An Iran memo to Trump

By Ariane Tabatabai, January 17, 2017

This week marks one year since the Iran nuclear deal took effect—and will see the inauguration of a US president who, during his election campaign, threatened to rip it apart. Fortunately, a wholesale rejection of the agreement by the new administration now seems unlikely, with former critics advocating for implementation to continue. The Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Bob Corker, once a vocal opponent of the deal, recently joined a chorus of voices to warn that the United States should maintain it, rightly noting that removing it would create a crisis for the incoming administration. Since President-elect Donald Trump was always vague on the details of his Iran policy, we can hope that he’ll follow the lead of other Republicans like Corker.

But simply refraining from unilateral withdrawal is not enough. The Iran nuclear agreement—the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA for short—ended some sanctions in exchange for Tehran limiting its nuclear activities. It does have its shortcomings, like a sunset clause that will allow key provisions to expire, and a lack of any limits on Iranian missile delivery vehicles. But, while it remains controversial in both Tehran and Washington, it also remains the only realistic and verifiable option to stop Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. It curtails those parts of the nuclear fuel cycle that could be used for weaponization, and does so under the most intrusive monitoring regime any country has ever agreed to. And it is supported not only by the international community in general and other parties to the deal (China, France, Germany, Great Britain, and Russia), but also by important US allies in the Middle East, including the Gulf Arab states and Israel’s security establishment. The agreement has also paved the way for more engagement on nuclear safety and security between Iran and the European Union, and helped disturb the Russian quasi-monopoly over supplying Iran’s nuclear program, opening the door to other vendors. This is positive both for Iran, which has wanted to diversify its suppliers for a while, and for the international community, which gains more access to the Iranian nuclear program and ways to ensure its safety and security. In short, the agreement is still the best way to ensure that Iran doesn’t acquire a nuclear weapon, while allowing the country to restore its economy and regain its place among the community of nations.

The US president-elect should not only maintain the JCPOA, but also strengthen it. This would allow the United States to maintain its hard-earned credibility, putting the burden on Tehran to stick to its end of the deal. Should Iran cheat, the United States would then have the support of the international community to impose more sanctions. To not only preserve but also reinforce the deal, the president-elect needs to take a number of steps.

First, the incoming administration should shelter the nuclear deal from efforts to undermine it, just as the Obama administration has done. This means clearly communicating Washington’s intent to uphold its side of the bargain, refraining from policies that would violate the agreement, and making sure Congress doesn’t pass any schemes to torpedo it either.

Second, Trump must make a clear statement that the United States will remain vigilant and ready to stand with its allies to counter any undesirable Iranian activities that violate the agreement. This is an easy way to reassure the international community that the United States remains a reliable negotiating partner and a leader in nuclear nonproliferation. It also helps allay fears in the business community that Iran isn’t a fully open and sustainable market, which can lead businesses to avoid it altogether for fear of losing money.

Third, while Trump hasn’t shown himself to be a big fan of institutional continuity, in this case it’s important that he draw on existing relationships and knowledge of Iran within the US government, and preserve the existing channels of communication between Washington and Tehran. This will prevent misperceptions from leading to miscalculations, and help mitigate threats and deescalate crises. Trump’s choice for secretary of state, former Exxon Mobil Chief Executive Rex Tillerson, is in a good position to pick up where his predecessor John Kerry left off, keeping channels open to resolve issues quickly and peacefully. Tillerson has a track record of engaging US adversaries, like Russia, and is more pragmatic and business-oriented than ideologically inclined.

Fourth, Trump would benefit from bringing into his circle Iran experts who understand the country’s complexities, who can help craft a pragmatic approach to Tehran. Unfortunately, aside from Tillerson, the president-elect has surrounded himself with Iran hawks whose views aren’t grounded in today’s political reality, but ideological opposition that doesn’t serve US interests. That’s true both of his more controversial picks, like Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, the president-elect’s choice for national security advisor, and also Gen. James Mattis, nominee for secretary of defense, an intellectual warrior well-versed in security matters. Mattis famously said that the three gravest US national security threats are “Iran, Iran, and Iran,” while Flynn has been known to spread conspiracy theories, like positing that Tehran was involved in the 2012 US embassy attacks in Benghazi, Libya.

Various branches of the US government frequently do draw on outside expertise, including from academia and think tanks. But this engagement can only be effective if the administration is open to hearing from experts with views that may diverge from the common wisdom among Trump officials.

Last, the United States should continue to work with its European partners to engage Iran beyond just the nuclear issue. The European Union has used the momentum created by the nuclear agreement to open discussions with Iran on a variety of issues, including human rights and regional security. These subjects are also important to US national security, interests, and values. Trump has a window of opportunity to open discussions with Iran on these fronts while pro-engagement leaders are in control in the European capitals and Tehran. In particular, EU High Commissioner Federica Mogherini enjoys decent relations with her Iranian counterpart, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, and his colleagues, and is respected by many Iranian officials. Importantly, she has demonstrated a willingness and ability to engage not just with Iran’s moderates but also with its conservatives. The Trump administration can draw on these ties.

The president-elect’s rhetoric and actions indicate that he will disrupt the business-as-usual approach to US foreign policy that has dominated Washington for decades. In the case of Iran, this could be a good thing if Trump chooses to maintain and build on the JCPOA, opening the door to more engagement. The United States does not, cannot, and should not see eye to eye with Iran on everything. But it can reframe its Iran policy to be more nuanced, allowing it to work with Tehran in the many areas where doing so fits US interests, and to engage with and if needed counter Iran elsewhere. The monolithic Iran policy that Washington national security elites have embraced for decades has failed to either engage or counter effectively.  

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