Why is Iran so good at nuclear diplomacy?

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It’s hard to go a day without some new headline about Iran’s nuclear efforts.

On the one hand, the US signals it wants to strengthen the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or Iran deal, that was signed in 2015. The US left the deal in 2018 during the Trump administration. On the other hand, Iran is seeking a deal with the IAEA about inspections.

You would not be remiss if you begin to glaze over the more you hear about this. This is the goal of Iran. Its regime understands that Western countries like complexity. Iran understands that Western nations largely compartmentalize foreign policy. That means the West doesn’t view its foreign policy as a Clausewitzian sum of all the country’s parts.

That is why Iran can do economic policy, military policy and foreign policy in dealing with Iraq, while Western countries pursue one policy through their military and another slightly different policy with diplomats and yet a third possibly policy with their economic interests.

Of course, Western countries don’t say this. They say they care about their “interests.” But the interest of diplomats is to talk. They like discussions and minutiae and engagement. For a Western diplomat, endless discussions about discussions are prized over the use of force.

Western policy-makers tend to see the use of force as a last resort, despite talk about “holding Iran responsible” for its recent attacks in Iraq, or “all options are on the table,” or “proportionate response.”

In the minds of Western diplomats, diplomacy has failed when the fighting starts. This is not the case for Turkish, Iranian and Russian diplomats. Diplomacy is part of the carrot and stick, where the carrot and stick are all part of the same stick.

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Iran’s top diplomat, Javad Zarif, doesn’t view proxy attacks on the US in Iraq as somehow undermining his mission of engaging the West; rather, it is part of leverage.

US State Department officials have sometimes viewed troops from Central Command as “in the way.”

Former US envoy to Syria James Jeffrey, one of America’s most veteran diplomats and a very pro-Turkey voice, said US Central Command was “out of control.”

“We’re just here to fight terrorists,” he told Al-Monitor in December while characterizing how he views the US military. “Let the f—heads in State Department take care of Turkey, and we can say or do anything we want that pleases us and pleases our little allies, and it doesn’t matter.”

How would one like to be a Western military commander leading a patrol in Syria or securing facilities at Erbil, where US troops recently came under rocket attack by an Iran-backed proxy, knowing that US diplomats speak this way about your role?

Meanwhile, the Iranian ambassador to Iraq, the IRGC and Iran’s proxies, such as Kataib Hezbollah, can sit secretly and plan rocket attacks.

This compartmentalization affects how the US deals with Iran’s nuclear game of mirrors and threats. Because US policy is always compartmentalized and because the end goal is a “deal,” Iran knows it can exert pressure through various means.

It can, for instance, encourage the US to end the terrorist designation of the Houthi rebels in Yemen and then immediately increase attacks on Saudi Arabia. There is no “deal” or quid pro quo.

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In Lebanon, Iran knows it can have its Hezbollah proxy murder Lokman Slim, a publisher and commentator, without any repercussions. In Iraq, the Iranians know they can fire missiles at US forces in Erbil or US diplomats in Baghdad, and there will be no pushback.

In each instance, the quiet messaging is, “If you go back to the deal, we might be able to stop these attacks.”

Iran understands that one simple message conveys the endgame for its negotiations: The only way to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon is war. Western countries and the US do not want war. Therefore, the only way to slow down Iran’s production of a nuclear weapon is to give Iran what it wants.

In the absence of Iran getting what it wants, it will have a “right” to use proxies in Iraq, Yemen, Syria and Lebanon to attack others. If Iran gets what it wants, it might be able to reduce these attacks and give the West quiet in the region.

This methodology, linking Iran’s actions across the entire region – including Hezbollah’s trade in narcotics, which spans Africa and South America – is how Iran successfully keys in each proxy group and its overall agenda and obtains what it wants.

Iran may not even want nuclear weapons. But it knows it can use every step of uranium enrichment, every centrifuge and every inspection deadline to its advantage.

Iran runs circles around Western negotiators because it understands this game works. It doesn’t behave the same way when dealing with Turkey, Russia, China or other regimes and groups.

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For instance, it never mobilizes proxies to attack Turkish embassies. The challenge for those who deal with Iran is wondering if the messaging from Tehran about nuclear weapons is really the issue that underpins what Iran’s main goal is.

The Western goal is to avoid war and also avoid a nuclear Iran. Iran’s goal may not be nuclear weapons, but rather using the distraction of the process of nuclear proliferation to give it impunity in other areas.

It also wants to achieve a scenario that gives it a route to a nuclear weapon in such a way that it appears to not violate the deals it made, which is why the JCPOA had a series of time frames in it so that Iran could begin to import arms again and eventually return to its nuclear program when necessary.

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