Dr. Trita Parsi is the founder of the National Iranian American Council and an expert on US-Iranian relations, Iranian foreign politics, and the geopolitics of the Middle East. Parsi is the 2010 recipient of the Grawemeyer Award for Ideas Improving World Order. He is an award-wining author of two books, Treacherous Alliance - The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran and the US (Yale University Press, 2007) and A Single Roll of the Dice - Obama's Diplomacy with Iran (Yale University Press, 2012). Treacherous Alliance won the Council of Foreign Relations Arthur Ross Award in 2008 (Silver medallion). A Single Roll of the Dice was selected as The Best Book on The Middle East in 2012 by Foreign Affairs. Parsi currently teaches at the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University in Washington, DC. He tweets at @tparsi.
There is something tragic about Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The harder he tries, the more he fails. That has been the case with many of his attempts to sabotage diplomacy with Iran and push the US to take military action against the country. And that was certainly the case with his underwhelming powerpoint presentation Monday. What was supposed to be a smoking gun to once and for all nix the Iran nuclear deal, inadvertently made a powerful case as to why the the deal must remain in place.
The Israeli government had promised “significant new revelations” about the nuclear program. Yet Netanyahu offered nothing new. The bulk of his presentation focused on what the world already knew: That between 1999 and 2003, Iran had engaged in activities with possible military dimensions.
As I describe in Losing an Enemy: Obama, Iran and the Triumph of Diplomacy, these past Iranian activities constituted a tricky dilemma during the nuclear talks. If it was revealed that the Iranians had indeed engaged in illegal military research, that could jeopardize the entire agreement, as voices would be raised to have it punished for its past violations. Completely disregarding it without allowing the IAEA to complete its investigation—which the Iranians had not been cooperating with—was also not an option. What it came down to was a choice between punishment for Iran’s past violations and guarantees that those violations would never be repeated in the future.
The obvious choice for Obama was the latter: punishing Iran for its past errors was of little value if punishment came at the expense of a deal that would prevent Iran from building a bomb. Politically, however, this choice was feasible only if the IAEA could complete its investigation—with the cooperation of the Iranians—to make a final judgment on the issue and close the file. The P5+1 needed neither an admission of guilt nor a guilty verdict; they just needed Iran’s cooperation to complete the investigation.
The Iranians feared that giving the IAEA more access would only lead to more demands and investigations. To Iran, it was critical that any investigation would be time-limited, so it couldn’t drag on indefinitely, and delinked from the sanctions relief process, so that the decision to lift sanctions couldn’t be held hostage to the PMD investigation.
Eventually, a compromise was reached in which the Iranians would make their documents accessible and their scientists available for interviews for the purposes of producing a time-limited report that would contain both the IAEA’s assessments and Iran’s responses and contributions. The report would essentially include two narratives, which meant that there wouldn’t be an authoritative judgment. More importantly, the sanctions relief process would be linked to the completion of the IAEA investigation and not its conclusion. That is, the IAEA would have to report only that Iran had cooperated with the investigation and that the IAEA’s questions were answered in order for the green light for sanctions reform to be lit.
On July, 2015, the head of the IAEA flew to Tehran and concluded a final agreement that established a timeline for resolving the question of Iran’s past activities whereby Iran would turn over all information requested by the IAEA, and the IAEA would provide its final assessment by December 15 of that year.
The IAEA issued its report on December 2, 2015 concluding that Iran had pursued a nuclear weapons program prior to 2003, but that this organized program ended that year and that there was no evidence that any undeclared activities had taken place since 2009.
Following the report, the 35-member IAEA Board of Governors voted unanimously to conclude the investigation into Iran’s past weaponization work. The case was officially closed.
Now, without presenting any new information – and without even attempting to claim that Iran’s undeclared activities had continued beyond 2009 or 2015 – Bibi wants to convince the world that he has discovered something new.
As one former IAEA official publicly commented: “I just saw a lot of pictures I had seen before.”
Iran’s past military activities is precisely why the JCPOA is needed: The deal significantly limited Iran’s program and closed off all of Tehran’s pathways to a bomb. And thanks to the inspections regime, Iran cannot engage in any such clandestine activities without getting caught.
All of these restrictions, limitations and inspections will be lost if Donald Trump follows Netanyahu’s advice and kills the deal on May 12.
And therein lies the tragedy of Netanyahu.
By helping to kill the Iran deal doing so, Netanyahu may advance his own political interest, but only by undermining that of Israel. Bibi may consider himself the biggest political winner of the Iran deal’s collapse. Yet, Israel will count among some of the biggest losers of this diplomatic travesty.
It was not even a month ago that Donald Trump signaled that he wanted to get U.S. troops out of Syria. “I want to get out. I want to bring our troops back home,” he said at a press conference. Two weeks later, Trump ordered missile attacks against the country. And now his UN ambassador says that the U.S. presence in Syria will remain indefinitely. What changed?
The official story, of course, is the latest chemical attack attributed to the Bashar al-Assad regime that left dozens dead, including many children. Motivated by a principled desire to uphold the international norm against the use of chemical weapons, Trump was compelled to act—even if it contradicted his stated desire to leave Syria.
Although this explanation is convenient and will win praise from the US foreign policy elite and the media, it is less than convincing. Trump cares about neither the Syrian people—the US has only admitted 11 Syrian refugees this year due to his Muslim Ban—nor international principles. Between Trump’s previous missile attack in Syria in April 2017 and the attack this month, chemical weapons were used at least six times in Syria, none of which prompted any major response from Trump or any concern for upholding the principle against these weapons. Indeed, Trump only recently learned about these principles and appears to be befuddled by them. He shocked his advisors during the 2016 campaign when he asked why the United States can’t use nuclear weapons.
Trump hinted at another, perhaps more plausible explanation (beyond his desire to deflect from his domestic crises) during his White House presser. After first appearing to suggest that continuation of the war did not serve US interest—Trump complained that $7 trillion and 17 years later, the US only had “except death and destruction” to show for it—he quickly opened the door for another, less principled, path.
“Saudi Arabia is very interested in our decision, and I said, ‘Well, you know, you want us to stay, maybe you’re going to have to pay,’” he proclaimed.
In the words of former Secretary of Defense Bob Gates, the Saudis want to “fight the Iranians to the last American,” and in Trump they have found a president who has indicated his willingness to rent out the American military. This explanation is further made plausible by UN Ambassador Nikki Haley’s claim that the US will now stay in Syria partly to “maintaining the ability to watch Iran”—a motivation Trump dismissed only two weeks ago.
Herein lies the real problem with Trump’s new policy. Should the U.S. stay in or leave Syria simply because the House of Saud is willing to foot the bill? Should the commander in chief’s decision to put American service men and women in harm’s way be dictated by US national interest, or the financial moods wings of Saudi Arabia’s 33-year-old de facto ruler, Mohammed bin Salman?
Trump appears to be completely unaware of the concept of national interest. Foreign policy, like real estate development, is transactional to him. Moreover, if he is making military decisions based on the financial largesse of other states rather than national interest, Trump is in effect turning the U.S. military into a mercenary army. The military, in his mind, appears to be simply another for-profit venture.
If national interest is not the basis for America’s military decisions, then every war will have a price tag and decisions of life and death will be determined by whether a buyer emerges or not.
With this for-profit logic, what is to stop Trump from agreeing to a truly disastrous military move—such as starting war with Iran—if the Saudis simply show up at the White House with enough cash in their briefcases?
Trump is not solely to blame here. The U.S. political system has witnessed an erosion of the interest-based approach to national security. For years, Washington think tanks have been receiving increasing amounts of funding from foreign governments. With that, their analyses appear to have become increasingly sympathetic to those states and their desired shifts in US foreign policy. After all, these states would likely not be spending millions of dollars on think tanks with the expectation of getting nothing in return.
But Trump appears to have taken this to a new level now. His transactional, non-national-interest-based approach to foreign policy is not only putting America at risk, it is also undermining the normative framework for great power interaction.
Security and stability in a complex world with a large number of powerful actors can only be achieved through diplomatic efforts where the major powers negotiate win-win outcomes by recognizing the legitimate interests of all parties. The Iran nuclear deal is a case in point. Several proposals to manage the Syrian conflict through the United Nations have come to naught largely because certain countries have insisted on forcing their demands on an international system that dictates compromise.
Trump’s emphasis on what he terms “America First” is anything but that. Trump’s transactional approach to foreign policy is putting whoever pays the most first—not America—all the while reversing the long-term trend toward management of conflict through international institutions.
The damage Trump is inflicting on U.S. security and global standing may well prove irreparable. If U.S. foreign policy become wholly transactional and the U.S. military is for rent, neither leadership nor security is achievable.
The negotiations leading to the Iran nuclear deal – the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – were painstakingly detailed. Almost every eventuality was identified and planned for – except one: that the American people would elect as president a geopolitical novice hell-bent on erasing the legacy of his predecessor regardless of the implications for US national security.
Now this unforeseen eventuality risks turning a central tenet of Iran’s strategy – to regain the international community’s confidence by fully adhering to the deal – into a liability.
Preparing a Plan B
Throughout the nuclear negotiations, the two sides constantly had to balance two competing interests: the desire to make progress to reach a final deal, which necessitated both avoiding leaks and minimising public posturing, and the necessity of preparing a Plan B that shifted the blame for the possible collapse of the talks to the other side.
The more the two sides invested in the blame game through strategic leaks, the more they undermined the actual diplomacy.
Early on, the Iranians decided on a strategy that would minimise the tension between these two impulses. They would adopt an almost exaggerated optimism about the prospects to reach a deal and portray themselves as utterly reasonable.
This strategy helped improve the atmosphere surrounding the talks, which in turn made a successful outcome more likely. But it also ensured that Iran would have a leg up on the blame game in case the talks collapsed. In short, a win-win for Iran. Once the deal was struck, this strategy continued.
Iran decided to strictly adhere to the agreement in order regain the international community’s confidence, deprive opponents of the agreement of any pretext to kill it, all the while ensuring that Iran would win the blame game if the deal collapsed.
Iran has until this day stuck to this strategy with great discipline and commitment: the International Atomic Energy Agency has to date issued 10 consecutive reports certifying Iran’s complete adherence to the deal.
A false narrative
But going the extra mile on adhering to the deal brought about a consequence Tehran did not anticipate. It created fertile ground for opponents of the JCPOA to build a false narrative claiming Iran simply was desperate to keep the deal.
The dire economic situation in Iran, combined with the Hassan Rouhani government’s lofty economic promises, had left Tehran in such a vulnerable position that it had no choice but to stick to the JCPOA even if the West failed to live up to its obligations. In fact, the US could even afford to pull out of the deal without much consequence, this narrative asserted.
This narrative, pushed by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in his private conversations with European and American counterparts, has further gained traction precisely because the Trump administration has been violating the nuclear accord without facing any specific consequences or much public rebuke from Tehran or Brussels.
The Europeans have avoided calling out Trump for his violations, fearing that it would completely eliminate any chance of saving the deal due to Trump’s thin skin and outsized ego. The Rouhani government, on the other hand, has been hesitant to aggressively shed light on Trump’s violations out of fear that this would only give further ammunition to their hardline rivals in Iran.
Thus, the desire to save the deal by taking the high road gave further oxygen to the narrative that Iran simply was desperate and could not afford to leave the agreement even if the US did so.
The North Korea scenario
This narrative has now created a dilemma for Tehran. On the one hand, there is both political pressure and a strategic rationale for demonstrating the inaccuracy of this narrative by taking strong measures in response to an American pullout. On the other hand, such measures may further aggravate the situation and precipitate an even deeper crisis.
Drastic measures such as exiting not only the JCPOA but the entire nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty were earlier only arguments within Iran’s foreign policy elite, according to a senior Iranian official. Now they are plausible scenarios that are being seriously discussed.
The Iranians have carefully watched the developments with North Korea, which had chosen a different path. Pyongyang neither paid attention to any blame game nor to the international community’s confidence in it or lack thereof. Instead, it escalated its nuclear programme until it forced the United States to the negotiating table.
North Korea tested bombs and ballistic missiles capable of hitting the US mainland. Iran, on the other hand, went to the negotiating table after only having enriched uranium at 20 percent. It had no nuclear weapons nor missiles capable of carrying them.
Now, North Korea appears set on a path towards striking a deal with Trump and getting the recognition it has long sought. Iran, on the other hand, is about to see its nuclear deal collapse because the US has been led to believe that Iran has run out of options.
The thinking in Iran has as a result shifted. A growing number of officials are concluding that building confidence with the international community and upholding its obligation was clearly the reasonable choice for Iran. But it may not be the rational choice going forward.
Trump’s actions are creating a scenario in which Iran is incentivised to push back hard against the US, both to dispel misperceptions of Iranian desperation and to maximise its security against an American president who rewards belligerence and punishes cooperation and compromise.
This is not where the US and Iran should be in 2018.
The nuclear deal with Iran hangs by a thread. The appointment of John Bolton — an unapologetic proponent of war with Iran — as U.S. national security advisor has prompted celebrations among Iran deal detractors. The announcement that nuclear talks with North Korea will be held around the same time that U.S. President Donald Trump must decide whether to keep or kill the Iran deal has further complicated the picture. Yet few in Washington understand how Trump’s gamble with Pyongyang may impact Tehran’s nuclear calculations.
Conventional wisdom declares that Trump would be foolish to kill the Iran deal (formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA) if he genuinely seeks to reach an agreement with the North Koreans. If Trump shows that he does not honor America’s agreements, why would Pyongyang strike a deal with him?
But Trump is anything but conventional. His logic runs in the opposite direction, and Bolton will be more than happy to enable Trump’s worst instincts. By killing the JCPOA, Trump thinks he’ll signal to the North Koreans that they should have no doubt that he is ready to walk away from the talks if he doesn’t get what he wants. After all, walking away from ongoing negotiations is much easier than killing an existing deal.
Trump may know bluster, be he does not know diplomacy. Strong-arming subcontractors may work in the Manhattan real estate market, but it won’t work in international diplomacy. Sovereign states don’t react like jilted architects and electricians.
How will Iran react if Trump pursues this path? For Tehran, the JCPOA was never just about the nuclear issue. It was a test to see if the West could come to terms with the Islamic Republic and accept Iran as a regional power. By testing this proposition, the talks became a defining showdown between the two dominant schools of thought within the Iranian elite.
The first school, dominated by conservative elements in the government and military, argues that the United States — pressured by Israel and Saudi Arabia — is inherently hostile to Iran and will never recognize the country as a regional power or come to terms with its regime, regardless of Iran’s policies or the compromises it offers. The inclusion Tehran seeks can only be achieved by forcing the United States and its allies to accept the reality of Iran’s power. The hard-liners’ skepticism of diplomacy and resistance to compromise is partly rooted in their belief that no Iranian compromise can change Washington’s hostility to Tehran.
Iran’s second, more moderate group of policy-makers recognizes both that the country’s own actions have contributed to infectious conflict and that the United States has legitimate concerns about Iranian policies. An American acceptance of Iran’s inclusion in the regional security architecture can be obtained, they argue, through diplomacy and a genuine give-and-take. If Iran compromises, so will the West, the logic goes.
Up until the nuclear negotiations began in earnest, the debate between these two schools was theoretical. Though Tehran had made many diplomatic overtures in the past, America’s willingness to come to terms with Iran had never been tested through a mutual compromise that both sides had signed on to.
Until, that is, the JCPOA.
The Iran nuclear deal was the first time the United States and Iran had agreed to a significant exchange of concessions that not only eliminated Iran’s pathways to a bomb and lifted sanctions, but also put an end to almost four decades of American efforts to completely isolate Iran. It signaled that America, 36 years after the Iranian revolution, was coming to terms with Iran.
Both sides agreed to painful concessions, both faced fierce domestic political opposition, and both recognized that the agreement signaled a major break with past policies. America was coming to terms with Iran. And the Islamic Republic was speaking of the United States not as the Great Satan, but as a negotiation partner.
It was a major victory for the second school of thought in Iran — at least for the moment.
But increasingly, the JCPOA has become a victory for the hard-liners. Despite Iran’s concessions and its adherence to the deal (confirmed by 10 reports by the International Atomic Energy Agency), Trump, Saudi Arabia, and Israel have clearly rejected Iran’s regional integration under any circumstance. Changes in Iran’s policies proved insufficient, so nothing short of Iran’s complete capitulation can seemingly satisfy Trump’s allies.
This conclusion will be unavoidable in Tehran if Trump kills the JCPOA to make a deal with Pyongyang. It will strengthen the Iranian hard-line narrative that Tehran’s mistake was that it only obtained enrichment capabilities — but not a bomb — before it agreed to seriously negotiate. Had it built a bomb — like the North Koreans — then the United States would have no choice but to show Iran respect, strike a deal with it — and honor that deal. Trump will essentially incentivize Iran to go nuclear.
Ultimately, Trump’s bluster won’t work. He lacks a properly staffed State Department with the capacity to negotiate, and his new national security advisor ideologically opposes diplomacy. By killing the Iran deal to impress Pyongyang, Trump will destroy one functioning arms deal without securing a new one. And in the process, he will tilt the balance in favor of those in Tehran who have argued all along that America only understands the language of force.
Last week’s horrific school shooting reminded us that Donald Trump has made America less safe. While mass shootings predate Trump, he has done something his predecessors did not: domestically, he’s shifted our focus towards immigrants and Muslims as threats, while willfully neglecting the threat posed by racists and rightwing extremists.
Internationally, he’s imposed a Muslim ban that targets citizens of countries with no history of engaging in terrorism on US soil, at the expense of far more accurate predictors of violence.
There were many signs that Nikolas Cruz posed a severe threat. He wrote on social media that he was going to be a professional school shooter. He talked about killing animals. According to his fellow students, he held racist views, degrading black people, Latinos and Muslims.
“[H]e would degrade Islamic people as terrorists and bombers. I’ve seen him wear a Trump hat,” Ocean Parodie, a student at the school, told the Daily Beast.
“He would always talk about how he felt whites were a bit higher than everyone,” another student added.
But despite his classmates predicting that he’d shoot up a school, despite local police paying 39 visits to his house since 2011, and despite the FBI receiving at least two warnings about him, no investigation took place and Cruz could easily buy an arsenal of weapons.
Because Cruz did not match Trump’s definition of a threat: immigrants, African American youth, and Muslims – that is, non-white people.
Neither did the 17-year-old alleged neo-Nazi in Virginia who is charged with killing Scott and Buckley Fricker right before Christmas – parents of my son’s soccer teammate.
The teen’s neighbors said he mowed a swastika about 40ft across into the grass of a community field. They raised the issue with his parents, but they never called the police. A few weeks later, he was charged with murdering Scott and Buckley.
Would the neighbors have called the police had the 17-year-old mowed 40ft Isis logos? Or would they just have complained to his parents? Had the FBI received reports that Cruz was a dangerous Isis sympathizer, would they have failed to investigate?
We may never know. But much indicates that law enforcement would diligently follow up on any tips regarding Isis terrorists for a very simple reason: the political signal is that they are the priority – and everything else is not. It is a signal even ordinary people feel, people who would probably report an Isis sympathiser, but not an alleged neo-Nazi.
This Trumpian signal is not rooted in a neutral threat assessment. Rather, it is itself motivated by politics: Trump apparently considers neo-Nazis, white supremacists and those motivated by racial and cultural anxiety as his constituency. Depicting them as a threat counters his interests while depicting those whom they hate as dangerous serves his agenda. The more immigrants and Muslims are seen as threats, the more America’s racists are compelled to back Trump.
This makes Americans less safe. Not just because it turns Americans against Americans, but because Trump further shifts our focus away from the threat of rightwing extremists and racists even though they are at least as dangerous as Isis extremists. (Between 12 September 2001 and 31 December 2016, far-right elements committed 62 acts of terror, while Islamic extremists committed 23, though the latter group is responsible for more deaths, 119 to 106.)
But Trump is not only jeopardizing America’s security domestically. His Muslim ban follows the same pattern of shifting our focus towards politically convenient threats at the expense of real and existing threats. According to the Cato Institute, citizens of the seven countries included in Trump’s initial ban accounted for zero terrorist-related deaths in the United States.
More than 94% of all American terrorist-related deaths between 1975 and 2015 were perpetrated by citizens of three US allies who were not included in the ban. But more importantly, a homeland security report concluded that citizenship was “likely an unreliable indicator” of terrorist activity – undermining the very basis of Trump’s ban.
Isis-inspired terrorists obviously do constitute a threat. But instead of addressing them – which would entail pressuring US allies who fund the terrorist network – Trump chose the politically convenient path of targeting Muslim-majority countries whose citizens were less geopolitically costly to ban.
That way he could perpetuate the idea that immigrants and Muslims constitute a central threat, appease his base by imposing a ban, while willfully neglecting terror-supporting governments his administration considers allies.
As willfully neglected rightwing extremists perpetuate more massacres, Americans are starting to recognize how Trump is playing politics with their security. Hopefully, the American public will also recognize that he is doing the same with their border security.
In today’s Middle East, when parties look for a greater power to pressure regional actors not to escalate, they don’t turn to Washington. They turn to Moscow. With leverage over Israel, Iran, and Syria, Russia is in a unique position to stop the wider conflict that threatens to erupt — and particularly after a single day saw an Iranian drone reportedly penetrate deep into Israel, the downing of an Israeli F-16, and Israel’s massive bombardment of targets inside Syria. And although the military situation could yet spin our of control, there are reasons to believe that the fight may turn political instead.
At the root of the tensions is the shifting regional balance of power. Over the past fifteen years, Israel has steadily seen its own maneuverability in the region recede, while Iran’s has been bolstered by Washington’s disastrous invasion of Iraq, the subsequent loss of U.S. influence and credibility, and even Bashir al-Assad’s survival in Syria. On top of that, the nuclear deal prevented Tehran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, but also recognized Iran as a de facto regional power and ended a decades-long U.S. policy of seeking the country’s complete isolation. Similarly, major powers in Europe, Russia, and China began treating Iran as a legitimate regional actor whose involvement and buy-in was necessary for stability.
According to the Iranian foreign ministry and Tehran’s ally Hezbollah in Lebanon, the events of Feb. 10 signify that the “era of Israeli strikes on Syria is over” — and mark a further reduction in Israel’s maneuverability, who for years have freely bombed targets in Syria without significant repercussions.
But despite the tough rhetoric, few see much appetite in Israel or in Iran for a direct military engagement. Instead, Israel is more likely to shift the conflict to a different theater — the UN — where it will seek to reimpose Iran’s pariah status, return Tehran to diplomatic and economic isolation, and reverse 15 years of change in the regional balance.
Such a shift would fit well with efforts prepared by Saudi Arabia and the Trump administration, who for weeks have prepared the ground to reimpose new UN sanctions on Iran. Some of their efforts have already born fruit.
Earlier last month, a little-noticed leaked UN Panel report accused Iran of violating a UN-imposed arms embargo on Yemen. The report doesn’t claim that Iran has provided weapons to the Houthi rebels in Yemen, but rather that Tehran has failed to keep the rebels from obtaining Iranian weapons. As a result, the panel concludes that Iran is in non-compliance with UN Security Council Resolution 2216.
The somewhat far-fetched Saudi plan has been to use the report to impose on Iran a new resolution under Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter, which allows the UN Security Council to “determine the existence of any threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression” and to take action to “restore international peace and security.”
Such a resolution would once again put Iran in the penalty box, with its economy sanctioned and its political pathways for influence in the region blocked — i.e., an all-out containment of Iran. In Riyadh’s calculation, this will thwart Tehran’s rise and shift the regional balance in favor of Saudi Arabia and Israel.
The value of such a resolution to Israel and Saudi Arabia — and its threat to Iran — go far beyond the rather limited economic impact of the sanctions it may impose. A Chapter VII Security Council resolution “securitizes” a country, in the words of Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif. Anything pertaining to Iran — whether regular trade or even participation in political bodies — will be seen through a security lens, Zarif told me in an interview for my book Losing an Enemy – Obama, Iran and the Triumph of Diplomacy.
In Iran’s case, it meant that it was viewed as having a menacing nuclear program before it was viewed as a country or a nation. The country and its activities were now officially defined as a threat to international peace and stability. Though the UN sanctions imposed on Iran were not biting per se, they were nevertheless a critical component of the securitization of Iran. “Sanctions were both an outcome of this securitization environment and also perpetuated by it,” Zarif argued. “It showed that this country [Iran] is a security threat because of the sanctions.”
Israel and Saudi Arabia’s opposition to the nuclear deal was partly rooted in their desire to keep Iran permanently isolated. By striking the nuclear deal and neutralizing that threat, Barack Obama deprived Israel and Saudi Arabia of their main tool for pursuing Iran’s containment.
Now, whether through the UN Panel report on Yemen or allegations of Iranian drones violating Israeli airspace, the Israeli-Saudi alliance hope they have a path towards a new UN Security Council resolution that once again puts Iran in the penalty box and paves the way for an all-out American containment of Iran.
Thus, despite high rhetoric and tough statements, the real showdown may soon move from the Israeli-Syrian border to New York. Not only is the cost less for Israel, but the impact will arguably also be greater. While a strong military assault against alleged Iranian positions in Syria may win Israel and Saudi Arabia a few weeks, a Chapter VII resolution at the UN can win them a decade.
But just as Putin blocked Israel’s bombing campaign in Syria, he holds a similar trump card in New York: a Security Council veto. Israel and Saudi Arabia may have Donald Trump and Nikki Haley where they want them, but without Russia, their campaign to shift the regional balance of power against Iran remains an uphill climb.
For the past four decades, the United States and Iran have demonized each other to no end. According to Tehran, America is “the Great Satan” whose imperialist designs have destabilized the Middle East and brought nothing but misery to the people of the region. Washington, meanwhile, depicts Iran as the “leading state sponsor of terrorism” and a member of the “Axis of Evil” whose “evil hand” is behind every conflict in the region. But somewhere along the way, America’s and Iran’s knowledge about each other was edged out by myths. “Don’t know thy enemy” became the mantra. Here are some common American myths about Iran.
MYTH NO. 1
The nuclear deal only delays an inevitable Iranian bomb.
This has been a common criticism of the Iran nuclear deal, a.k.a. the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). As Secretary of State Rex Tillerson put it: “The JCPOA fails to achieve the objective of a non-nuclear Iran; it only delays their goal of becoming a nuclear state.”
This misconception is based on the fact that some of the restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program — namely, limits on the number of centrifuges it can have, the advanced research it can conduct and the amount of energy-grade uranium it can stockpile — expire after 10 to 15 years (as is the case with most arms-control treaties). However, the most important aspects of the deal — the intrusive inspections regime and the transparency and verification mechanisms — are permanent. Iran will be expected to abide indefinitely by the Additional Protocol to the 1970 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and those inspections are the strongest guarantees possible to render an Iranian nuclear bomb an impossibility.
There’s one catch, though. Iran must live up to its end of the bargain only as long as the United States lives up to its end. If Washington violates the deal or “terminates” it, as Trump vowed to do again on Friday, the restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program will be lost.
MYTH NO. 2
Killing the deal would help support Iranian protesters.
By some accounts, abandoning the pact would be the best way to support the demands of protesters who have been demonstrating across Iran this month. “The deal has emboldened Iran’s ruling mullahs to continue the nation’s international isolation, as Tehran spends billions of dollars on expensive belligerent activities, money that was made available to it through sanctions relief and that it could have spent to shore up the civilian economy,” Fred Fleitz, a George W. Bush administration national security official, wrote for National Review.
It’s true that the protests have been driven by economic grievances and that Iranians, especially the working poor, have been frustrated that sanctions relief hasn’t improved the economy. But jettisoning the deal and reimposing broad economic sanctions would only further punish the Iranian people.
Promoting Iran’s integration in the global economy is a better way of empowering Iran’s working and middle classes — and striking a blow against reactionary forces within the regime whose main source of power is its stranglehold on the economy. Indeed, numerous polls show that Iranians overwhelmingly supported the nuclear deal precisely because they are desperate to break free from Iran’s isolation and reconnect with the outside world.
Those in Iran who would like to see the nuclear deal collapse are the very hard-line elements the United States shouldn’t be helping.
MYTH NO. 3
Iran’s Green Movement was a failure.
Practically every commentary on the recent demonstrations has compared them with the protests of 2009, frequently suggesting that the Green Movement, while valiant, failed. Typical was Vice President Pence’s op-ed in The Washington Post: “The Green Revolution was ruthlessly put down, and the deadly silence on the streets of Iran matched the deafening silence from the White House.”
Iran’s clerical government did indeed brutally suppress those protests, putting Green Movement leaders under house arrest. And the movement’s immediate demands were not met: Accusations of voter fraud were not properly addressed, political prisoners were not released, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad went on to serve another four years as president.
But the Greens got some vengeance in 2013 through the election of Hassan Rouhani. Without the support of the Green voters, Rouhani — who lacked a clear political base — could not have won the presidency. And in 2017, reformists swept almost all seats in city council elections in Iran’s largest cities. In the conservative city of Mashhad, a woman ran on a platform of opposing the patriarchy. Her slogan was “Elect more women!” She won.
MYTH NO. 4
Iran’s enmity with Israel is ideological and immutable.
The Israeli-Iranian confrontation “is a sweeping ideological conflict,” proclaims Israeli political commentator Aluf Benn. “And history teaches that such conflicts end only when one side has been knocked out.”
Iranian leaders, too, often frame the clash as ideological, which enables them to pose as champions of the Palestinians and defenders of Islam against the West. In reality, though, the conflict is driven by geopolitical factors.
Historically, Iran and Israel enjoyed strong relations born out of common threats they faced: from the Soviet Union and from powerful Arab states, such as Egypt and Iraq. Although Iranian leaders turned against Israel rhetorically with the birth of Iran’s theocracy in 1979, the strategic reality did not change, and the two nations continued to collaborate behind the scenes. In fact, as I detail in “Treacherous Alliance,” Israel lobbied Washington to talk to Iran, sell arms to Iran (remember the Iran-contra scandal?) and disregard Iran’s anti-Western rhetoric.
But tension escalated in 1991 because of two geopolitical shocks: the collapse of the Soviet Union and the defeat of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in the Persian Gulf War. The common threats that had brought Israel and Iran together evaporated. And in the struggle to define the new balance of power in the Middle East, Iran and Israel were no longer allies but rivals. That struggle has yet to be resolved.
MYTH NO. 5
Iranians hate Americans.
“When someone chants, ‘Yes, certainly, death to America,’ we should take him at his word,” said Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), referring to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. But while the Iranian government’s hostility toward the United States (and vice versa) is unmistakable, the Iranian populace tends to hold positive views about American people, culture and values. It’s become almost cliche for American travelers to express surprise at the tremendous hospitality of Iranians toward Westerners in general and Americans in particular.
The admiration, curiosity and friendliness usually do not extend to the policies of the American government, however. From U.S. support for Saudi Arabia to President Trump’s ban on travelers from some Muslim nations, American policies don’t tend to get high approval ratings from the Iranian people. But just as Iranians make a distinction between themselves and their government, they do the same when it comes to America and Americans.
“The fact that the U.S. is reducing its role in world affairs cannot be tied to the policies of a single president,” Germany’s Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel said last month in a stunning speech. “There will be no major changes to this trend, also after the next election.” What was once only whispered is now clearly said: Europe is readying itself for a post-American world, even after the end of the Donald Trump era. And in a surprising twist, the fate of the U.S.-European Union axis may come down to what Trump decides to do with the Iran nuclear deal later this month.
Many drew a sigh of relief back in December as the congressional deadline to impose new sanctions on Iran passed. The nuclear deal had survived another challenge, they thought. But the celebrations were premature. Trump can kill the deal this week by simply doing nothing. We’ve seen this movie before—but this time America’s relationship with Europe is at the center of the drama.
Every 120 to 180 days, the United States is obliged to renew sanctions waivers under the nuclear deal. Failing to do so would put the U.S. in violation of the agreement and likely spark retaliatory measures by Tehran that could see the entire initiative fall apart. Every time the waivers have been up for renewal, fears have risen that Trump will quit the deal simply by doing nothing.
This time around, though, it’s particularly worrisome. Trump punted the nuclear question to Congress last October by failing to certify it. This triggered a process that gave Congress 60 days to pass new sanctions on Iran or “fix” the deal through other measures. If it failed to do so, Trump promised he would “terminate” the agreement. The protests in Iran, which Trump sees himself as a champion of, have made a confrontational position towards the Iranian regime all the more likely.
But this time around, the survival of the nuclear deal is no longer just about Iran’s centrifuges and sunset clauses. It’s about whether the EU will see the U.S. as a pillar of the liberal international order or as a fifth column seeking the it’s demise. The nuclear deal has become the latest, and perhaps most consequential, international agreement or norm that the EU seeks to uphold and Trump seeks to tear down: from the Paris agreement, to the future of NATO, to the unity of the EU, to the funding of the United Nations, to the status of Jerusalem.
To Europe, two new realities have become clear. First, if the EU acquiesces on the nuclear deal, Trump will move on to target another agreement, and then another, and then another, until the very foundation of the current international order is uprooted. This will eventually force the EU to draw a line in the sand and stand up to Trump. Logic then dictates the longer the EU waits, the more damage Trump will do before he’s stopped. Hence, the EU is better off taking its stand at the Iran deal than waiting for it to be scrapped and emboldening Trump further.
Thus, EU policy chief Federica Mogherini said in mid-December that preserving and implementing the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran is “an absolute must,” in one of her sharpest criticisms of Trump’s Iran position. “We cannot afford to undermine the credibility of a multilateral agreement, endorsed by the UN Security Council Resolution,” she added.
Europe’s second realization is more ominous: Trump is not an anomaly. He may be a political outsider, but he is not an outsider to America. His presidency is the manifestation of a deep-seated sentiment in the United States that existed long before Trump entered the political arena and which will continue to exist—if not dominate politically—long after he departs. As such, neither electoral defeat nor impeachment will be enough to restore American “normalcy” because Trump is very much a part of the new “American normal.”
Germany’s Gabriel gave the clearest hints as to Europe’s new thinking last month. While he urged the Trump administration to “help develop joint strategies that preserve both the liberal international order and a global trade system that rests on a foundation of freedom, fairness, human rights and the rule of law,” he was also clear-eyed that to the U.S., the world is no longer a “global community, but rather an arena in which nations, non-state actors and corporations fight to gain advantage.”
As such, the U.S. is “no longer responsible for underpinning the structure and dome of this arena. Rather, it is one of the combatants on its sandy floor.” This leaves the EU with no choice but to chart its own way rather than submitting to American diktats—particularly on the issue of killing the Iran deal, which Gabriel said would “jeopardize” the security of the European Union.
Trump may see an irreparable break with the EU as a bonus of jettisoning the nuclear agreement. But by putting the U.S.-EU axis at risk, even the most die-hard opponents of the deal should know that they may get more than they ever bargained for.
This week is crucial for the Iran nuclear deal, and by extension, stability in the Middle East. By Friday, US President Donald Trump is obligated to renew sanctions waivers on Iran. If he fails to do so, the US will violate the nuclear deal of 2015 and trigger a process that will likely see the deal collapse and bring the United States and Iran back on a path towards war.
It’s been a year since Trump became president, and clearly the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) is hanging by a thread. At first, Trump’s hostility against the agreement appeared to be limited to rhetoric. After all, Trump twice renewed the sanctions waivers and certified Iran’s compliance to Congress. But all of that changed in October when Trump failed to certify the deal to the US legislative body. Ever since, Trump’s intent to kill JCPOA has become a foregone conclusion.
Trump famously threw a temper tantrum in the Oval Office in July when he was not offered an option to kill the deal and instead was forced to recertify it. By October, his national security team realised, he had to be offered a decertification option. But if the deal was to be saved, they figured, Trump had to be given the option of being tough against Iran on another front.
In September, a consensus inter-agency recommendation was presented to Trump that recommended recertifying the deal while aggressively “pushing back” against Iran and Hezbollah in the region. The hope was that Trump would be satisfied with the hawkishness of the recommendation and leave the nuclear deal alone.
But Trump outsmarted his national security team. He agreed to escalating against Iran in the region, but insisted on decertifying the nuclear deal nevertheless. All but two of his senior officials opposed decertification – CIA chief Mike Pompeo and UN Ambassador Nikki Haley.
Trump’s advisers still managed to score a point though. Instead of killing the nuclear deal right away, Trump was convinced to pursue a two-step process: he would call on Congress to pass new legislation that would “fix” the deal by unilaterally changing some of its key terms, particularly the expiration of some of the restrictions imposed on Iran’s nuclear programme. The problem is that any unilateral change to the deal is still a violation of the agreement. Thus, rather than “fixing” the deal, unilateral Congressional revisions would end up violating and killing it.
If Congress would fail to act, on the other hand, Trump vowed that he would “terminate” the deal himself. So either way, the deal would end up getting nixed.
Indeed, the White House expected that Congress wouldn’t act. The Congressional path was solely aimed at giving the appearance of a more deliberate process and a genuine effort by Trump to work with Congress.
More than a month has passed since decertification, and predictably Congress has failed to act. Now the ball is back in Trump’s court and he must make a decision by Friday.
But can the JCPOA survive without the US? That depends on whether Trump decides to implement the pre-JCPOA secondary sanctions. If the president goes down this path, the US will once again target Asian and European companies trading and investing in Iran.
China, Russia and the EU will fiercely oppose Trump’s sabotage of the nuclear deal and reject the new sanctions. But even if they do, it is not clear if Asian and EU companies will remain in the Iranian market if forced to choose between the US and Iran.
If Asian and EU companies leave Iran in order to retain access to the American market, then Iran will be left with almost none of the benefits of remaining inside the nuclear deal. Sooner or later, internal political dynamics will force the Iranians to leave the agreement and restart aspects of their nuclear programme.
At that point, the pressure on the US to bomb Iran – both from within and from states such as Israel and Saudi Arabia – will increase once more. But unlike 2011-2012, when the risk of war between the US and Iran last peaked, the option of diplomacy will most likely not exist. As a result, the risk of escalation eventually leading to war will be far higher.
While China’s focus rightfully is on the Korean peninsula, it should be careful not to neglect the danger of that war with Iran poses for stability in Asia.
Trump’s threats to kill the nuclear deal have inhibited investment, leading to continued economic distress—but it was the Iranian government’s leaked budget that enraged the public.
When the Iranian protests broke out last Thursday, I immediately reached out to friends, family, and organizers of the Green movement that erupted after the 2009 stolen elections to find out what was going on. But almost everyone I spoke to gave me the same answer: We don’t know. We haven’t been able to piece it together yet. We are all confused.
But one person had quickly managed to put together the Persian puzzle: Donald Trump.
Although it took him days to figure out what was going on in Charlottesville, Iran was a piece of cake for America’s most unpresidential president. Since then, he has shot off half a dozen or so tweets purporting to support the protesters. In reality, however, the tweets seem more aimed at fanning the flames than aiding the demonstrators.
There is no evidence that the protesters in Iran are taking their cues from Trump—or even paying attention to him. Unlike the 2009 protests, when some of the demonstrators called on Barack Obama to speak out against the Iranian government’s brutal crackdown on peaceful protesters, no chants have been heard in Iran calling on Trump to do or say anything at all. Nor has any evidence emerged to substantiate the accusation that the protests were orchestrated from abroad.
Indeed, in the eyes of most Iranians, Trump has shown nothing but animosity toward the Iranian people since he took office. He imposed a Muslim ban on the Iranian people (even though no Iranian national has been involved in any lethal act of terrorism on US soil), while unreservedly hugging Iran’s regional rival and one of the main sources of Salafi terrorism, Saudi Arabia. He has continuously opposed and undermined the nuclear deal, which the Iranian people strongly support. He even blamed Iran instead of ISIS when that group conducted a terrorist attack in Iran that left 17 people dead.
But listened to or not, Trump has nevertheless contributed to the explosive mix of factors that gave birth to the Iranian protests.
Mindful of the ongoing political repression in Iran, widespread discontent with lack of political and social freedoms, as well as deep frustration and anger with corruption, economic mismanagement and inequality, the question that analysts wrestle with is: Why now? Clearly there have been decades of pent-up anger. But that still doesn’t explain why emotions boiled over now, and not a year ago.
The answer appears to lie in a few factors that have all come to a head in the past few weeks. Trump has figured prominently in the first factor: the economic dividends of the nuclear deal.
The Iranian people had high hopes for the nuclear deal. Not only did it prevent a war with the United States that appeared increasingly likely; they expected it to help break Iran out of its economic and political isolation. Iran is a young country, with a labor force that grows 2.5 percent annually and who will require roughly 3 million new job opportunities by 2020. And beyond jobs, Iran’s youth want to connect with the outside world and be part of the global community, rather than stand on the outside looking in.
On paper, the nuclear deal has paid economic dividends. Iran’s real GDP will expand by 3.8 percent in 2018, according to the IMF. But this growth is largely driven by oil sales, which increases the government’s coffers but does far less to benefit the private sector. More importantly, however, oil sales do not create jobs, which is a major problem, since unemployment rates among young people aged 15 to 29 is well over 24 percent.
Investments, however, do create jobs. To meet the needs of its growing labor force, Iran needs an estimated $150 billion in foreign investments. But those investments require financing from major banks, which in turn require confidence that the nuclear deal will endure, so that Iran does not once again come under US sanctions that would render such investments illegal.
And this is where Trump comes in. While banks have been hesitant to finance projects in Iran for a variety of reasons, including bureaucratic red tape in Iran, corruption, and concerns about the heavy-handed presence in the Iranian economy of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the primary barrier has been political uncertainty about the durability of the Iran deal. Banks are loath to begin financing investments, since they could see those projects fall under sanctions if (or once) Trump pulls the plug on the nuclear deal.
The never-ending drama about whether Trump will or will not kill the deal has been designed to achieve exactly this: create uncertainty about the deal’s future in order to deter investors from entering the Iranian market. This absence of investment, in turn, has contributed to growing unemployment and unmet expectations about the direction of the Iranian economy—an underlying cause of these protests.
If the nuclear deal and the sabotaged sanctions-relief process created unmet expectations, it was the government’s proposed 2018 budget that left the population seething. The leaked budget proposed slashing subsidies on basic goods, including food and services for the poor, while increasing fuel prices by as much as 50 percent. But while poor people would have to face austerity, opaque religious institutions controlled by conservative political elements would be spared from austerity cuts, as would the IRGC.
So when hard-liners in Mashhad tried to capitalize on the population’s growing frustrations by organizing a rally against centrist President Hassan Rouhani, they got more than they had bargained for. Spontaneous protests began erupting throughout the country, particularly in smaller cities, which also tend to be the hardest hit by the austerity measures. These crowds were not protesting just Rouhani, however, but rather the regime as a whole—up to and including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
While poor people face austerity, opaque religious institutions controlled by conservative politicians will be spared from budget cuts, as will the IRGC.
Even though protests appear to have fizzled out over the past two days, the population’s anger and frustration will remain until the Rouhani government takes concrete steps to address the protesters’ legitimate grievances. While he can—and should—make changes to the budget, he has less control over the deeper problem of unemployment and the absence of foreign investment. And whatever difficulties Rouhani has had in convincing banks to finance investment thus far, he will face a far more challenging situation if Trump follows through on his promise to terminate the nuclear deal next week by not renewing sanctions waivers on Iran.
Precisely because Trump doesn’t care about the protesters and is more interested in destabilizing Iran and undoing anything and everything with Barack Obama’s name on it, he may well use the protests as a pretext to do what he has always intended to do: kill the nuclear deal.
The only deviation from Trump’s original plan could be that he will now pretend to do it out of love for the people of Iran.
In a matter of days, protests in Iran have quickly spread across the country, taking the government by surprise and leaving analysts and pundits alike confused. Part of the reason many have been caught off guard is because these protests appear quite different from their 2009 predecessor — in terms of size, leadership and objective.