Trump says he wants diplomacy with Iran. Here's how he can start.
Tehran has every reason not to trust the president
Half a day after an Iranian missile strike on U.S. bases in Iraq, President Trump took the off-ramp from war that Tehran's casualty-free retaliation offered. "Iran appears to be standing down, which is a good thing for all parties concerned, and a good thing for the world," he said in a brief address from the White House.
This is wonderful news. So too are Trump's diplomatic overtures toward Iran, his call for a new "deal with Iran that makes the world a safer and more peaceful place."
Unfortunately, it is wildly premature to anticipate real diplomatic progress coming from this invitation to replace the nuclear deal Trump himself gutted in 2018. Indeed, Trump's Wednesday speech itself made clear he has no idea how to get to the new agreement he seeks: He pledged to redouble the very hardline policies that have for months undermined any movement toward productive talks.
The Trump administration's policy toward Iran is dubbed "maximum pressure," and it has three primary components. First is Trump's withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which without the participation of the United States becomes all take, no give.
Second is the re-imposition of sanctions the deal had removed, sanctions that — as sanctions too often do — accomplish more in the torment of the Iranian public than in coercion of their leaders. Part of Trump's Wednesday remarks was an announcement of "additional punishing economic sanctions."
Third is escalation of the United States' military activity in the Middle East, including deploying several thousand American troops to protect Saudi Arabia, Iran's political and religious rival; maintaining a troops presence in Iraq "to watch" Iran; and, now, the assassination of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani.
In the administration's narrative, maximum pressure is a straight ticket to a new Iran deal. It will "force the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to the negotiating table to conclude a comprehensive and enduring deal," Secretary of State Mike Pompeo claimed in an August op-ed promising the next agreement will go well beyond JCPOA's intentionally limited attention to nuclear weapons development. This one, he said, will also address Iran's "ballistic missile development and proliferation, its support for terrorist groups and proxies, and its treatment and illegal detention of U.S. citizens."
That assertion is not borne out by recent history. Maximum pressure has not bent Tehran to Washington's will. It has not reined in the regime's behavior. It has made diplomacy more difficult and a viable deal less likely.
Contrary Trump's Wednesday claim that "Iran's hostility substantially increased after the foolish nuclear deal was signed in 2013" (it was 2015, for the record), Tehran was in compliance with the nuclear deal before Trump's decision to renege, as independent observers verified. Iran's rising tally of provocations began not after the deal was signed but after Trump broke it — and Pompeo himself accidentally admitted as much in September, telling reporters Iran's unsavory behaviors were a "direct result" of "the president's strategy."
For Iran, unlike for the United States, this conflict is existential, which means Tehran won't be cowed into giving Trump something for nothing, no matter how maximum the pressure or how big our missiles. Think about it: Iran made and kept a deal with the United States. Trump withdrew from the deal, spun lies about its content and Iran's actions, hit Iran with economic and military attacks, and now expects to be viewed as a good-faith negotiating partner pursuing a broader slate of concessions from Iran. This is utterly fantastical.
Still, as a practice of living in hope, if nothing else, it is worth asking what might make successful U.S.-Iran diplomacy conceivable. What could Trump do to show he's serious? What would make him more trustworthy?
The first and most obvious step is to withdraw all U.S. military presence from Iraq immediately. Withdrawal would take American forces out of harm's way should Iran or Iran-linked Iraqi militia groups conduct further retaliation for the Soleimani strike, and it would respect Iraq's wishes, possibly quelling some anti-American sentiment. Most importantly, leaving Iraq would give Iran a sign Trump is committed to achieving peace. (American exit from Afghanistan, also Iran's neighbor and the site of another failed U.S. military intervention, wouldn't hurt either.)
Ousting Pompeo, or pushing him to make that Senate run he's considering, would be prudent as well. A tweet to Trump from the Iranian regime early Wednesday told him to stop "listen[ing] to that clown, Pompeo" if he wants a new deal. This is good advice for U.S. foreign policy generally, as Pompeo, like so many of the president's hawkish advisers, is a malicious influence on Trump, encouraging his militarism and suppressing his better impulses toward diplomacy.
Also important is assuring Iran of the durability of any new agreement. During talks, this means no repeats of Trump's October shenanigans at the United Nations, which blew up a tentative four-point deal between Washington and Tehran that had been brokered by Paris. For the final product, it means a binding treaty, duly approved by the Senate, that the next president cannot unilaterally toss out as Trump discarded JCPOA. Tehran is right to be wary of signing another deal on the strength of executive action alone.
Even with all this, I'd be surprised if Iran were willing to sign a new agreement with this administration. Trump backed away from open war, but the trend line of his dealings with Iran shows a pattern of escalation, dishonesty, and threats. He has a long way to go to make his call for talks more than talk.
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