.S. needs to repair its relationship with Israel and the Gulf. Washington would also need to demonstrate a military commitment to the region that will prove unpopular with some in Congress.

At the same time, we need to be careful about saying that only this version of a deal works. The “this deal or another conventional war” or “this deal or region is set aflame” arguments are the fodder of partisan hacks, but you hear both routinely in social media and media fora sympathetic to the deal. It is true that the risk of confrontation between the U.S. and Iran will increase absent a deal. But the region looks to be turbulent with or without a deal and this will require a firm, if measured, U.S. response. But there are many steps between confrontation and a conventional conflict. As the saying goes, Iran may be homicidal, but it is not suicidal.

The Cipher Brief:  Do you believe the region won’t necessarily be safer either with or without a deal?

Roule: Correct. Iran’s regional actions have been on a steady upward trendline since 2003, with the exact location and nature of its violence reflecting its priorities at the time and available resources. Those who argue that the original deal produced a dip in regional aggression usually omit that Iran focused its attention at the time on the Syrian maelstrom and its efforts to expand its footprint in Yemen. With or without a deal, Iran’s regional aggression looks to continue.

The Cipher Brief:  What about regional talks with Iran?

Roule: Several Gulf countries are engaged with Iran, including Qatar, Oman, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. Gulf states see the talks as a chance to maintain a crisis communication channel and lower the temperature of regional tensions. The most robust contacts appear to be with Doha and possibly Oman. Each country is likely using its engagement to encourage Tehran to agree to a new nuclear deal and to release Western hostages.

Beyond that, regional talks remain unsurprisingly sterile. Iran seeks diplomatic recognition, trade and economic support, and acknowledgment of the influence of Iran’s proxies. Iran has made no commitment to halt proxy aggression and often denies its support that enables attacks.

The Cipher Brief:  What lessons can we take from the JCPOA experience? 

Roule: We are still too close to events to understand this question clearly, but a few lessons seem apparent. 

First, it is unproductive to undertake such a significant and far-reaching policy absent bipartisan support and the support of regional partners. The decision stunned regional partners and ignited a fierce domestic debate that continues to this day. Our Iran policy has only added to the pressures that produce our unhealthy national divide. The Biden administration arrived saying that it recognized that the world had changed since 2015, but its approach towards the deal and Iran differs little from the original deal’s architects.

Second, the deal has become a substitute for an Iran policy at a time when our broader regional policy appears to be drifting. Concluding in the wake of the shambolic Afghan withdrawal, the handling of the deal has eroded regional confidence in U.S. leadership. This perception is accelerating the trend to multipolarity and the willingness of regional actors to develop their own policies on energy, security relationships, and other topics closely related to our national interests.

Last, the approach to talks allowed Iran to play a more dominant role in the talks. It may be that this single decision set the tone for the entire negotiations.

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