Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine is a salutary reminder of the lack of restraints facing authoritarian regimes when they decide to go to war, as well as the inability of the democratic nations confronting these same regimes to prevent mass atrocities. While the Ukrainian armed forces have chalked up some important victories around Kyiv and Chernihiv in the center and north of the country, the Kremlin’s assault continues unabated in the south and east, triggering new waves of refugees with fresh stories of Russian war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Within this deadly dynamic, Western countries have, against the expectations of many observers, found a strong voice and a clear position. For Germany and Sweden, the Russian invasion has put paid to pacifistic, non-military foreign policies for the time being. Within the European Union, tough sanctions against Russia have been accompanied by an impressive resolve among the bloc’s leading executives to choke the Russian economy to its fullest extent. Meanwhile, the United States, in sharp decline as a global power for more than a decade, has found itself defending values like freedom and tolerance against Russian censorship and nationalist chauvinism.
These last developments are welcome, though it is sobering to note that it always takes a crisis or a conflict for Western nations to recognize that their systems of government are worth defending. Arguably more so now than at any other time since the 9/11 atrocities and their aftermath, the citizens of liberal democratic countries have been made acutely aware of how perilous life would be under a dictator like Vladimir Putin.
Yet the Western response to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine doesn’t quite amount to a foreign-policy reset. Particularly in Washington, D.C., a profound fear remains of falling into “a mindset characterized by a preference for military action over diplomacy; a mindset that put a premium on unilateral U.S. action over the painstaking work of building international consensus; a mindset that exaggerated threats beyond what the intelligence supported,” as former President Barack Obama put it when assessing his predecessor’s foreign policy during his announcement of the Iran nuclear deal in August 2015.
The effort to revive the Iran deal at negotiations in Vienna that have dragged on for more than a year shows less of an international consensus and more of a frustrating deadlock. And yet U.S. diplomats continue to insist that this country and the world will be made safer if we re-enter the deal abandoned with great fanfare by former President Donald Trump’s administration.
The pitfalls of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)—the technical name for the deal agreed in 2015 between the Iranian the regime on the one hand and the United States, Russia, China, the United Kingdom and the European Union, plus Germany on the other—were laid bare at the time. The revived deal would still contain a fatal “sunset clause,” meaning that restrictions on Iran’s nuclear development would fall away at the turn of the next decade. It would also provide Iran with immediate relief from sanctions, despite the fact that the regime continues to relish its destabilizing role in the Middle East. As for international oversight, the original deal did not allow for “anytime, anywhere” inspections of Iran’s nuclear facilities by International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors—the only nuclear oversight arrangement worth having—and neither will any renewed deal.
Over the last month especially, the negotiations in Vienna have degenerated into a farce overshadowed by the Russian atrocities in Ukraine. Given that Russia is a party to the negotiations—because if you want to forge an “international consensus” on Iran, you can’t leave Moscow out—one can understand why Russian President Vladimir Putin’s negotiators would want to play a wrecking role at this time. The Russian envoy in Vienna, Mikhail Ulyanov, duly said at the beginning of March that Moscow’s agreement to any renewed deal depended on Russia’s extensive economic and commercial relations with Iran being exempted from the punishing sanctions imposed over the invasion of Ukraine.
Rumors abounded that the Iranians were less than pleased with this demand, but Tehran would never publicly berate its Russian ally, as that sort of treatment is reserved for the United States. In a speech to government officials last week, the regime’s “supreme leader,” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said nothing about Russia or Ukraine. However, he did say that the talks in Vienna were “going well”—not because an agreement is imminent, but because Iran’s delegation has resisted unreasonable U.S. pressure to acquiesce to an unfavorable deal.
As for the United States, President Joe Biden’s administration has of late been trying to dampen expectations of a deal. “I’m not overly optimistic at the prospects of actually getting an agreement to conclusion, despite efforts we’ve put into it, and despite the fact that I believe that our security would be better off,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken told MSNBC at the beginning of April. Pressed on whether he regarded the designation of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a Foreign Terrorist Organization as correct, Blinken said he did, but he would not be drawn into discussing whether the United States would abandon this designation, which would mean accepting a key demand of the Iranians. Biden is reportedly opposed to such a measure, but he may yet face appeals from his subordinates to back down if a deal looks imminent.
Those pundits trying to sell a renewed Iran deal make the point that the IRGC designation was largely symbolic, and that symbolism should never override pragmatism. But policies that have a real-world impact cannot be dismissed as merely symbolic; removal of the terrorist designation would be interpreted as a political and strategic victory by the IRGC without providing America and its allies with leverage to counter its interference in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Yemen and other countries in the region. In effect, it would place a seal of approval on Iran’s influence in the Middle East at just the time when we are learning all over again the havoc that rogue, anti-democratic regimes can wreak.
A renewed Iran deal would be a grave setback not just for the security of the Middle East, but for the newly found assertiveness of Western countries facing down Russian aggression in Eastern Europe. It’s time to bring the negotiators in Vienna home.
Ben Cohen is a New York City-based journalist and author who writes a weekly column on Jewish and international affairs for JNS.