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The Other “Spirit” of the Iran Nuclear Deal 

Photo by DAVID HOLT | CC BY 2.0

Among the favored talking points of those arguing for a US withdrawal, renegotiation, or “decertification” of the Iran nuclear deal is that Iran has violated the deal’s “spirit” by pursuing non-nuclear related activity, ranging from ballistic missile testing to destabilizing regional activity. Critics of the deal continue to offer this argument despite the fact the US maintains the country is in compliance with the “technical” aspects of the agreement’s “letter,” as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson recently noted.

President Trump now appears likely to not certify the deal in the coming days, noting in a recent dinner with US military leaders that Iran has “not lived up to the spirit of their agreement.”A US dismissal of the deal on the pretext of a violation of its “spirit” would confirm a long-held truth undergirding Iranian foreign policy, only recently bracketed by the country’s diplomatic leap of faith to sign the nuclear deal in the first place: the United States is an unreliable actor whose innate opposition to the Islamic Republic is unrelenting and enduring. For an Iranian side confronting the reality that the “letter” of the agreement may crumble, this is now the “spirit” hovering over the deal.

Since the 1979 Revolution, few countries have been more invested in pointing out the contradiction between US words and actions than Iran. Iran offers its rhetoric and behavior as a mirror to reflect the contradiction between U.S. words and policies and expose what it views as a “do as I say, not as I do” policy.” Much of this attitude grew out of historical experience of course, namely, the CIA-led coup of 1953 against Muhammad Mossadegh and continued US support for the authoritarian rule of the Shah until the 1979 Revolution. The coup de grace in both instances was their initiation by a country committed to spreading freedom and democracy. The lesson drawn from these experiences by those attaining power in the future Islamic Republic is that the US selectively applies its ideals abroad when it suits her best interests, making her a hypocritical power at best and a diabolical one at worst.

For the Islamic Republic the ultimate expression of the United States’ selective application of the rules pertained to the treatment of its nuclear program under the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). While aspects of Iran’s nuclear program were clandestine, though ultimately revealed in 2002 and 2009, the main thrust of the country’s approach was always one anchored in the legal realm. While other countries’ paths remained defined by concealment (Syria), defiance (North Korea), or capitulation (Libya), Iran continued to press its case by arguing that it was abiding by the legal parameters as established by the NPT. Neither the IAEA or the UN Security Council, it bears remembering, ever found Iran in violation of the NPT, even if they argued Iran at times concealed elements of its program and didn’t enact the proper safeguards.

Should the US choose to not certify the deal by deeming Iran in violation of its “spirit” then it demonstrates precisely what the Islamic Republic has been clamoring all these years: the US simply holds Iran to an unfair standard. It is worth noting that several Iranian parliamentarians offered this exact argument in voicing their opposition when the deal was being debated in the majlis (parliament). Rather than arguing Iran should not ratify the deal in order to pursue an unhindered nuclear program, they argued against the deal on the grounds that the US is simply incapable of treating their country fairly. It is of little surprise that the conservative Iranian press has referred to the US obsession over the deal’s “spirit” as a “new American conspiracy” and a way of shrouding American deceit.

While much of the talk following the nuclear deal’s consummation was whether it was merely a transactional agreement or could in fact yield a transformation in US-Iran relations, less attention focused on how Iran gained from the process of negotiations itself. As much as abiding by the “letter” of the signed agreement demonstrates Iran’s ability to adhere to established rules and display normalized behavior, the procedural reality that the agreement was enacted with United States, alongside other Great Powers, in itself stands testament to a recognition of Iran as an equal party of engagement. Not certifying the deal would undercut this achievement.

It is for this reason that President Hasan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif have made it absolutely clear they will not renegotiate the deal. To do so would simply eliminate any notion that Iran can justifiably maintain the position of engaging with the US on equal footing without being strong-armed into succumbing to any US political whim. Any belief that a non-certification of the deal, or outright withdrawal from it, could serve as a pathway to renegotiate a “better” one vastly misunderstands this crucial Iranian perception of the US as a global power. Members of Congress, who must decide whether to follow through with the President’s potential non-certification and reimpose nuclear related sanctions, should bear this simple truth in mind.

If the nuclear deal falters then it may very well come to be another historical data point- alongside the 1953 coup and US support for the Shah- signaling the US inability to engage Iranian in any fair and objective manner. More disturbingly, it may come to confirm the US penchant for broken promises when dealing with Iran, not just for an older generation who lived through those watershed moments, but a younger generation of Iranians too, to say nothing of what may result from a newly invigorated nuclear program ungoverned by an internationally sanctioned agreement meant to monitor it.