By Daniel DePetris
What does a U.S. administration do with Iran, a country that is complying with one of the most significant nuclear agreements since the Cold War, but remains a sponsor of international terrorism and a patron of the worst mass murderer this century? That’s the conundrum the Trump administration, like the Obama administration before it, will have to find a way out of. Like all the problems in the Middle East, there is not an easy, black-and-white solution.
At its core, the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, otherwise known as the “Iran deal”) is a transnational agreement among the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council—the U.S., U.K., France, China, and Russia—Germany, the E.U., and Iran.
It’s no secret Washington and Tehran are two adversaries that view each another with hostility, mistrust, and cynicism. The hope and idealism of the Obama administration—that the nuclear deal would slowly chip away at the Ayatollahs’ grip, paving the way for a new era of detente between Washington and Tehran—has proven to be vastly overstated. Indeed, over a year since the JCPOA has been in effect, U.S.-Iran relations remain dominated by increasingly threatening rhetoric.
No realist expected anything else. Except for combatting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, Iran’s interests in the region have been at odds with those pursued by the United States for decades.
Iran, a country surrounded by hostile neighbors, is wholly invested in ensuring its proxies in the Arab world are up and running. The U.S. and its Arab allies are devoting military and intelligence resources to weakening those same proxies. The dynamic is a scaled-down version of how the U.S. confronted the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
In Syria, Washington sees a brutal dictator who disregards the human rights of innocent citizens. Tehran sees in Bashar al-Assad the only man willing to subjugate the interests of the Syrian people to those of Iran, which includes allowing the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps to stage on Syrian territory and using Syria as a bridgehead to its Lebanese Hezbollah proxy.
In Afghanistan, Washington desires an end-state where the Afghan government not only holds a monopoly on violence, but one that is happy to provide U.S. counterterrorism forces with a permanent presence in Central Asia. Iranian officials look at Afghanistan and see an easy opportunity to make the lives of the U.S. and its NATO partners more difficult, which is likely one reason why the IRGC has been funneling cash and weapons to the Taliban insurgency for years.
In Yemen, the United States, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates want a pliant regime that is relatively friendly to the west. Tehran has a completely different idea for the country, an area that is a perfect opportunity to keep Saudi Arabia off balance in its own backyard.
With these differences, is there any question why U.S. and Iranian politicians haven’t clasped hands in matrimony?
So what is the Trump administration to do given our situation?
The White House is still trying to figure that out—and to their credit, they should take the time to do so. But throughout their review, the administration needs to keep several things in mind.
First and foremost, there is no question the agreement leaves much to be desired. The restrictions on Tehran’s enrichment capability, for example, are only short-term. After 15 years, Iran is free to industrialize their nuclear infrastructure, a point that isn’t lost on the Israelis or the Saudis.
President Obama should have briefed congressional leaders on the negotiations and sought their input, and he should have submitted the deal for ratification by the Senate as a treaty rather than an executive agreement. If it weren’t for Sen. Bob Corker’s legislation mandating a review procedure, Congress would have been an irrelevant bystander, forced to swallow what the White House negotiated without any public debate or vote whatsoever.
Instead, Obama kept Congress largely in the dark, treating the institution as a chattering box rather than an actual player in the negotiations. And we’re only now learning more about the tradeoffs were made and swept under the rug to ensure that the agreement wasn’t second-guessed, such as the release of several nuclear and missile proliferators from U.S. custody (over Department of Justice objections).
Yet however insufficient the nuclear deal is, the Trump administration seems to understand the JCPOA framework is the best tool available to slow down Iran’s nuclear programs, a fact confirmed on numerous occasions by the IAEA: Iran’s uranium enrichment, plutonium, and centrifuge capability are at their lowest point in years.
Second, the Trump administration should be under no illusions that democracy is soon coming to the Iranian political system or that a new Iranian president will pop up one day and attempt to align Iran with the U.S. As much as we in the west would like to believe that democracy is just around the corner, there is no evidence Iran’s current political system is under the threat of buckling.
At the same time, the administration shouldn’t assume that U.S. and Iranian officials are inherently antagonistic on all issues. There may come a time when the interests of one issue or another coincide, and it will be up to the White House to seize an opportunity to explore further discussions when the situation calls for it. Being flexible to openings that may appear is as important as penalizing Iran for violating the sovereignty of its neighbors or breaking U.N. Security Council resolutions. As a seasoned negotiator, President Trump understands this, so he should allow wiggle-room for his advisers to determine whether a tactical arrangement can be made if it is in the U.S. interest to do so.
The Iran hawks who have a strong and influential presence in the Washington foreign policy establishment won’t like this advice—but good statecraft depends on pragmatism, not on moral superiority.
The U.S. is best served when sober analysis (dealing with the world as it is, not as we wish it were) drives our strategy. When America brings all our tools of statecraft to bear—our economic, diplomatic, and, if necessary, our military power—we can achieve strategic outcomes that serve the national interest, something the prevailing left-right consensus in Washington hasn’t delivered in decades.
Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities.
This piece was originally published by The Washington Examiner on May 2, 2017. Read more HERE.