Washington, DC – The incoming Trump administration must double down on Iran diplomacy to resolve remaining tensions in the region, not discard the nuclear deal, according to a new report released by NIAC. “The overarching theme of US policy in this part of the world for several decades now is premised on the expectation that somehow or other the application of American military power can fix the problem. And it hasn’t,” observed Boston University historian and retired U.S. Army colonel Andrew Bacevich at the report’s release.
NIAC hosted a panel discussion outlining recommendations for the incoming administration at the Stimson Center last Wednesday, featuring Bacevich, University of Chicago professor John Mearsheimer, International Civil Society Action Network’s Sanam Naraghi-Anderlini, NIAC Research Director Reza Marashi, and moderated by the Atlantic editor-at-large Steve Clemons.
Marashi spoke of how the U.S. and Iran need to clearly keep to their obligations under the JCPOA, and use diplomacy on other issues to ensure its viability. “If all you’re doing is focusing on the deal but you’re not at least trying to resolve tensions on other issues, then that tension on outside issues seeps into the JCPOA.”
Mearsheimer expressed concern that, absent a broader improvement in relations, Iran could decide to pursue nuclear weapons after key provisions of the accord expire. “What you want in ten to fifteen years is a situation where Iran and the United States have good relations and the United States is not threatening to attack Iran,” he argued.
Panelists argued that America’s strategic priorities would have been the same if the electoral outcome had been different and Clinton won. Although Trump has suggested he would unravel the deal, Mearsheimer expressed doubt that the incoming Trump administration would have sufficient bandwidth to enact policies that threaten to put the accord at risk. “Donald Trump has promised to overturn a whole slew of different policies both domestic and international, and he is simply not going to be able to do all of them at once.”
The report and panelists also emphasized the need to de-escalate tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Naraghi-Anderlini argued that the U.S. should strike a more neutral stance, saying “the U.S. should not be in the business of taking a sectarian alliance.” In addition, she found that the U.S. needs to take a larger view of regional tensions, saying “…what’s been happening over the last 30 years and accelerated a little over the last 5-10 years is the spread of Wahhabi Salafism around the world. Problems with ISIS/Daesh come from our supposed allies in the Gulf.”
Speaking about U.S. Middle Eastern policy generally, the panelists all agreed America needs to use military force less since it was generating diminishing returns. Bacevich said he hoped the deal could push America towards using more diplomacy, but cautioned, “The deal has not been in place for that long a period of time, and during the period of time that it has been in place we have been preoccupied by this very divisive election.”
Mearsheimer concurred, arguing that interventions by both George W. Bush as well as Obama had made the region “a total mess” in which the Iran Deal is the main bright spot. If the U.S. abandoned the deal, the panelists concluded that it would likely make Iran far more uncompromising in the future. When asked which leaders would likely succeed the moderates if the deal failed, Marashi admitted he it is hard to project Iranian political outcomes, but was confident on one thing: “If the Rouhanis and the Zarifs and others get emasculated by the U.S. and have the rug pulled out from under them, they aren’t going to go into the wilderness, they’re going to rally with everybody else and we’re going to have a more hardline Iranian system across the board. And that is the worst possible outcome.”
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