Trump can’t bully Iran into doing what he wants, but he can still avoid another war in the Middle East

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  • The Iranian government shows no sign of cracking under the pressure the Trump administration has applied to it.
  • Despite the deterioration in relations, pragmatic negotiations can still allow the two sides to avoid war and may open space may open for both to pursue a better deal, writes Defense Priorities fellow Daniel R. DePetris.
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

From the moment President Donald Trump announced that the US was withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal, Washington’s policy toward the Islamic Republic has been best summarized by a schoolyard taunt: Give me your lunch money.

The Trump administration’s embarrassing defeat at the UN Security Council this month and its attempt to snapback all UN sanctions on Tehran — despite opposition from even close American partners — is indicative of a bankrupt approach making US-Iran confrontation more likely.

Over the last two years, the Trump administration’s maximum pressure campaign has been a one-dimensional game of economic sanctions and threats of diplomatic isolation. Drawn up by former national security adviser John Bolton and wholeheartedly supported by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the strategy is designed to produce such economic pain within Iran itself that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei begrudgingly returns to the negotiating table.

Weeks after the administration left the nuclear deal, Pompeo used a speech to outline what the US was looking for — no uranium enrichment on Iranian soil; the end of Iran’s ballistic missile production; a termination of Tehran’s support to regional proxies; and the withdrawal of all Iranian troops from Syria. The message to Iran: Nothing short of full and unconditional capitulation would be acceptable.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

Kyodo News via Getty Images


Unfortunately, Iran has demonstrated no interest in uprooting decades of foreign policy. This is not surprising, since Iranian leaders across the ideological spectrum have categorized US demands as akin to regime change.

Despite some of the toughest economic sanctions the US has ever imposed on a country in history (Iranian President Hassan Rouhani himself said that sanctions have cost Iran $200 billion in revenue), Tehran continues to resist Washington’s maximum pressure campaign by exceeding the limits of the nuclear deal and becoming more aggressive in how it leverages its military power in the region.

If the goal of maximum pressure was to create such economic turmoil in Iran that its leaders simply waved the white flag, the strategy has failed miraculously. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency’s latest report, Iran’s stockpile of enriched uranium has increased more than five-fold since the administration left the nuclear deal.

Washington’s Iran policy is a real-life case of what happens when unrealistic expectations and faulty assumptions dominate US foreign policy. Too often, the result is the calcifying of problems US officials hoped to solve.

It’s worth noting there have been numerous times during Trump’s tenure when the president himself expressed interest in high-stakes diplomacy with Iran. Nearly one year ago, on the sidelines of the annual UN General Assembly, Trump and Rouhani were a phone call away from breaking the cycle of escalation and entering into a dialogue — one that could have produced a more durable agreement.

Due in part to domestic Iranian politics, Rouhani backed out of the arrangement at the last minute. But the vey fact that the two presidents were talking, even through an intermediary, suggested that the US and Iran could still sit down and negotiate an arrangement that was good enough for both parties.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani at a cabinet meeting in Tehran, March 4, 2020.

Reuters


Diplomacy is a central ingredient of statecraft. But when diplomacy is shunted aside as secondary or treated as a concession in its own right, the probability of reaching an agreement goes down exponentially.

Instead of working toward an agreement that is good enough for US interests, the administration has doubled down on an all-sticks, no-carrot approach against Tehran that is simply not working. The story will likely be the same no matter how many Iranian oil vessels the US seizes or how much sabotage is deployed.

There is only one plausible option to salvage this situation: The US needs to correct its previous mistake and reemphasize the diplomatic track.

Such a decision will be hard for the current administration to swallow. Critics have used legitimate complaints about the Iran deal, such as its sunset provisions on certain Iranian nuclear activities, to discredit the diplomatic option entirely.

But the blunt truth is that no diplomatic agreement is perfect. If US negotiators insisted on the perfect during their years-long negotiation with Iran, it is conceivable that no agreement would have been signed in the first place.

Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz, Secretary of State John Kerry, and others with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in Vienna, June 28, 2015.

Thomson Reuters


Diplomacy has managed to provide the outside world with unprecedented access into Iran’s nuclear program, which Tehran rejected years earlier. IAEA inspectors are now empowered to verify Tehran’s technical compliance with the accord at any time. More importantly, negotiations offered the US and Iran an off-ramp to what could have very well been a military confrontation neither country wanted.

By recalibrating toward unconditional diplomacy and shifting to more realistic goals, the US can eliminate a source of potential conflict with Iran, a mid-sized power already checked by its regional neighbors.

Building trust or arriving at an agreement would be time-consuming and vulnerable to breakdowns. But non-diplomatic options have proven to be ineffective over the long-term, persuading the Iranian government that talking with Washington is a trick.

A degree of trust and decorum will need to be reestablished between Washington and Tehran. Small, calibrated actions such as US sanctions relief will need to be coordinated with small Iranian concessions on the nuclear program. Maximalism must make room for compromise.

With US-Iran relations in such bad shape, the primary objective is to avoid another war in the Middle East. Pragmatic negotiations are the most effective way to succeed in that endeavor. Over time, space may open for both powers to explore a more significant deal on a wider range of disputes.

Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a columnist at the Washington Examiner.

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