For the past 40 years, the United States and Iran have had a hostile relationship interrupted by brief periods of cooperation. The 2015 nuclear deal was the high point of relations and the product of intense, acknowledged bilateral as well as multilateral diplomacy. That agreement is now in jeopardy because of unilateral US action that could put our two countries on a path to war.
It is hard to understand the reasoning of the Trump administration in walking out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The agreement, while imperfect, provided a reliable means of insuring that Iran could not develop sufficient material for a single nuclear weapon until 2030. Iran was fully complying with its obligations, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency.
It is true that Iran did not alter its other policies, particularly regarding regional intervention. But to blame Iran alone for regional conflict would ignore the role of the United States in destabilizing the region through the 2003 Iraq invasion, which opened the door to the expansion of Iranian influence. And while Iran must take responsibility for supporting groups that have fomented sectarianism in the region, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Russia, and Turkey have also been malign actors. The Saudi-UAE intervention in Yemen, backed by the United States, has created the world’s worst ongoing humanitarian disaster.
While the JCPOA did not address these issues, it created a channel for further diplomacy and could have been the basis for conflict-resolution in the Middle East. The Trump administration, however, has now forfeited a seat at the table and left it to the European Union, Russia, and China to try to pick up the pieces.
It remains to be seen whether Iran will continue to abide by the nuclear agreement. At present, the EU is scrambling to come up with a package that will provide sufficient economic incentives for Iran to stay in the deal. China and other Asian countries will also be key, as the main purchasers of Iranian oil. Iran is also watching US politics carefully and knows that President Trump is vulnerable given the various investigations into his conduct before and after inauguration and the upcoming midterm elections, which may deprive him of control in Congress.
For years, it has been the case that while their government spouts anti-American rhetoric, ordinary Iranians have been among the most pro-American people in the Middle East.
Should Iran withdraw, however, it could put us on a path to war. It will be difficult to verify Iran’s nuclear activities in the absence of IAEA inspectors, and suspicions will undoubtedly mount that Iran is close to building nuclear weapons. Given the bellicose nature of many Trump advisors – including ‘bomb Iran’ advocate John Bolton – the temptation to attack Iran’s facilities would mount.
The consequences of such an attack would be awful:
- Remaining US military and diplomatic personnel in the region would be vulnerable to retaliation from Iranian proxies.
- The price of oil – already rising because of the US withdrawal from the JCPOA – would skyrocket, threatening global economies with recession.
- The United States would be even more isolated internationally than it was during the 2003 Iraq invasion.
- Chances to resolve conflicts in Yemen and Syria would disappear and Iraq would also likely becoming increasingly unstable.
- The likelihood of a negotiated end to North Korea’s nuclear program—whatever substance the off-again, on-again summit may have—would also be significantly reduced.
There is also the impact a US attack would have on the Iranian people’s view of the United States. For years, it has been the case that while their government spouts anti-American rhetoric, ordinary Iranians have been among the most pro-American people in the Middle East. After the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, for example, Iran was the only Muslim-majority country where people came out to demonstrate in sympathy with the US victims. That goodwill is priceless and could be completely squandered by an administration that has already alienated many ordinary Iranians by invoking travel bans and “extreme vetting” of those seeking to visit the United States.
If a US president can sit down with a figure such as Kim Jong-un, there is no reason why US officials cannot meet with their Iranian counterparts from a position of a mutual respect.
Through its hostility to the Iranian regime, the Trump administration is making Iran more dependent on its security ties with Russia and its economic relations with China and India. It is hard to see how this is in US short- or long-term interests. The US is simultaneously undermining sanctions as a tool of diplomacy and the dollar as the world’s reserve currency.
Well-informed Americans should lobby their elected representatives to convince the White House to return to the JCPOA and not threaten our closest allies with sanctions for conducting legitimate business with Iran. US diplomats should re-engage with their Iranian counterparts to discuss issues of mutual concern instead of issuing lists of “demands” that no sovereign government would ever accept.
It will be difficult to undo the damage the Trump administration has done, but it is not impossible. If a US president can sit down with a figure such as Kim Jong-un, there is no reason why US officials cannot meet with their Iranian counterparts from a position of a mutual respect. While success is not assured, no other means will achieve our stated goals.
Senior Editor’s Note: Unbound requested this article due to the importance of the Iran agreement, both on its own merits (as Barbara Slavin describes) and as a matter of the overall moral purpose of diplomacy. Even without outright war, breaking deals like the JCPOA risks increasing nuclear proliferation by indicating that the US chooses force and disregards human rights. Ms. Slavin suggests that other sometime allies of the US have done “malign” things in the region, and some may arguably pose worse threats than Iran. She also notes that, though its focus was nuclear, JCPOA opened toward negotiation on other topics.
In addition, as the Stated Clerk noted in his letter, Saudi Arabia and Israel are both fierce enemies of Iran and opponents of JCPOA. As we write, the Israeli Prime Minister is in Europe seeking to weaken European commitments to stay with the agreement. Israel’s current government has been increasing its support for fundamentalist Jewish exclusivism and extremism. Saudi Arabia has funded fundamentalist religious schools and organizations across the region, some of which have been associated with terrorism. In contrast, the Iran nuclear deal represented momentum for the moderates in its society, rather than “hard-liners.” Breaking that deal is a step backward in inter-religious as well as international relations.
Author Bio: Barbara Slavin is Director of the Future of Iran Initiative of the Atlantic Council. As a journalist she has served in numerous positions at different media outlets, including as assistant managing editor for world and national security of The Washington Times, senior diplomatic reporter for USA TODAY and Cairo correspondent for The Economist. Slavin has covered a wide range of issues related to the Middle East and US foreign policy and is the author of Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies: Iran, the US and the Twisted Path to Confrontation (2007).