When Brian Hook, America’s special representative for Iran, flew to Switzerland earlier this month to receive Michael White, a US hostage released from Iranian captivity, he had another purpose in mind. As White arrived, escorted by Iranian officials, Hook offered the Iranians, through Swiss mediators, a meeting. “The Iranians turned down the offer,” Hook told a webinar. Hook’s account appears to confirm reports that after President Donald Trump withdrew in 2018 from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – commonly known as the Iran nuclear deal – former US Secretary of State John Kerry advised the Iranian foreign minister, Javad Zarif, to “wait out Trump,” a strategy that Iran seems to have taken to heart. But should the Democrats retake the White House in November, it is unlikely that they would restore the nuclear deal.
Two years ago, the Democrats opposed Trump’s withdrawal from the deal. Since then, however, their position seems to have changed. One of those at the forefront of this about-turn is Jake Sullivan, previously a senior aide to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and national security advisor to Joe Biden, who was vice president at the time.
When Clinton ran for president in 2016, Sullivan was her top man on foreign policy. When Biden announced his presidential candidacy for November’s election, his number one foreign policy advisor was none other than Sullivan. Should Biden win, it’s expected that Sullivan will play a decisive role in America’s global policy.
Sullivan was a fervent advocate of the JCPOA and a firm opponent of Trump’s decision to withdraw from it. In an article for The Atlantic magazine, Sullivan wrote that sanctions on Iran “will only be effective if they are global in scope – if all of Iran’s major trading partners get on board.”
That view proved to be wrong. A year later, in a joint article with former diplomat Bill Burns in The New York Times, Sullivan conceded that “the pressure of economic sanctions, unilaterally re-imposed by the United States, has been more formidable than Iran anticipated.”
Perhaps it would have been more accurate to say that Trump’s sanctions were more formidable than Sullivan and Burns had anticipated. Speaking to a webinar organized by the Hudson Institute in May, Sullivan again restated his new position that unilateral US sanctions on Tehran proved “the power of the US dollar and the US financial system.”
Doubting the power of US sanctions was not the only thing Sullivan got wrong. In another article co-written with Burns for The Atlantic in January, the pair opined that the killing by the US of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani “will cost the United States far more than Soleimani’s killing cost Iran.” They added: “In his death, Soleimani may exact his own final act of revenge against the United States.”
Again, Obama’s two top Iran experts were proved wrong. Tehran’s response to Soleimani’s death was tame. Iran fired a dozen missiles at an Iraqi base. No Americans died. The removal of Soleimani had clearly weakened Iran and its militias, at almost no cost to Washington.
With their predictions turning out to be inaccurate, Sullivan and Burns changed tack. “The Iranians will have to get more realistic,” the Democratic Party’s foremost foreign policy gurus now argued, adding, “It is simply impractical to think that the United States will provide significant sanctions relief without assurances that Iran will immediately begin negotiations on a follow-on agreement that at least extends the timelines of the deal and addresses issues of verification and intercontinental ballistic missiles.”
Between May 2018 and January this year, Sullivan’s position on Iran changed from “unilateral US sanctions will not work” to no lifting of sanctions “without assurances from Tehran.” And Iran can forget about insisting on the removal of sanctions before any talks with America.
Neither Sullivan nor Burns has commented on Iran recently, but presumably their position has hardened even more. Even the European E3 – France, UK and Germany – now think that the arms embargo on Iran should be extended beyond the October 18 expiry date specified in the JCPOA. If Russia and China dig their heels in against a UN extension, America might activate the snapback mechanism, thus voiding the deal altogether.
“Iran mistook JCPOA for a green light for its regional power projection and troublemaking,” Hook, the current US special envoy for Iran, said. It is a lesson that the Europeans – and apparently the US Democrats – seem to have learned as well.
If Biden becomes president and takes Sullivan and Burns with him to steer his foreign policy, it now seems unlikely that a Democratic White House will revive the Iran nuclear deal. Instead, whoever is elected US president come November will propose a new deal with Iran, one that addresses both its nuclear program and its destabilizing behavior in the region.
Trump’s secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, says the Republicans are quite prepared to sit back and watch the Iranians manage the collapse of their economy. And if Tehran rejects a new deal, it seems the Democrats are also prepared to do exactly the same.
Hussain Abdul-Hussain is the Washington bureau chief of Kuwaiti daily Al-Rai and a former visiting fellow at Chatham House in London.