The Four Corners Of The Iranian Nuclear Deal

International relations are tricky to understand because there are a variety of variables to consider. There are domestic political forces to take into account, financial interests, historical biases, and a multitude of behind the scenes stuff that only a handful of people are privy to. Too much of the ordeal surrounding the Iranian nuclear program has been simplified into a battle between the good guys and the bad guys while in reality it’s a tad more complex than that.

Since we don’t have any sources in these negotiations, the best we can do is to try to figure out what each side wants and go from there.


Despite what many American and Israeli politicians claim, Iran is not hell bent on world domination like Hitler was. That’s an outdated worldview that is only espoused by those who still believe that invading and taking over a country isn’t self-defeatingly expensive (see: Iraq, 2003). The Iranians don’t trust the United States, but at the same time, would you trust a country that admitted to overthrowing your democratically elected government in order to install a repressive authoritarian regime? Neither side can lay claim to being “the good guys” in this ordeal.

There are three important actors within Iran who all have conflicting interests in this situation, which is what drives much of the confusion surrounding this whole negotiation.

First, there is the Revolutionary Guard, a military unit created to protect the coup of 1979. Nowadays, the Guard is a radical group designed to expand its interests outside of Iranian borders while protecting its economic interests inside of it. Mehdi Khalaji, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy puts their power in context: “the Revolutionary Guards are the spine of the current political structure [in Iran] and a major player in the Iranian economy.” The Guard is responsible for most of the evil that Iran spreads throughout the region and the rest of the world. They are driven by ideology and profit for their favored institutions. If you’re looking for a villain in all of this, these guys are it.

Next is the Supreme Leader, Seyed Ali Hosseini Khamenei, who is the de facto ruler of Iran. He appoints members to the judiciary, the guardian council (who controls the parliament and Presidency), and the armed forces (this includes the Revolutionary Guard, which is separate from their conventional army). But most importantly, Khamenei controls religious policy in Iran. The prime directive of the Supreme Leader is to preserve the remnants of the Persian Empire, with hopes of one day returning it to greatness. However, we are beginning to see some pushback against these religious policies in Iran, starting with the Green Revolution in 2009 and 2010. This brings us to our third major actor within the country: the people. And frankly, they are probably the main reason we are having these nuclear discussions in the first place.

In 2009, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad stepped down from the Presidency, and Khamenei hand-picked six candidates for the electorate to choose from. In a rigged election, the Iranian people created something as close to a mandate as possible as moderate cleric Hassan Rouhani obliterated his five conservative opponents, gaining 50.7% of the vote and tripling the total number of votes of his closest competitor. Gone are the Presidential statements of wiping Israel off the map, and in its place are messages of tolerance: “This victory is the victory of wisdom, moderation, growth and awareness, the victory of commitment and religiosity over extremism and ill tempers” said Rouhani in the wake of his election.

So we’re looking at a country with a religious top-down governing structure, an economy dominated by a politically empowered private army, and a youthful populace who yearns to be part of a modern society; something that is made impossible with the heavy economic sanctions imposed on Iran by the West.

Iran has always claimed that its nuclear program is not intended for warfare, but for healthcare and energy. Before Rouhani was elected, those claims were dubious at best given the words and actions of Iran. However, given the amount of damage that Western sanctions have done to the Iranian economy, plus the overwhelming desire for moderation on the part of at least half the populace, now seems like the best time to put those claims to the test.

This entire negotiation comes down to whether or not Iran is a rational actor. If they are so ideologically driven that they will destroy their economy in order to gain a nuclear weapon, then this deal will fail. If they want to modernize their economy and give up their status as an international pariah, then they will make a deal. It’s really that simple. The status quo is untenable; that’s why both sides have come to the table in this negotiation.

However, not everyone is happy with this tentative agreement. Let’s start with the country with the most to lose from an honest deal between Iran and the West.

Saudi Arabia


The Saudis are currently the West’s preferred Middle Eastern petro-state, and this revenue allows their ruling party to purchase enough support to stay in power and rule with an iron fist over its populace. Saudi Arabia has almost one-fifth of the world’s proven oil reserves, is the largest producer and exporter of total petroleum liquids in the world, and maintains the world’s largest oil production capacity.

Iran produces the second most amount of oil among the OPEC cartel, even after the crippling sanctions imposed by the US and its allies. So a lifting of sanctions combined with a peaceful relationship between Iran and the West can only detract from Saudi Arabia’s influence in the Middle East and abroad.

The Saudis are already concerned about the United States’ increasing energy independence which decreases the US’s dependence on foreign oil; a responsible and internationally-integrated Iran could spell doom for the rule of the House of Saud. That is why they are doing everything they can behind the scenes to try to tip the scales back in their favor. This loss of power has created an unlikely alliance between those who control the holy land of the Muslims and the rulers of the holy land of the Jews.


Israel has the most to lose from a deal if Iran is lying about its nuclear intentions, because if their program is intended for warfare, Israel is the primary target for those weapons, so their trepidation is more than understandable. This is part of the reason why Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is so strongly against the Iranian deal; he views himself as one of the few authority figures standing between the Jewish people and another Holocaust, and he simply doesn’t trust the Iranian leadership (at least this is his public position).

The other reason for his opposition is that much of his support comes from hardline right wingers who seem to be itching for a conflict with Iran. Domestic politics are very important to every actor in this situation, and antagonizing Iran plays well with his base back home in Israel.

Another possible reason Netanyahu is publicly ripping the deal with Iran is in order to provide political cover for himself in case the deal backfires or collapses, while providing Iran with domestic political cover (“if the Israelis hate it, it must be good for us”) while they continue to negotiate with the United States.

Of all the actors in this situation, the motivation of the Israelis is the most difficult to pinpoint because they have been engaged in a pissing contest with Iran for so long that it is nearly impossible to tell what public statements are honest, and which ones are there simply for show. What we do know is that they are the most devoted to a docile Iran, considering how difficult their small patch of land is to defend.

United States

Lastly, we come to the most earnest actor in this situation (relatively speaking); everyone else seems to be solely driven by self-interest (Iran wants a real economy or a nuclear program, Saudi Arabia wants to keep their share of power, and Israel wants to protect its borders at all costs) while the US seems to be driven by many interests. That’s not to say that the US isn’t driven by its own self-interest here, but one of the motivations for making a deal seems to be a sincere attempt to quell tensions in the most tenuous part of the world. Hassan Rouhani’s election has provided everyone with a moment to engage the Iranians in an honest negotiation about this whole clusterfuck.

Barack Obama, perhaps frustrated by this Congress’ penchant for literally getting nothing done, has decided to venture into the parts of his Presidency that he can control. In one of his inaugural addresses, Obama laid the foundation for a deal with Iran: “The United States wants the Islamic Republic of Iran to take its rightful place in the community of nations. You have that right, but it comes with real responsibilities. And that place cannot be reached through terror or arms, but rather through peaceful actions that demonstrate the true greatness of the Iranian people and civilization.”

Congress has other ideas, as they have introduced new sanctions on Iran, but given that nearly every member of Congress is only motivated by staying in office, this proposal is nothing more than a knee-jerk reaction to try and give more red meat to their Jewish electorate (although the efficacy of this plan is dubious considering that most American Jews support the interim deal with Iran). Trusting Congress to act with prudence in international relations is laughable considering that many don’t even understand this country’s politics.

The sanctions were designed to bring Iran to the negotiating table, not to eternally punish them for a few decades worth of transgressions. And now that Iran is at the table, hopefully their diplomats will recognize some of the common enemies and interests they have with the United States. For example, both are sworn enemies of al-Qaeda, and Iran could be a big help in Afghanistan on that front.

For years, all sides in this Cold War have spent their days scheming against and demonizing one another. This six month deal is the first moment of real hope in this saga. The details of the current deal aren’t very important because all they have done is buy time for the real nuclear deal. That is when we can truly judge everyone in this situation, until then, it’s all just one big smokescreen.

Jacob Weindling
Pure bred Coloradan with a dash of Masshole (go UMass). Sports and politics junkie. If I've learned one thing in life to this point, it's that stupid loses more games than smart wins.
Jacob Weindling
Jacob Weindling

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  1. […] an irrational actor (someone who does not act according to logic). However, their willingness to come to the table on nuclear negotiations in the wake of the damage sanctions have done to their economy suggests that they are a rational […]