05 June 2017

The Nuclear Deal and Failed Iran-US Relations

2015 witnessed a significant turn of events in international relations. The Obama Administration adopted a flexible approach to mending frozen relations with regimes the US had for decades perceived as hostile and consequently its relations with Cuba and Iran were put into a new direction.

The US had severed its diplomatic relations with Cuba in 1961 during the Cold War, two years after the Cuban Revolution led by Fidel Castro that resulted in the country adopting socialist ideologies and turning its back to the Capitalist US. Despite the collapse of the Soviet Union as Cuba’s main anti-US ally, the hostile relations between Cuba and the US strongly remained.


With Iran, the hostility dates further back in history when a US backed coup d’├ętat overthrew a democratically elected prime minister and helped the Shah return to power. The diplomatic relations were severed with Iran’s Islamic Revolution and were more intensified with the US Embassy hostage crisis in 1979.


Obama’s unprecedented diplomatic charm offensive had two contrasting outcomes for Cuba and Iran. It was relatively successful in improving Cuba-US relations to the point of reopening of embassies in Washington and Havana after only 18 months of secret talks in the presence of the Canadian Government and the Pope as third parties. Details of the agreement can be found here.

On the other hand, the American negotiations with Iran over the latter’s nuclear program were conducted in several rounds throughout the years leading to a deal commonly known as the "Iran deal." While the same approach from the US government led to breaking the ice of Cuba-US relations after more than five decades, the Iran deal, which was initially an attempt by the two governments to lay the foundation stone towards normalization of relations, did not help change the nature of the relations as the path taken by the governments had several obstructions.

A primary obstacle hindering normalization of Iran-US relations was Iran’s unique political structure that ultimately resulted in lack of consensus among the leaders in understanding the implications of negotiating with the US, and then consequently complicated the domestic level negotiations. Domestic negotiations were conducted between Iran’s government as a chief negotiator and the rest of the constituents that directly or indirectly affected the decision-making process, such as the Supreme Leader, the Parliament, Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and the Guardian Council. Hence, lack of comprehensive domestic support and the presence of strong domestic oppositions in the form of the Supreme Leader’s redlines and rhetoric of other influential figures put a limit in flexibility of the Iranian team throughout the negotiation process.

Another major factor that obstructed the negotiations from altering the nature of the relations was the efforts of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), which influenced the process the most. The Israeli lobby in the US is one of the most powerful interest groups and it has been engaged in activities that would secure Israel’s interests in the Middle East, particularly those aimed at undermining Iran’s influence in the region. The lobby, with its significant capability in influencing domestic politics, spared no effort in blocking any sort of deal from being reached. It attempted at influencing voters of the Congress and also spent millions of dollars to sway public opinion through media and various campaigns. Thus, the primary domestic factor that created difficulties for the US president, which consequently reduced US government’s capability for comprehensive negotiations with Iran, was the presence of interest groups, most influential of them all, the Israel lobby.

Despite the deal being ratified by Iran’s Parliament and the US Congress as major domestic constituents, lack of support from remaining domestic constituents (as the likes of domestic politicians, interest groups and a universal public support) meant that convincing the rest of the domestic actors of Iran and the US became impossible because of which the deal could not pave way for these respective governments to work towards normalizing relations.

Here, the dominant approach to International Relations (IR) that considers states to be as homogeneous as a black box, with one voice and one opinion regarding state policies, is challenged. This conventional approach that divides the world into democratic and non-democratic entities, and generally overlooks any other type of political structure in between, emerges from the Westphalian nation-state paradigm, a paradigm that tends to let slide the complexities that exist within the political entities called states. Avoiding this binary in analyzing occurrences in international relations and regarding the government as one of the many constituents that affect the policymaking in a state, it can be argued that the Iran nuclear deal was made by the Iranian and the American governments only, and not by the rest of the decision making actors. The nation-state paradigm thus falls short in understanding the complexities that exist in political entities, especially those of the non-West, such as Iran.

The nuclear deal is a landmark deal but owing to domestic constraints, which are in turn informed by distinct ideologies and socio-cultural paradigms of Iran and the US, comprehensive normalization of relations remains yet elusive. So far conventional IR pundits have generally attempted to analyze the political dynamics of Iran, and other non-West entities such as Singapore and China, by subscribing to the Westphalian state-centric model, by taking notions such as democracy as reference points. This has consequently led to the utter failure of understanding non-West entities. By attempting to analyze the idiosyncrasies of conventional paradigm, this research therefore concludes that while conventional IR theories are effectual for the analysis, metaphysical assumptions of Westphalian norms and the binary of democratic/non-democratic that such theories are stipulated on, inadvertently fall into the same trap. It concludes that a more nuanced distillation of IR is necessary to accommodate different realities that might not be, or are currently not taken into account, such as theories that ignore the features of a non-democracy in Iran. While the thesis makes the nuclear deal and the actors involved focal point for analyses, the research is also an attempt to question the assumptions that IR currently stand on. With globalization and postcolonial world getting intricate and hybrid, an approach to understanding IR and foreign policy (especially of the non-West) will be challenging without forming an understanding within IR that in a hybrid world, self-other centric IR will be increasingly ineffectual.

[This essay is based on Leili Yousefi's graduation thesis in Culture, Society and Media at Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University in Japan. Ms. Yousefi, who received an award for outstanding thesis in March 2017, has lived and studied in Iran and Japan. She currently resides in Canada and will begin her MA in Sociology at McMaster University in September. ]

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