Two deals involving Iran have caught global attention in recent weeks. The first is the much ballyhooed 25-year economic cooperation agreement between Tehran and Beijing. The second is the Joint Plan of Action (JCPOA) 2.0, which is apparently being negotiated by proxy in Vienna to address Iran’s nuclear activities, and which will presumably relax the Trump administration’s sanctions regime. Both deals have been used as evidence of the ascendance of the Iranian regime on the world stage as it regains economic strength and diplomatic legitimacy.
The fact of the matter, however, is that both are ultimately illusory as neither can effectively address either the fundamental insolvency of the Iranian economy or the true intent of the mullahs’ nuclear program. These two issues will only be satisfactorily resolved in the real deal Iran needs, which is comprehensive economic and security pacts between the United States, Iran, Israel and our other regional partners and allies: the Cyrus Accords.
While the headlines about the China agreement make it seem sensational, it is too little too late. First, even the regime-affiliated Tehran Times admits, “No price or value has been set in any aspects of the agreement and no strict obligations are defined. In other words, the agreement is just a roadmap that outlines the framework of the two countries’ cooperation in various areas over the next 25 years.”
Second, it would take much more than the $400 billion number floated in the press in a much shorter time frame to reverse Iran’s fiscal meltdown. As with most things involving the People’s Republic of China, this deal will come with any number of burdensome obligations on Iran, from heavily discounted oil to military basing rights. And the types of investments that will interest Beijing will be ones that employ Chinese companies and workers and further Chinese strategic interests, and so bring little material benefit to the Iranian people.
What income there is from oil sales will be funneled straight to the mullahs and their families, and to their military programs, including the nuclear program. China’s long trail of broken promises and abandoned projects should also add a dose of healthy skepticism about the real value of this agreement.
Likewise, the reboot of the JCPOA will generate exciting headlines as its predecessor did, and the Biden administration, like the Obama administration before it, is framing the new deal as the only alternative to a war in the Middle East. This rationale ignores the reality that the revolutionary regime in Iran has been at war with the US, Israel, its neighbors and the Iranian people since its founding in 1979. In fact, the regime has been designated as the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism by the US State Department for nearly 40 years. JCPOA 2.0 will not result in a positive modification to this behavior, nor will the preemptive lifting of US sanctions result in an economic windfall that will improve the lives of the Iranian people.
Even if Tehran resumes nominal compliance with the defunct 2015 deal, given the already elapsing sunset clauses, it would be no meaningful check on their nuclear ambitions. Furthermore, the envisioned flood of European, let alone American investment simply will not take place. Even before former president Donald Trump ended US compliance with the JCPOA in 2018, foreign direct investment in Iran was anemic.
THE RISKS of trying to do business with this corrupt, violent and lawless regime are plainly too high for any responsible investor. And going forward, the possibility that a political change in US administrations or control of the Congress will bring the reimposition of sanctions will also have a chilling effect on any significant investment.
There is an obvious alternative to this sorry state of affairs, the real deal the people of Iran need and deserve: the Cyrus Accords. Dwight D. Eisenhower once said that if you cannot solve a problem, you should enlarge it. So rather than trying to stovepipe the nuclear issue from all the Iranian regime’s other bad behavior, a new deal should be comprehensive and resolve the issues impeding the systemic changes necessary to modernize Iran into a secure and prosperous nation that is accountable to its people, and can then reclaim its rightful position as a friend to the United States, Israel and our partners and allies in the Middle East.
The fundamental principle that would have to be part of any real deal for Iran would be the renunciation of hostilities between the parties. This would be pro forma on the part of the United States and Israel, neither of which have an ideological impulse to annihilate Iran, but it would be a seismic shift on the part of the current regime in Iran. If this shift were made, however, it would open a broad range of possibilities for cooperation that would swiftly and decisively change Iranian quality of life.
Both the US and Israel can be prepared with an expansive menu of public-private partnerships that would build Iranian capacity in everything from mitigating Iran’s acute climate and water degradation to building critical civilian infrastructure in communications and logistics.
In partnership with regional neighbors, Iran could upgrade its energy industry and engage in a collective security construct that would encourage stability and reduce the need for such an imbalanced expenditure of resources on offensive military programs, and redirect them to desperately-needed nation building at home.
As we wrote in our original piece outlining the vision for the Cyrus Accords, the descendants of Abraham and Cyrus have millennia-old traditions that have successfully intertwined in the past. The day when they reconnect again is not only possible, but probable. The United States, for its part, has a distinguished history of investing heavily in other countries with no imperial intent, but rather in the hopes of cultivating allies who will freely contribute to our mutual prosperity and security.
Two remarkable examples of this practice are Germany and Japan, which less than a century ago were America’s mortal enemies. Following a fundamental renunciation of aggression, however, they were, with our support, able to transform into key democratic allies with thriving free-market economies.
With American leadership, the Abraham Accords have shown the way for a comparable transformation of relations between Israel and its Arab neighbors. The Cyrus Accords can follow suit for the people of Iran.Victoria Coates is a senior fellow at the Center for Security Policy and former US deputy national security advisor for Middle Eastern and North African Affairs. Len Khodorkovsky is the former deputy assistant secretary of state for digital strategy and senior adviser to the US special representative for Iran.