In May, President Donald Trump pulled United States out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), commonly known as the Iran nuclear deal. In June, he met with North Korean leader Kim Jong UN in Singapore to start denuclearization negotiations with the secretive regime. It is hard to square these two historic yet contradictory foreign policy events unless a war with Iran is in the cards. And it may be.
Formal talks with North Korea to eliminate its nuclear weapons is a wise move, even if realizing that goal will test the diplomatic skill of both sides as well as everyone’s patience. The dueling statements after the recent sit-down between Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and North Korean diplomats are probably indicative of disturbing disconnects to come. Pompeo called the meeting “productive,” adding that “progress had been made.” But “regrettable,” “really disappointing,” and “gangster-like” was the language of the North Korean foreign ministry.
This should not surprise. Tetchy diplomatic exchanges occurred regularly between negotiators when hammering out the JCPOA. But it is smarter for adversarial states to keep talking to work out their differences. If they do not, they will grow increasingly adversarial by not talking to each other. Yet that is road President Trump has taken America on with Iran by exiting out of the JCPOA. It would have been wiser for the President to task the State Department to springboard off the JCPOA to seek through negotiations to try to resolve areas of critical concern between Washington and Tehran that were not within the nuclear deal’s purview. Such talks may not have been any easier in getting to Yes than they were with the JCPOA. But getting to Yes is wiser than going to war. And war it may now be.
History does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme. In October, 1998, regime change in Iraq became official policy of the United States, through a bill that sailed through Congress and was signed into law by President Clinton on October 31 as “The Iraq Liberation Act.” Voila! In the spring of 2003, “Mission Accomplished.” Not.
The U.S. has no official policy toward Iran equivalent to The Iraq Liberation Act, but in 1953 the CIA and MI6 worked together to change the regime in Iran. Sixty-five years later, is this the Trump administration’s unofficial-official policy?
Within two weeks of pulling America out of the JCPOA, President Trump appointed John Bolton, a former U. S. Ambassador to the UN, as his new National Security Advisor. Bolton, a strong and vocal advocate of regime change in Iran, wrote in the New York Times in 2015 that bombing Iran is the only way to stop the development of its nuclear program. “Such action should be … aimed at regime change in Tehran,” he concluded.
In a telling National Review article (August, 2017) titled “How to Get Out of the Iran Deal,” Bolton laid out a detailed, five-page game plan for the kind of spin the White House could use to do that. Bolton, has who called the Iran nuclear deal “execrable,” had been asked in July 2017, by Steve Bannon, then Trump’s chief White House strategist, “to draw up just such a game plan…, which I did,” Bolton wrote in the National Review article. It’s a strategy, he states, “that can be readily expanded to a comprehensive, hundred-page playbook if the administration were to decide to leave the Iran agreement.”
Note the meaning of that carefully crafted sentence. Bolton, who has served at high levels in various presidential administrations, is not saying: here is a just case for pulling out of the agreement. He’s saying: if you [Trump] pull out when Iran is not in material breach, here’s how to spin your decision.
Also strongly critical of Iran is Mike Pompeo. In September, 2015, when he was a Congressman (from Kansas), Pompeo addressed the Heritage Foundation think tank with a topic titled, “A Pathway Forward: An Alternative to the Flawed Iran Nuclear Deal.” On April 26, 2018, four weeks after assuming the office of Secretary of State, and two weeks after President Trump terminated U.S. participation in the JCPOA, Pompeo was warmly welcomed back at the Heritage Foundation, where his topic, “After the Deal: A New Iran Strategy,” includes a string of twelve non-negotiable demands to Tehran, which, if you were that regime, you would see as prelude-to-war talk if all the demands are not met.
Also in the stacked deck are the years of secret talks taking place between the leaders of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s Prime Minister. The goal of these no-longer-secret talks was to form a solid coalition with other Arab Gulf states to combat Iran. That goal was partly held in check for eight years by the foreign policy of the Obama White House. With Donald Trump in the Oval Office that Middle East military alliance against Iran has been strengthened by the Trump family’s long-term friendship with Netanyahu, his withdrawal of America from the JCPOA, and the results of his first official foreign trip, in May 2017, to Saudi Arabia and Israel.
Changing the regime in Iran may not be the only way to square talking to Marshal Un’s regime while refusing to talk to Tehran, but it has an ominous historical rhyme to 1998-2003. As then, today there are many hawks in Congress, and in think tanks and the news media, and influential editorialists, who would support regime change in Iran backed by the U.S. and its allies in the Middle East. Iran would fight it tooth and nail, which could easily lead to direct U.S. military involvement.
And just today, July 23, we awoke to President Trump’s ominous all-caps tweet to Iran’s President Rouhani, “NEVER EVER THREATEN THE UNITED STATES AGAIN OR YOU WILL SUFFER THE CONSEQUENCES THE LIKES OF WHICH FEW THROUGHOUT HISTORY HAVE EVER SUFFERED BEFORE…”. This was in response to what President Rouhani is reported to have said on June 22, at a gathering of Iranian diplomats: “American should know that peace with Iran is the mother of all peace, and war with Iran is the mother of all wars.”
Of course, well known is the long list of Iranian policies and actions in the Middle East that are of critical concern to the U.S., its Middle East allies, and Europe. As far back as the spring of 2003, Tehran itself, with the ayatollah’s imprimatur, formally reached out to the Bush administration to start talks about these issues, which included its nuclear program, cooperation with the U.S. on al Qaeda, leaning on Hezbollah, accepting the Arab League’s Beirut Declaration for a two-state solution, and ending Iranian material support to groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
Team Bush was riding high just then, after the U.S. military toppled Saddam Hussein’s government in a short war, so it would have been an opportune time for talks with Tehran to begin. But in an irrational move that puzzled some of his political allies, President Bush snubbed Iran’s formal diplomatic reach out, and the magnitude to alter U.S. – Iran relations for the better was lost.
The harsh snub gave the hard-line politicians in Tehran opportunity to make Iran’s then President Mohammad Khatami (an Iranian moderate who had been promoting a dialogue of civilizations) look so foolish in Iran that radical hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was elected President in 2005. It wasn’t until another Iranian moderate, Hassan Rouhani, was elected President in 2013, that Tehran got serious again about negotiating with the U.S. about its nuclear program. And it took an American President who was willing and able to do that. What will be the consequences of President Trump’s unwillingness to start talks with Tehran without first making absolute demands of the regime?
Diplomacy and negotiations is not a one-way street. The JCPOA is a flawed agreement (is there any perfect international agreement?), but it was a start, and it left the door open for hammering out a less-flawed nuclear deal, perhaps even a treaty. The JCPOA was also indicative that Tehran, with the ayatollah’s support, was willing to talk about other matters of critical concern. For the U.S. to enter into such talks is not a sign of weakness. Whatever good things could have come out of such talks now seems to have disappeared down the drain.
A war with Iran would likely begin between Iran and Saudi Arabia with its Gulf State allies, who will have intelligence and possibly material help from Israel. Such a war could draw in Israel directly. At that point, and depending on how Israel fared, Israel could, even if as a last resort, ask for direct U.S. intervention in Iran. If so, it seems unlikely that the U.S. would deny its closest Middle East ally a direct war between the U.S. and Iran.
But consider an alternative scenario. On June 8, in its most recent report to the UN, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which spend upwards of 3,000 calendar days a year in Iran sustaining the toughest of inspections, stated that Iran is complying with its commitments. This is also the conclusion, to date, of all other signatories (except the U.S.) to the JCPOA – China, France, Russia, Germany, the United Kingdom, the European Union.
War is not a wise way to solve international disagreements. Talking openly and honestly with Iran to bring that nation further out of the cold is the wiser policy. In the words of the late Israeli military leader turned politician Moshe Dayan: if you want to make peace, you don’t need to talk to you friends; you talk to your enemies.
©2018 by Charles Strohmer
Images: permissions via Creative Commons.
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