The US must find a third way over Iran, one that is nei­ther ret­i­cent nor reck­less

The National - News - - OPINION - HUS­SEIN IBISH IBISH

The in­ter­nal de­bate re­gard­ing the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s pol­icy to­wards Iran is com­ing to a head. A sen­si­ble – and in­deed sig­nif­i­cantly im­proved – Amer­i­can ap­proach is now com­pet­ing with fool­ish and po­ten­tially dis­as­trous im­pulses. The com­ing weeks will pro­vide very strong in­di­ca­tions of which will pre­vail.

US pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump, UN am­bas­sador Nikki Ha­ley and oth­ers are push­ing for an ag­gres­sive con­fronta­tion with Tehran.

An im­prove­ment on Barack Obama’s poli­cies is clearly re­quired, but their ap­proach would surely be a dan­ger­ous over-cor­rec­tion.

This fac­tion wants Wash­ing­ton to ei­ther aban­don or sab­o­tage the nu­clear deal, be­gin­ning by at least de­clin­ing to cer­tify to Congress next month that Iran is in com­pli­ance with its obli­ga­tions.

That could eas­ily lead to the un­rav­el­ing of an ar­range­ment that is, by all ac­counts, ef­fec­tively re­strain­ing Iran’s pro­gramme to de­velop nu­clear weapons.

While lim­ited strictly to nu­clear is­sues, the deal is work­ing so far. It makes no sense for Wash­ing­ton to scup­per it. That’s a dream sce­nario for Ira­nian hard­lin­ers.

They would have man­aged to get rid of the in­ter­na­tional sanc­tions by reach­ing a deal with Mr Obama, only to be re­lieved of their com­mit­ments by Mr Trump. Heads they win, tails we lose.

And it would be es­pe­cially dam­ag­ing, well be­yond Iran-re­lated is­sues, to Amer­i­can cred­i­bil­ity and in­ter­na­tional lead­er­ship if Wash­ing­ton is per­ceived by the other global pow­ers as hav­ing uni­lat­er­ally and capri­ciously un­done years of painstak­ing mul­ti­lat­eral diplo­macy, par­tic­u­larly if there is no plau­si­ble al­ter­na­tive strat­a­gem that makes sense to any­one out­side the White House.

Thank­fully, there are strong signs that a sec­ond ad­min­is­tra­tion fac­tion, which wisely urges main­tain­ing the nu­clear agree­ment, while in­ten­si­fy­ing a range of other pres­sures and coun­ter­mea­sures against Iran, may be win­ning the day.

De­fence sec­re­tary Jim Mat­tis, sec­re­tary of state Rex Tiller­son, na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser HR Mc­Mas­ter and oth­ers pre­sented a plan for such an ap­proach at a re­cent Na­tional Se­cu­rity Coun­cil meet­ing.

Their pro­posal is de­signed to pre­serve the gains se­cured by the nu­clear agree­ment and avoid the harm that scrap­ping or sab­o­tag­ing it would cause to Amer­i­can in­ter­ests, while in­ten­si­fy­ing poli­cies de­signed to con­front Iran’s per­sis­tent desta­bil­is­ing poli­cies.

These would in­clude con­tin­ued or ex­panded eco­nomic sanc­tions ad­dress­ing a va­ri­ety of non-nu­clear is­sues, in­clud­ing Tehran’s sup­port for ter­ror­ism.

Wash­ing­ton would in­ten­sify ef­forts to in­ter­dict Ira­nian weapons ship­ments to vi­o­lent ex­trem­ist or­gan­i­sa­tions such as the Houthis in Ye­men, Ha­mas in Gaza and rad­i­cals in Si­nai.

The plan also pro­poses strength­ened US en­gage­ment in Bahrain, par­tic­u­larly as ev­i­dence of Ira­nian-in­spired and sup­ported vi­o­lent rad­i­cal­ism on the is­land con­tin­ues to mount. The pro­posal also ad­vo­cates that US naval forces re­act more ag­gres­sively if con­fronted or ha­rassed by Ira­nian speed­boats in in­ter­na­tional wa­ters. From what is known so far, this plan hardly seems per­fect. It does not, for ex­am­ple, sug­gest do­ing any­thing se­ri­ous to re­verse Iran’s dom­i­na­tion of Syria, in­stead main­tain­ing an ex­clu­sive fo­cus on ISIL.

It also fails to recog­nise the need or value of ex­plor­ing po­ten­tial grounds for US-Ira­nian co­op­er­a­tion. But it would help to cor­rect some weak­nesses of the Obama ap­proach with­out the kind of reck­less over­reach Mr Trump has sug­gested.

If such a rel­a­tively so­phis­ti­cated ap­proach ends up guid­ing Wash­ing­ton’s stance on Iran, it would mark an im­prove­ment on Mr Obama’s baf­fling naivety, while avoid­ing im­pul­sive­ness and rash mis­takes.

In an en­cour­ag­ing sign that this com­par­a­tively nu­anced per­spec­tive may be start­ing to pre­vail, Mr Trump on Thurs­day de­clined to re-im­pose some ma­jor sanc­tions against Iran, al­low­ing a con­gres­sion­ally-man­dated dead­line for him to act to ex­pire.

More­over, Mr Tiller­son is sched­uled to meet with Ira­nian for­eign min­is­ter Mo­ham­mad Javad Zarif at a Septem­ber 20 meet­ing of the nu­clear deal sig­na­to­ries.

In June, Mr Tiller­son caused out­rage in Tehran by sug­gest­ing Wash­ing­ton is seek­ing regime change as a long-term out­come in Iran. Next week’s meet­ing could be a use­ful op­por­tu­nity to clear the air.

A so­phis­ti­cated ap­proach to Iran would have to in­clude bal­anc­ing the virtues of stick­ing with the nu­clear agree­ment – as long as it is re­ally be­ing im­ple­mented – and con­fronting Tehran about its ag­gres­sive and desta­bil­is­ing con­duct.

But it also re­quires pur­su­ing av­enues of co-op­er­a­tion and con­fronta­tion with an eye to pro­mot­ing, at the very least, sig­nif­i­cant and long-term strate­gic pol­icy change, if not full regime change, in Iran.

That means, above all, recog­nis­ing that Iran is nei­ther a pol­icy mono­lith, nor is it po­lit­i­cally ho­moge­nous. Much of the pop­u­la­tion ap­pears to want a very dif­fer­ent ap­proach to the out­side world than the rul­ing fac­tion.

Even within the es­tab­lish­ment, there are sig­nif­i­cant dif­fer­ences over strat­egy, for­eign pol­icy and ba­sic in­ter­na­tional at­ti­tudes, and it mat­ters which pre­vails.

Any ma­jor de­ci­sion re­gard­ing Iran should in­volve a se­ri­ous eval­u­a­tion of how it will im­pact strate­gic think­ing, de­ci­sion-mak­ing and the bal­ance of power within Iran.

That is why a cal­i­brated ap­proach to­wards Tehran that avoids both Mr Obama’s ret­i­cence and Mr Trump’s reck­less­ness would be greatly wel­come. It may not be per­fect, but the new plan is an im­por­tant step in the right di­rec­tion.

There are signs that a sec­ond White House ad­min­is­tra­tion fac­tion, which urges main­tain­ing the nu­clear agree­ment while in­ten­si­fy­ing pres­sure on Tehran, may be win­ning the day

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