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JCPOA and Soft Power Strategy

 JCPOA and Soft Power Strategy

Iran nuclear deal known as The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) has enhanced the soft power of Islamic Republic of Iran. The power brought peace and public hope domestically and increased power of Iran in influencing regional and global power structure internationally. Many of JCPOA's critics, from hard power point of view, do not take these achievements into account. Ignoring the soft power of Iran, on one hand, deprives us of taking advantage of an important and extensive part of Ira...
Before the JCPOA, the then government's miscalculations led to six UN Security Council resolutions against Iran and subjected Iran to encroachments of major powers, inching the country close to the brink of war. Now some critics—even though their criticism could come from a place of good faith—are once more pushing Iran towards the previous risky threshold or beyond with their imprudence and seemingly revolutionary stances.

Re-reading the text of the JCPOA shows that its most important goal had been to remove Iran from the provisions of Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter and abolition of all UN Security Council sanctions, maintaining the peace and security of Iran and the region and reaffirming and confirming Iran's sovereign right to access nuclear energy. Other interests, including economic benefits, have been subsequent to the main goal. Now some critics of US withdrawal from the JCPOA interpret the goal in reverse and believe that because the US impedes Iran's from accessing a vast part of its economic interests originating from the JCPOA, the deal has lost its efficacy. Whereas, the economic interests, although important, are conditional and the main criteria of JCPOA's success is maintaining the peace and security that is still in place. Additionally, the JCPOA and Trump's approach against it have caused a gap between the US and other countries. Obviously, five other members of the UN Security Council (because of accumulated interests in the US or for other reasons) may not be able to fully stand against Trump. In this condition, some critics of the JCPOA, who cannot hide their joy about the current condition, are celebrating the failure of JCPOA. Although, adopting a measured and applicable policy, safeguarding the security and national interests of Iran, is the utmost duty of the Sovereignty.

Politics is taking advantage of all national potentials and choosing the best course of action among all possible options. Proposing out-of-reach options would be of no use. The importance of maximizing national hard power in all sectors is not to be underestimated; however, the point in this writing is to suggest paying a particular attention to the potentials of soft power and to take maximum advantage of its capacities. Critics, either consciously or unconsciously, disregard that when proposing their plans and strategies.

Effective policy-making in tough situations requires theoretical underpinnings and logical thinking, without which achieving a coherent set of policy actions is impossible. A clear theoretical framework aligns and integrates dispersed decisions on the part of different authorities. Unfortunately, in Iran this is often avoided and ignored in favor of Realism.

Theoretical Approach to the Soft Power in Global Politics

The essence of globalization is the emergence of transnational phenomena, organizations, institutions and regulations with international reach. This structural transformation is visible in all political, social, economic, cultural and security arenas. Thus, the rule of game and decision-making within this world is different from the past. Previously, international relations were mainly limited to relations between states. In the new era, on the contrary, in addition to states, nongovernmental and transnational players and institutions in different spheres have entered the game and even in some cases, have limited the stage for states. Many states can hardly acknowledge the existence of these institutions. That is why they resist and criticize states that play with the new rules of the game. However, after all, the external reality imposes itself on them and such states will be obliged to admit it.

Among transnational organizations and institutions, we can refer to WTO that regulates global trade and has an arbitration system that provides enforcement for its policies. Although Iran has not joined WTO, its trade is affected by WTO's decisions and regulations. Similarly, we can refer to ITU and ICANN that regulate telecommunications and Internet Protocols respectively. In other areas, such as banking, finance and the environmental, similar governing regulations and standards exist. These institutions and organizations are undeniably influencing states' decisions across the world.

Another sign of globalization is the change in market size and its interconnectedness. The extensive reach of the market across the world is a key characteristic of this era. The national market is not economical for production of commodities. Even economies like China, India or the EU that have a vast market of their own, will fail without international markets.

These signs and transformations imply that we live in a world with a new order. We should know the nature and function of this new order. We in Iran should go beyond the relations between states; although we have acknowledged part of them, like what happened in nuclear negotiations. This is one of the important issues we encounter in Iran that has decreased the efficacy of Iranian policy-making. We cannot take further steps unless we can regard the issue from a theoretical basis. Besides value judgment, how well do we know this new order and the rules of the game?

Now the question is, what form does the exercise of power take in this new global order? Is it the direct application of force, which has been exclusive to states? Or, is it a legal system, which strips states of their legitimacy and limits their legitimate choices if they disobey international law? If a state is outside this order, can it ensure its sovereignty and secure and maximize its interests? At what cost? And what consequences would it face? In fact, the question becomes: what are new forms of legitimate rights and legitimate means of exercising power on an international scale? The key point is that a legal system based on soft power has been established, which casts doubts on exercising hard power as a first step.

If the new order and legal system are neglected, it becomes hard to be a player in the current world. Those who deny the new world order in fact aim to deny an interconnected global network of formal and informal institutions, their powers of coordination, and their ability for joint action. In fact, power in the new world arises out of this interconnected network and navigating it. Based on accepted policies, the international legal system, and human principles, this network has the ability to transmit messages and to help converge players in various areas (economic, social, political and security) across the world. Those who define power as a direct application of force, deny the existence of this network and the (relative) freedom of movement for news, signs, symbols, music, knowledge, values, money, goods and humans. Yet, new power arises out of this network and its internal logistics capacities. Denying this order does not resolve anything. Suddenly we realize that there are numerous obstacles and limitations ahead of us that hinder our freedom of movement. Similar phenomena exist in the international arena and even if we refuse to accept these instructions as legitimate, their existence cannot be denied.

Soft power and the Possibility of Implementing a Win-Win Policy

Thus far, I attempted to outline the new world order based on soft power. In order to explain world events, Institutionalists emphasize soft power while Realists give primacy to hard power. In my view, both sources of power exist and have functions in the external world. Some nation-states rely more on hard power due to their access to it, while others rely on soft power. Therefore, it is of utmost importance to have an accurate assessment of available resources of power in order to choose strategies and plans of action. In addition, compared with hard power, implementing soft power is less costly in terms of material, social, political and security costs. This is why a politician like Obama puts emphasis on creating and utilizing soft power, while other such as Trump rely on hard power.

Before the Age of Globalization, soft power did not garner much attention from politicians and statesmen. Everything, including military, economic and technological power was distilled within hard power. Soft power on the other hand raises the question of how to positively affect others’ behavior or how to not impede others’ choices. Transaction costs forms the theoretical basis for soft power; its function is to reduce transaction costs for positive cases and increase it in negative ones. Thus, in this approach, one can formulate the hypothesis for win-win transactions. In hard power theory, only zero-sum games are meaningful. In contrast, in soft power literature, in various transactions such as economic, political and cultural, the focus is on reducing transaction costs. This is made possible through developing national and supranational networks, developing horizontal and vertical communication between them, maintaining their continued functioning and facilitating connections within these networks.

The Possibility of Consensus in the Face of the US

With regards to the JCPOA, world powers have different approaches. To prove this point, in the light of resources of power accessible to Iran, what secures national interests is emphasizing Iran’s soft power by recourse to fundamental principles of the country—humanitarian and moral principles, commitment to deals and agreements—as well as by creating attractive incentives in finance, culture, tourism, etc. In the literature on soft power, it is important to create a good image of a country on the global scale. This differs with Realism in International Relations, which seeks to portray a country as “most powerful”. These two approaches are opposing. Many world leaders aim to implement hard power and Realism. The Republican Party of the US is organized around this approach; both during G.W. Bush’s administration and the current administration, US strategies are designed based on a direct application of power. By contrast, Democrats in the US and most of Europeans support soft power. In the case of Europe, this is a result of their assessment of their hard power in relation to other great global powers. In fact, even if Europe were a proponent of hard power, it could not stand up to the US and other powers. Therefore, in the question of JCPOA, EU’s behavior can be interpreted in the framework of soft power. EU’s behavioral models are based on a networked world order, increased communications, and reducing transaction costs; this, as a whole, is soft power.

Sanctions, a result of misconceptions about hard power

In my view, EU’s prior behavior can be analyzed within such a framework. Europe was always supportive of critical dialogue and would bring in a policy of containment. When Iran acted as a player within this environment composed of two centers of power and was committed to its agreements, it was not subjected to UN sanctions. However, starting in 2006 and reaching its culmination in 2012, Iran was subjected to 6 UN sanctions. In fact, the sanctions began when Iran lost its capacity to act as a player within the centers of power. It also lost the possibility of dialogue. The government at the time neglected Iran’s resources of soft power and aimed to compete in terms of hard power. This was a great strategic mistake, proving costly for the Iranian people. In fact, the theoretical approach of Iran’s 9th and 10th governments was based on hard power. In this approach, a statesman’s mistake and false assessment of his and other countries power can be costly for the people, which was the case.

What about the JCPOA? Re-reading the nuclear deal’s document is very important for the discussion; however, unfortunately many proponents and critics of JCPOA do not seem to have read the accord in full and their comments are not based on JCPOA’s text. That said; key points are delineated in the preamble and general provisions of the nuclear deal document. From 5+1’s standing point, implementing the deal will contribute to peace, regional and international stability. From Iran’s standing point, implementing the deal will result in annulling all SC resolutions against Iran, “lifting of all UN SC sanctions, lifting all multilateral and national sanctions related to Iran’s nuclear programme,” and providing measures for Iran’s access to “trade, technology, finance and energy”. In addition, a successful implementation of JCPOA will enable Iran to “fully enjoy its right to nuclear energy for peaceful purposes under the relevant articles of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in line with its obligations therein".

Now, the opponents of the nuclear deal undermine its effectiveness after US withdrawal. However, in order to assess JCPOA’s success or failure, we should refer back to its original aims. The criteria for assessing the nuclear deal include peace; regional and international stability; annulling all SC resolutions and lifting all SC sanctions against Iran; and accepting Iran’s right to peaceful nuclear energy. Once these aims have been achieved, access to global networks in trade, finance and banking is made possible. The economic benefits from JCPOA are its consequential results and not its intrinsic aim. Therefore, nothing has changed on a legal basis. Some critics might say that US withdrawal from the nuclear deal is not a solitary act. That the US will prevent our economy from reaping the benefits of the accord and will threaten Iran’s interests all over the world; and that other countries, either because of their own interests or because of other reasons, do not have the power to stand up to the US. Although these arguments are valid to a great extent; yet, while Iran and other signatories of JCPOA are committed to the accord, the US cannot re-issue SC resolutions and sanctions. This has been and is the fundamental objective of the JCPOA. Undoubtedly, any action resulting in a reversal of SC resolutions against Iran is in opposition with the principle of thoughtful resistance against US bullying and unilateralism. Unfortunately, some critics insist on their stance regardless of the consequences. Such actions will give a helping hand to Iran’s enemies.

Security: a Priority for Europe

Re-reading Europe’s stance with regards to US’s multilateral withdrawal from JCPOA demonstrates their approach from a soft power stance. “There is no alternative to the JCPOA”, Mogherini stated following US’s announcement about pulling out of the nuclear deal. She stated elsewhere that eliminating JCPOA could mean further military escalation in the region. This soft power approach to JCPOA aims to establish peace and prevent war. It seems that Europe, in contrast with Trump’s logic which is based on mercantilist, 18th century hard power and a union of trade and military power, pursues another logic based on soft power. This action is neither selfless, nor to secure Iran’s interests. Rather, it is a means to defend the existing order which has stabilized Europe’s interests and global position. Preserving the nuclear deal is a step beyond preserving an international agreement which decreases the risks of an arms race in the region. According to Europe’s viewpoint, preserving this deal will mean preserving the diplomatic achievements and being governed by principles of an order without which moving forward is not possible.

It seems that Europe views the recent US position not only a threat to the region’s peace, but also a threat to Europe’s security and interests. This matter has not received due attention in Iran. For Europe, the JCPOA is a shield against US mercantilist order. Europe’s priority is to create order based on soft power. If Europe can preserve and develop a networked-based order, the costs of maintaining such a network is much lower than costs of an order based on use of force. This is not to mean that Europe will attempt a hard resistance vis-à-vis the US. In reality, Europe is in a dilemma and seeks to manage conflicting outcomes. On the one hand, Europe’s interests and more importantly, security, are tied across the Atlantic, and Europe does not wish for these relations to change. On the other hand, if the US is successful in establishing a new order, Europe will lose its sovereignty and long-term interests even more. The reason behind Europe’s resistance towards the US is apparent in this point, and not in friendship with Iran. What Europe does is managing conflict and nothing more.

The question that arises about Iran’s expectations of the JCPOA is to what extent Iran can create new networks by remaining in the nuclear deal and utilizing this historic opportunity. Can Iran establish new connections? Can the sphere of Iran’s soft power be expanded? Even though soft power cannot withstand US hard power in the short-term; yet, in the long-term it can create greater interests for Iran.

Written by Abbas Akhoundi
Iran's Minister of Roads and Urban Development
23 June 2018
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