The Trump administration’s approach to the Iran deal is problematic as it is taken out of the context of the multiple conflicts raging throughout the Middle East, the extent to which Iran is involved, and the role it can play in resolving them, including the conflicts in Syria, Yemen, Iraq, and Lebanon.
The question is, will Tehran be more cooperative in the search for solutions to these conflicts if the signatories to the Iran deal, especially the US, fully adhere to it, or will Iran add fuel to the regional fires because the deal is terminated by Trump, if Congress fails to reach a drastically different accord?
By all accounts, Iran continues to fully adhere to all the provisions of the deal. The irony is that when the US finally makes a deal after years of mutually intense enmity following the 1979 Iranian Revolution, it reneges on it, which only reinforces the Iranians’ belief that the US cannot be trusted and is still committed to regime change.
Although the deal was limited to Iran’s pursuit of a weaponized nuclear program, it offers opportunities to build on it in the search for solutions to the regional conflicts, especially Iran’s continuing transgressions. Trump’s reckless decision will take away any incentive that could entice Iran to be a positive regional player.
I am not condoning Iran’s reprehensible behavior. I condemn in the strongest terms its support of violent extremists and terrorist organizations; I condemn it for being one of the most vicious culprits behind Syria’s tragic civil war, and its ruthless support of the Houthis in Yemen, the Shiite insurgents in Iraq, and Hezbollah in Lebanon.
That said, Iran cannot simply be dismissed as if it were irrelevant to the unfolding tragic events in the region, which cannot be resolved without Iran’s full participation.
Those who deal with Iran will do well to remember that there is a psychological dimension to Iran’s behavior. Iran is a major Middle Eastern power; it is a proud nation with a rich, millennia-long history and huge human and natural resources, enjoying a critical geostrategic position and importance unmatched by any other country in the region.
This of course does not excuse Iran’s behavior, but given its deeply-rooted national pride, it does not respond well to intimidation and threats. Now that Iran is in full compliance with the deal that was negotiated in good faith by the Obama administration, Tehran enhanced its credibility and stature in the eyes of the international community.
Sadly, the same cannot be said about the Trump administration.
Why should Tehran agree to renegotiate the deal when the EU, Russia, and China remain committed to it as it stands? Last Monday the European Union backed the accord, saying that “The EU is committed to the continued full and effective implementation of all parts of the [agreement]” because it is working and is a key-part of nuclear non-proliferation efforts. Risking the Iran deal will isolate the US rather than Iran because the US is the party who is violating the spirit and letter of the agreement.
The likelihood that Congress would modify the agreement to make it palatable to Trump is extremely slim and will open the door for Iran to back out of the deal and resume its development of its nuclear program, which will inevitably lead to the proliferation of nuclear weapons.
If Trump is true to his word and terminates the deal completely, it would trigger the re-imposition of sanctions against the will of our European allies, which will only widen their rift with the US as they are determined not to follow Trump’s misguided and incongruous policy.
For a president who is naïve about foreign relations and the implications of terminating the deal to refuse to listen to the advice of his national security team (including Defense Secretary Mattis) that the deal serves US national security interests is astonishing.
Instead, Trump is listening to Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu, who is ignoring the fact that once the deal is terminated Iran will be free to resume its nuclear program, which could potentially pose a serious threat to Israel’s national security that he wants to prevent. Moreover, he looks at Iran through the narrowest of lenses, as if Tehran responds only to the language of force and sanctions, which is beyond the pale of idiocy.
Even if Iran is determined to acquire nuclear weapons somewhere down the line, which should not be overruled, to suggest that its intention is to destroy Israel or any other US ally in the region is absurd. Tehran is deliberate, careful, and rational; it knows that once it embarks on developing nuclear weapons, Israel, the US, or both will use any means (including military force) to prevent it from achieving its goal. Indeed, however hardline Iran might be, the regime is not suicidal.
Any modification to the deal should first be attempted through diplomatic channels. That is, if the purpose is to prevent Iran from pursuing a weaponized nuclear program once the current deal expires, then why not engage Iran now in quiet diplomacy (notwithstanding its vocal public opposition) and gauge where it really stands and what sort of quid pro quo Tehran would seek to modify the agreement.
To be sure, in the search for a solution to the conflict with Tehran, the US must seek areas where there is mutuality of interests that serve both sides well. The raging conflicts in the Middle East provide opportunities to work with Iran to bring an end to the civil war in Syria, to mitigate the conflict in Yemen, and even cooperate on addressing violent extremism and radicalization. Yes, Iran does seek regional hegemony, but as long as it is treated with respect and feels assured that the US is not seeking regime change now or at any time in the future, it would tamper its ambitions.
Trump’s thoughtless and damaging campaign promise to tear up the Iran deal on his first day in office did nothing but embarrass the US, rather than demonstrate what he foolishly keeps repeating—that the deal itself was the worst deal the US has ever made.
If Republican Senators and House members have any spine left, they should stop behaving like a cult that blindly follows a blind leader and pass a bill that would prevent Trump from terminating the deal, similar to the one they passed that usurped from Trump the power to lift the sanctions on Russia by executive order.
Congress may be able to modify the deal, but losing the support of our allies – who are determined to keep the deal in place and refuse to reimpose the sanctions on Iran – would be the greatest embarrassment to what’s left of America’s leadership.
Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is a professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches courses on international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies.