Restarting negotiations with Iran

By Lawrence J. Korb, July 31, 2019

In trying to defuse the increasingly dangerous situation in the Persian Gulf region, which could lead to an inadvertent or accidental conflict between the United States and Iran, it is incumbent upon the United States to take the lead. Not only is it the leading global power; it is primarily responsible for creating this dangerous situation by withdrawing from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (aka the JCPOA and the Iran nuclear deal) in 2018.  Moreover, given the other threats that the United States faces from its strategic competitors, Russia and China, it has a great deal to lose by becoming embroiled in another Middle East conflict—particularly this conflict, which would make the war with Iraq really look like a cakewalk.

The US decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal in May 2018 was based on two complaints. First, the Trump administration criticized parts of the JCPOA that put expiration dates or sunset provisions on some of the limitations on the Iranian nuclear program. Second, the administration complained, the deal did not address or alter Iranian behavior in other domains, including its ballistic missile program and support for subversive groups in the region. As Secretary of State Pompeo said, the JCPOA “did not fundamentally alter Iranian foreign policy in ways that suit the interests of America and its Middle East allies.”

If the United States had applied these criteria to its arms control agreements with the Soviet Union and Russia, there would never have been any agreements between the two nuclear super powers. For example, New START, which places limits on the deployed arsenals and delivery systems of Russian and the United States, expires in 2021 and can be extended only for another five years, something the Russians have offered to do but has not yet been accepted by the Trump administration. That’s to say, New START has sunset provisions, just like the JCPOA. Similarly, US arms agreements with the former Soviet Union, like the ABM treaty or the first Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT I), did not require the Soviet Union to alter its foreign policy to suit the interest of the US and its allies—that is, to give up control of their eastern European satellite countries or stop supporting communist regimes in North Vietnam or North Korea.

Not only did the United States withdraw from the JCPOA and reimpose US sanctions, but as of May of this year, against the advice of the State Department, the United States acted to prevent its major European allies who were signatories to the treaty from continuing to trade with Iran by our control of the global banking system. The Trump administration further compounded the problem by launching a large military buildup in the region, deploying a carrier battle group, an amphibious battle group, bombers and hundreds of personnel to the region.

The president has offered to negotiate without pre-conditions and the Iranians have indicated a willingness to put items like their ballistic missile program on the table. But because it has done so much to create the impasse, the Trump administration should lead the process toward actual negotiations, relaxing some of the sanctions now in place, reinstating the waivers that allowed European allies to buy Iranian oil, and withdrawing some of its military forces.

This American action would allow Iran to come to the table without losing face and would also prevent a war that even the head of the US  Defense Intelligence Agency says, “no one is looking for.”  In addition, it would allow the United States to repair relations with its European allies and allow the US military to focus on more important threats. Finally, in a new round of negotiations with Iran, the United States must realize—as it did with the Soviets and the Russians—that nuclear weapons are a critical threat, and that controlling them is an end in itself, and one that is more important, in the final analysis, than other areas of national security.


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