What Trump needs to know about Iran

Tehran Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Seyed Hos­sein Mousa­vian

With the fate of the Iran nu­clear deal at stake, Don­ald Trump has un­til Oc­to­ber 15 to tell Congress if he be­lieves Tehran is com­ply­ing with the seven-na­tion agree­ment. Many ex­pect that the U.S. pres­i­dent will de­cer­tify Ira­nian com­pli­ance with the deal -- re­turn­ing U.S.-Iran re­la­tions to a state of overt hos­til­ity.

Not all in the ad­min­is­tra­tion seem to agree with Trump’s harder-line ap­proach on Iran. De­fense Sec­re­tary James Mat­tis has pub­licly stated that Trump “should con­sider stay­ing” in the deal, while Sec­re­tary of State Rex Tiller­son has re­port­edly ar­gued against de­cer­ti­fi­ca­tion. Speak­ing after his first meet­ing with Ira­nian For­eign Min­is­ter Javad Zarif, Tiller­son also seemed to in­di­cate a will­ing­ness to take a longer-term view when he told a me­dia con­fer­ence that the Wash­ing­ton-Tehran re­la­tion­ship had “never had a sta­ble, happy mo­ment in it.” ”Is this go­ing to be the way it is for the rest of our lives and our chil­dren’s lives and our grand­chil­dren’s lives,” he asked.

Tiller­son’s re­marks evoked an en­counter told to me by Mohsen Rafiq­doost, a for­mer Ira­nian Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Guards Com­man­der, of a 1982 meet­ing he had with Ay­a­tol­lah Khome­ini, the founder of the Is­lamic Repub­lic. Rafiq­doost re­called sug­gest­ing that the U.S. em­bassy grounds in Tehran be con­verted to a Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Guards base. Ay­a­tol­lah Khome­ini re­jected the idea, ask­ing “Why would you go there? Are we not go­ing to have re­la­tions with Amer­ica for a thou­sand years?”

It’s clear that decades of es­trange­ment have led to a fun­da­men­tal mis­un­der­stand­ing of Iran in Wash­ing­ton. Not­with­stand­ing the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s nu­clear ne­go­ti­a­tions, ev­ery U.S. ad­min­is­tra­tion since the 1979 Ira­nian rev­o­lu­tion has failed in its de­clared ob­jec­tive to con­tain Iran.

If Trump wishes to free fu­ture gen­er­a­tions of anx­i­ety over U.S.-Iran ten­sions, he should pay care­ful at­ten­tion to five points in for­mu­lat­ing his Iran pol­icy.

First, American of­fi­cials need to stop speak­ing about Iran in threat­en­ing and in­sult­ing terms. The Ira­nian peo­ple are proud of their thou­sands of years of his­tory and above all else view mu­tual re­spect as in­te­gral to their for­eign re­la­tions. How­ever, For­eign Min­is­ter Zarif told me that Trump’s speech to the United Na­tions Gen­eral Assem­bly last month was the “most in­sult­ing speech of any American pres­i­dent to­ward Iran since the rev­o­lu­tion” and that it “made any po­ten­tial for di­a­logue with the United States mean­ing­less.”

Sec­ond, U.S. regime-change policies have been self-de­feat­ing. The prin­ci­pal rea­son for last­ing Ira­nian dis­trust of the United States since the rev­o­lu­tion has been U.S. policies aimed at un­der­min­ing and over­turn­ing the Ira­nian po­lit­i­cal sys­tem. In June, Tiller­son openly de­clared that U.S. pol­icy To­wards Iran in­cluded regime change -- a state­ment not heard from a se­nior U.S. of­fi­cial in years and which marked a sharp de­par­ture from con­ven­tional U.S. rhetoric of seek­ing Ira­nian “be­hav­ior” change.

In stark con­trast, Barack Obama told the UN that “we are not seek­ing regime change and we re­spect the right of the Ira­nian peo­ple to ac­cess peace­ful nu­clear en­ergy.” Con­se­quently, he was able to diplo­mat­i­cally en­gage Iran on its nu­clear pro­gram, and reach the July 2015 nu­clear deal. The re­spect­ful let­ters ex­changed be­tween Obama and Ira­nian Supreme Leader Ay­a­tol­lah Khamenei helped set the process in mo­tion. This would not hap­pen to­day even if Trump made a sim­i­lar over­ture, as the key to suc­cess­ful ne­go­ti­a­tions with Iran is to first drop regime-change policies.

Third, since the 1953 U.S.-led coup that over­threw demo­crat­i­cally-elected Prime Min­is­ter Mo­ham­mad Mosad­deq, Ira­ni­ans have re­sented U.S. in­ter­fer­ence in Iran. The po­lit­i­cal land­scape of con­ser­va­tives, moder­ates, and re­formists in Iran is in many ways sim­i­lar to the com­pe­ti­tion be­tween Democrats and Repub­li­cans in the United States. As such, any agree­ment be­tween Wash­ing­ton and Tehran must be ne­go­ti­ated in a way that tran­scends the par­ti­san di­vide in each coun­try -- or else it would be in­her­ently frag­ile. The chal­lenges the nu­clear deal has been sub­ject to in Wash­ing­ton by the Repub­li­can Party is tes­ta­ment to this need. With re­spect to Iran too, ne­go­ti­a­tions must be car­ried out in a way that re­spects Iran’s po­lit­i­cal makeup and hi­er­ar­chies.

Fourth, the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion needs to ac­cept that Iran, as a large coun­try with im­mense nat­u­ral re­sources and an ed­u­cated pop­u­la­tion, has le­git­i­mate se­cu­rity con­cerns and in­ter­ests in its neigh­bor­hood. Wash­ing­ton must rec­og­nize that U.S. policies aimed at iso­lat­ing Tehran and re­fus­ing to ac­cept a le­git­i­mate Ira­nian role in the re­gion have only seen Ira­nian in­flu­ence grow in coun­tries such as Syria, Iraq, Ye­men, and Le­banon while U.S. in­flu­ence wanes in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Ye­men, and else­where. From Iran’s per­spec­tive, its post-1979 for­eign pol­icy has been driven by the aim of de­ter­ring for­eign ag­gres­sion and se­cur­ing the coun­try’s bor­ders rather than the pur­suit of re­gional hege­mony. After the rev­o­lu­tion, Iran was in­vaded by Sad­dam Hus­sein’s Iraq and, for much of the past decade, chaos on its thou­sands of miles of bor­ders with Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pak­istan – all fac­tors that have com­pelled it to play a re­gional role. If the United States wants to avoid sce­nar­ios where re­gional states ag­gres­sively com­pete for power it must en­cour­age the cre­ation of a re­gional se­cu­rity sys­tem in­volv­ing the six Gulf Co­op­er­a­tion Coun­cil coun­tries along with Iraq and Iran.

Fi­nally, the record of U.S.-Iran ne­go­ti­a­tions shows that “dual track” policies of pres­sure and diplo­macy are des­tined to fail. While Trump ap­pears to be try­ing to bring Iran to the ne­go­ti­at­ing table in a po­si­tion of weak­ness, Ira­nian pol­i­cy­mak­ers tend to re­spond to pres­sure by re­tal­i­at­ing in kind.

In a re­cent Wash­ing­ton Post op-ed, for­mer Sec­re­tary of State John Kerry high­lighted how by the time he en­tered into ne­go­ti­a­tions with Iran, after years of sanc­tions, Iran had “mas­tered the nu­clear fuel cy­cle” and built a ura­nium stock­pile large enough to make 10 to 12 bombs. “In other words, Iran was al­ready a nu­clear-thresh­old state,” wrote Kerry. The les­son for Wash­ing­ton here is that if push comes to shove, Tehran will de­velop its own bar­gain­ing chips --- not ca­pit­u­late in the face of what­ever threats are made when Trump de­liv­ers his next pol­icy speech on Iran.

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