A Geopolitical Perspective on Nuclear Deal between US and Iran


The Iranian nuclear deal: the challenge of the European Union • Eyes on  Europe


Dr. Manoj Kumar Mishra   5 November 2021

While Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator recently announced that talks to revive the nuclear deal (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) would resume in Vienna before the end of November, efforts at restoring the deal will only be successful if it ends up in a win-win situation for the US and Iran. The deal is based on asymmetric obligations from the US and Iran. While it imposes verifiable restrictions on Iranian nuclear activities, it does not obligate the US to any quantifiable and verifiable concessions corresponding to Iranian commitments and actions. Iran’s distrust of the US is deeper than the asymmetries in the nuclear deal. Biden administration needs to notice the fact that Iran prefers a sanctions-resistant economy to look for volatile and fragile concessions from the US by restoring the deal. Iran is gravitating toward revitalizing its shattered economy by engaging more with powers such as Russia and China.

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Washington’s unilateral withdrawal from the deal has been followed by many significant happenings hardening Iranian stance such as the assassination of the leader of Iran’s elite Quds Force, Qasem Soleimani, who was reportedly working to bolster Iran’s regional power and influence by strengthening its allies and proxies, sabotage attacks on Iranian nuclear sites and assassination of a top nuclear scientist. Iran’s distrust of the US and its ally Israel has further deepened due to these subversive activities against it.

Iran started to turn away from the nuclear agreement of 2015 by choosing incremental violations and time-bound escalations since mid-2019.  Meanwhile, revealing the nuclear ambition of Iran, Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) head Mohammad Eslami this year claimed that the country has produced more than 120 kilogrammes (265 pounds) of 20 percent enriched uranium dwarfing the numbers put out by a report of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) according to which Iran’s stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium stood at more than 84 kilogrammes (185 pounds), up from 62.8 kilogrammes (138 pounds) three months before. [1]

Even as the Iranian regime and Biden administration have expressed their willingness to revive talks on the deal, it would not be simple for both countries to dispel mutual distrust and arrive at a win-win situation for both. The mutual distrust is deeply ingrained in the American desire for hegemony in the region spanning from the Persian Gulf to the Caspian Sea and Iran’s role as an assertive regional player in the expanded region.

Changing Regional Dynamics

The Iranian Islamic Revolution in 1979 changed the geopolitics in the West Asian region dramatically as it not only ended the status of Iran as an American protégé (Iran courted the US under the ruler Shah), it engendered a long-term Iranian desire to assume an independent role for itself in the region. It became a key challenger to the prevailing status quo in the Persian Gulf which the US with the support of its allies assiduously maintained. To realize its independent status, Iran abandoned the CENTO just after the Islamic revolution and joined Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). It was also witnessed cancelling many weapon orders from the West. The fact that Iran successfully withstood Iraq’s overwhelming military power propped up by the US during the eight-year-long Iran-Iraq war (1980-88) although it did not win the war was considered a remarkable achievement in the Iranian foreign policy establishment and enhanced its confidence to play a significant role in regional geopolitics. Following the decline of Iraq’s power position, Iran has been aspiring to be a strong regional power by playing a major role in oil politics and by extending its influence and connectivity with other parts of the region through land and sea. This would not only benefit Iran in terms of trade and supply of oil, but it would also allow Iran to develop multidimensional strategies based on the sea as well as on land. [2]

Iran’s Geopolitical Aspirations and American Hegemony  

While following the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the emergence of the resource-rich Central Asian region, Iran looked for an expanded role for itself spanning from the Persian Gulf to the Caspian Sea region as it carried the potential to provide the shortest and cheapest route to the world market for the Central Asian resources as well. On the other side, the American drive for predominance in energy politics continued with a thrust on multiplying the number of pipelines which would end the monopoly of a few particular powers such as Russia and Iran oversupplying of energy resources. The American and Iranian aspirations have been shaped by pure strategic considerations apart from energy politics. Historically, all the great powers wanted to master both naval and continental strategies but could develop only one and therefore their power was challenged at one time or the other. In this context, the countries which join Eurasian Heartland with the Indian Ocean have had assumed significance and Nicholas J. Spykman introduced the concept of Rimland to describe these areas. Controlling these regions would not only allow a great power the potential to develop both continental and maritime strategies at the same time, but this can also be instrumental in sustaining its power in the long term.

Iran is not only a Rimland country that joins the Eurasian Heartland with the Indian Ocean; it is surrounded by many such countries of strategic significance. While the US sought to cultivate the areas spanning West Asia, Central Asia, and Afghanistan in order to be able to develop multidimensional military strategies, Iran has been seeking to attain predominance by undercutting the American strategies and objectives in the expanded region. Great powers’ strategies to prevent regional powers from cultivating the Rimland countries can be observed in the undeclared cooperation of the US and the erstwhile USSR against Iran during the Iran-Iraq war and the declared coalition against Iraq in the Gulf War. On the one hand, while both the superpowers militarily supported Iraq to prevent Iran from consolidating the Rimland by a wave of revolutions, they co-operatively destroyed Iraqi military capacity later which had provided Iraq with a superior strategic position in the core of the Rimland on the other. [3]

In a similar vein, Iran’s ambition for a greater regional role was reflected in its attempt to become a nuclear power despite international sanctions, in its massive support for non-state militant groups like Hamas and Hezbollah in terms of finance and arms, seeking the support of the Islamic countries against the occupation of Palestine by Israel and in its continued role of strengthening Shiite groups in the neighboring countries where they are a minority.

Although initially, following the Islamic revolution in 1979, the zeal to export Shiite ideology shaped Iran’s foreign policy, geopolitical considerations played a prominent role in the formulation of its foreign policies later. Unlike the early phase, Iran’s support for groups abroad began to be based on geopolitical considerations. For example, Iran’s relations with hardline Shiite factions, such as al Sadr were occasional, tactical, and short-term and aimed at undermining the unilateral US policy of excluding Iran from Iraqi politics. Iran was quite aware of the fact that any long-term support for the Shiite factions in Iraq would disturb the power equations there and would not serve the interests of Iran in the long run by generating greater regional instability.[4] Similarly, multiple supports for different non-Pashtun groups in Afghanistan to challenge the Taliban during the latter’s rise to power and alleged support for the Taliban to bog down the US forces point to the fact that co-ethnic groups did not remain the permanent constituency for Iranian support.

The geopolitical struggle for power between the US and Iran is not limited to using proxies and allies. It is worth mentioning that the US with Israeli assistance resorted to cyber attacks in a bid to cripple an Iranian uranium processing facility using a digital worm called Stuxnet a decade before. Ever since, Iran has allegedly launched cyber attacks on US dams, financial systems and government networks. The global presence and interest of the US could enable Iran to find soft targets in a much wider landscape. To counter the US role in the expanded region, Iran has focused on an “offensive defence” strategy. This strategy is a way to ensure defence through active military engagement. But the problem lies in the exaggeration of Iranian threat perception which might situate Iran in an irreconcilable position with the US in terms of respective geopolitical interests. According to Barzeger, “experience has shown that the more Iran feels threatened, the more likely it is likely to expand its regional presence”.[5] Iran’s bid for a nuclear weapons is directed towards projecting its offensive capacity to dissuade the US from acquiring larger regional space working through allies like Israel and Saudi Arabia.

[1]Maziar Motamedi, Iran’s nuclear chief reports jump in 20 percent enriched uranium, 10 Oct 2021, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/10/10/irans-nuclear-chief-reports-jump-in-20-percent-enriched-uranium

[2] For details See Manoj Kumar Mishra, “Iran’s Changed Perception Concerning its Role in Afghanistan Following Soviet Disintegration”, Afro Eurasian Studies, Vol. 1, No. 2, 2012, pp. 76-96.

[3]Ahmet Davutoglu, “The Clash of Interests: An explanation of the World (dis)order”, Perceptions: Journal of International Affairs, Vol. II, No. 4, Dec 1997-Feb-1998, p. 9.

[4] Kayhan Berzegar, “Iran’s Foreign Policy Strategy after Saddam”, The Washington Quarterly, Vol. 33, No. 1. January 2010, p. 178.

[5]Berzegar, “Iran’s Foreign Policy Strategy after Saddam”, p. 182.