Jes­sica T. Mathews

The New York Review of Books - - Contents - Jes­sica T. Mathews

Los­ing an En­emy:

Obama, Iran, and the Tri­umph of Diplo­macy by Trita Parsi.

Yale Univer­sity Press,

454 pp., $32.50

North Korea and Nu­clear Weapons: En­ter­ing the New Era of De­ter­rence edited by Sung Chull Kim and Michael D. Co­hen.

Ge­orge­town Univer­sity Press,

224 pp., $64.95; $32.95 (paper)

Over five days in May, Don­ald Trump’s Iran pol­icy—of mon­u­men­tal im­por­tance to the fu­ture of the Mid­dle East and to US se­cu­rity—be­gan to come into fo­cus. On May 17, the pres­i­dent qui­etly agreed to con­tinue to waive sanc­tions against Iran, a step that was re­quired to keep the Iran nu­clear deal in force. Two days later Iran held pres­i­den­tial elec­tions with a landslide re­sult in fa­vor of the mod­er­ate in­cum­bent, Has­san Rouhani; and two days af­ter that the United States’ new Mid­dle East pol­icy, built around a SAUDI-USISRAEL axis, was un­veiled in the pres­i­dent’s speech in Riyadh.

It had long seemed clear that Trump was not go­ing to “rip up” what he had called in the cam­paign “the dumb­est deal... in the his­tory of deal-mak­ing.” The State Depart­ment had con­firmed re­peated find­ings by the In­ter­na­tional Atomic En­ergy Agency (IAEA) that Iran was meet­ing its nu­clear com­mit­ments. But the May 17 waiver was the first time that an af­fir­ma­tive ac­tion on the deal had to be taken in the pres­i­dent’s name.

Iran’s elec­tion pit­ted Pres­i­dent Rouhani, the ar­chi­tect of the deal and a pro­po­nent of reen­gag­ing Iran with the world, against a con­ser­va­tive, na­tion­al­ist cleric, Ebrahim Raisi, who ran with the back­ing of the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Guard and other hard-line forces. Had Raisi won, the deal’s fu­ture in Iran would have been very much in doubt. In­stead, Rouhani had a re­sound­ing vic­tory with high voter turnout. Though few Ira­ni­ans have yet to feel any eco­nomic ben­e­fit from the deal and the end to in­ter­na­tional iso­la­tion it prom­ises, there is lit­tle doubt that, for now, they over­whelm­ingly fa­vor stick­ing with it.

In Saudi Ara­bia, where he was mak­ing the first stop of his first trip abroad as pres­i­dent, Trump ig­nored that pos­i­tive out­come. His speech was a fullthroated em­brace of the Saudi view of Iran as the re­gion’s chief male­fac­tor and cause of its trou­bles. Trump’s ref­er­ence to Tehran as the Mid­dle East power that has “for decades... fu­eled the fires of sec­tar­ian con­flict and ter­ror” is a more ac­cu­rate de­scrip­tion of the Saudi king­dom, with its long record of ex­port­ing an un­for­giv­ing brand of Wah­habi Is­lam to madrasas and mosques around the world. His as­sur­ance of un­ques­tion­ing friend­ship with Riyadh is new in Amer­i­can pol­icy. Wash­ing­ton will ig­nore the fail­ure of Saudi Ara­bia and other Sunni states to en­act needed po­lit­i­cal and eco­nomic re­forms, and their re­pres­sion of Shia mi­nori­ties, in ex­change for their help against ISIS and pro­mo­tion of Is­raeli– Pales­tinian peace. All na­tions, Trump de­claimed, “must work to­gether to iso­late Iran.”

The new US pol­icy has lay­ers of con­tra­dic­tions. By not re­ject­ing the nu­clear deal the ad­min­is­tra­tion tac­itly ac­knowl­edges that it’s work­ing, yet se­nior of­fi­cials con­tinue to harshly crit­i­cize it. This extreme dis­taste for an agree­ment that has re­moved—at least for a decade—a nu­clear threat that a few years ago raised the specter of another war in the Mid­dle East is even odder when set against the stand­off with North Korea. If any­thing were needed to un­der­line how much safer the Iran deal has made the United States, the men­ace of North Korea’s nu­clear de­vel­op­ment surely qual­i­fies.

The new pol­icy’s anti-Iran stance re­flects the real rea­son that Is­rael and the Gulf states op­pose the deal: they fear an Iran re­leased from the in­ter­na­tional penalty box to which it was rel­e­gated for the nearly twenty years that Tehran pur­sued—and lied about—its weapons pro­gram. Many in the re­gion re­mem­ber that it was not very long ago that Iran and the US were close al­lies. They are far more com­fort­able with Iran’s be­ing in­def­i­nitely ex­cluded from the re­gion’s com­merce and diplo­macy. Hence the par­tic­u­lar words “iso­late Iran.” Now that a weapons pro­gram is no longer the pri­mary con­cern, the ra­tio­nale for iso­la­tion has shifted to Iran’s ac­tiv­i­ties in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and else­where. Yet such geopo­lit­i­cal dif­fer­ences, no mat­ter how pro­found, are never re­solved by avoid­ing di­a­logue; rather, they deepen.

Set­ting aside the un­wis­dom of tak­ing sides in the re­gion’s Sunni–Shia di­vide, the low prob­a­bil­ity that a part­ner­ship link­ing Saudi Ara­bia, Is­rael, and the US will help achieve an Is­raeli–Pales­tinian peace, and the du­bi­ous as­sump­tion that con­ser­va­tive Sunni states will make the de­feat of ISIS, al-Qaeda, and other Sunni ter­ror­ist groups a top pri­or­ity, the new pol­icy raises im­por­tant ques­tions about the nu­clear deal it­self. What has hap­pened in the two years since it was agreed to? To what de­gree is it con­tribut­ing to US na­tional se­cu­rity? Can it be sus­tained in the face of un­re­lent­ing en­mity from the US?

Since the deal was con­cluded in 2015, Iran has got­ten rid of all of its highly en­riched ura­nium. It has also elim­i­nated 98 per­cent of its stock­pile of low-en­riched ura­nium, leav­ing only three hun­dred kilo­grams, less than the amount needed to fuel one weapon if taken to high en­rich­ment. The num­ber of cen­trifuges main­tained for ura­nium en­rich­ment is down from 19,000 to 6,000. The rest have been dis­man­tled and put into stor­age un­der tight in­ter­na­tional mon­i­tor­ing. Con­tin­u­ing en­rich­ment is limited to 3.67 per­cent, the ac­cepted level for re­ac­tor fuel. All en­rich­ment has been shut down at the once-se­cret, for­ti­fied, un­der­ground fa­cil­ity at For­dow, south of Tehran. Iran has dis­abled and poured con­crete into the core of its plu­to­nium re­ac­tor—thus shut­ting down the plu­to­nium as well as the ura­nium route to nu­clear weapons. It has pro­vided ad­e­quate an­swers to the IAEA’s long-stand­ing list of ques­tions re­gard­ing past weapons-re­lated ac­tiv­i­ties.

Iran has ac­cepted around-the-clock su­per­vi­sion by IAEA in­spec­tors, cam­eras, and mon­i­tor­ing equip­ment at its nu­clear fa­cil­i­ties. There have been no prob­lems with ac­cess. Th­ese in­spec­tions in­clude some places, like ura­nium mines and cen­trifuge ro­tor pro­duc­tion fa­cil­i­ties, that have never pre­vi­ously been sub­jected to in­ter­na­tional over­sight in other coun­tries. Their in­clu­sion makes it much harder to op­er­ate a covert pro­gram. Iran has ad­hered to al­lowed lim­its on R&D, and an in­no­va­tive mech­a­nism to track sen­si­tive im­ports has been cre­ated.

Two years ago crit­ics in the United States were deeply skep­ti­cal that th­ese steps would be car­ried out. To­day they are facts. Most of the com­mit­ments ex­tend for ten or fif­teen—and in a few cases twenty-five—years. Iran re­mains a party to the Non-Pro­lif­er­a­tion Treaty (North Korea with­drew in 2003), and sev­eral of the deal’s en­force­ment pro­vi­sions strengthen the treaty by serv­ing as mod­els for ap­pli­ca­tion else­where. In this light, Sec­re­tary of State Rex Tiller­son’s re­cent de­scrip­tion of the agree­ment as “the same failed ap­proach . . . that brought us to the cur­rent im­mi­nent threat that we face from North Korea” is sim­ply bizarre, be­tray­ing ei­ther ig­no­rance of the facts or a will­ing­ness to wholly dis­tort them. A “fail­ure” like this would be an unimag­in­able suc­cess in North Korea.

It is danger­ously easy now to for­get, as Tiller­son seems to have done, the tra­jec­tory of US–Ira­nian re­la­tions a few years ago. In Septem­ber 2010, a well­sourced ar­ti­cle by Jef­frey Goldberg in The At­lantic as­serted that Is­rael was on the verge of bomb­ing Iran. A tech­ni­cal “point of no re­turn” in Iran’s pur­suit of a nu­clear weapon would be reached within a few months, Goldberg wrote, and Is­rael would not al­low that to hap­pen. Wash­ing­ton knew this would be a war that Is­rael could start but not fin­ish. The US would be dragged into the con­flict to aid Is­rael—strate­gi­cally and po­lit­i­cally a ter­ri­ble out­come. Over the fol­low­ing two years there was more and more dis­cus­sion in Wash­ing­ton of the US tak­ing the mil­i­tary ini­tia­tive. At that time the prospect of se­ri­ous ne­go­ti­a­tions be­tween two coun­tries steeped in mu­tual distrust seemed be­yond reach. Iran and the US had not spo­ken for more than thirty years and the ven­omous Mah­moud Ah­madine­jad was still Iran’s pres­i­dent. Only two op­tions looked likely: that Iran would con­tinue to build cen­trifuges un­til it could pro­duce enough highly en­riched ura­nium for a nu­clear arse­nal; or war— against a coun­try more than three times the size of Iraq.

The story of how dogged diplo­macy and some good luck took us from that low point to a deal that few could have imag­ined is one worth telling. Trita Parsi, pres­i­dent of the Na­tional Ira­nian Amer­i­can Coun­cil, who had the ad­van­tage of ac­cess to high-level par­tic­i­pants on both sides, tells it well in his new book, Los­ing an En­emy: Obama, Iran, and the Tri­umph of Diplo­macy. Cru­cial events and de­ci­sions are traced in great de­tail, sup­ported by an un­usual wealth of on-the-record in­ter­views. The book gen­er­ally gives the Ira­nian view of the more con­tro­ver­sial is­sues, es­pe­cially re­gard­ing the part played by sanc­tions. But the in­sight thereby pro­vided is use­ful if the bias is un­der­stood. Op­po­nents of the deal raise three is­sues: that its pro­vi­sions aren’t tough enough; that Iran will in­evitably cheat; and that the deal should have cov­ered non­nu­clear is­sues. The last of th­ese is the thinnest. No deal span­ning all of the is­sues that di­vide the US and Iran, much less all seven par­ties to the talks (those two plus Rus­sia, China, the UK, France, and Ger­many) could

pos­si­bly have been agreed to; this argument amounts to re­ject­ing ne­go­ti­a­tion en­tirely. And who could pos­si­bly pre­fer no agree­ment at all to one that has dealt with only the sin­gle most dan­ger­ous is­sue? As re­gards cheat­ing, Iran has cer­tainly done so be­fore. While not wa­ter­tight, the deal’s tech­ni­cal pro­vi­sions are strong enough that any at­tempt to evade them would al­most cer­tainly be quickly de­tected. The tech­ni­cal mea­sures are re­in­forced by po­lit­i­cal pro­tec­tions, notably the right of any sin­gle per­ma­nent mem­ber of the UN Se­cu­rity Coun­cil to de­mand that sanc­tions be “snapped back” if a dis­agree­ment arises over com­pli­ance. But is the deal tough enough? Crit­ics in­sist that it should have banned en­rich­ment en­tirely. I felt this way in 2005. But a ne­go­ti­ated agree­ment is a re­flec­tion of what can be achieved at a given mo­ment. In 2003 the US re­jected a deal that would have capped Ira­nian cen­trifuges at an un­threat­en­ing three thousand. The decade that elapsed be­tween then and 2013, when Iran was on the verge of nu­clear break­out, did not work in the West’s fa­vor. Tech­nol­ogy con­sis­tently out­paced fal­ter­ing diplo­macy. As one of­fi­cial in­volved in the ne­go­ti­a­tions later noted, “We were con­stantly chas­ing the deal we could have got­ten two years ear­lier.”

Yet there was a good rea­son why the US re­fused for so long to con­sider a deal that al­lowed en­rich­ment. The dif­fi­culty lay in fig­ur­ing out Iran’s real in­ten­tions. If Iran did not want nu­clear weapons, as Ira­nian lead­ers in­sisted, why was it build­ing cen­trifuge ca­pac­ity so far in ex­cess of its con­ceiv­able civil­ian needs? And in­deed, why en­rich at all when re­ac­tor fuel can be bought on the com­mer­cial mar­ket far more cheaply?

Parsi’s an­swer is do­mes­tic pol­i­tics. Be­cause of what he dubs the Supreme Leader’s “in­cen­tive struc­ture”—by which he pre­sum­ably means the poli­cies Ay­a­tol­lah Ali Khamenei fa­vored and hence re­warded po­lit­i­cally—Tehran con­vinced it­self that “the nu­clear is­sue ul­ti­mately was a pre­text the West used to pres­sure Iran, to de­prive it of ac­cess to science, and to deny it the abil­ity to live up to its full po­ten­tial.” This would keep Iran from be­ing able to chal­lenge US dom­i­na­tion of the re­gion. The right to en­rich ura­nium be­came a sym­bol of na­tional pride, tech­no­log­i­cal prow­ess, in­ter­na­tional stand­ing—and fair­ness. How could the great Per­sian na­tion be de­nied the right to do some­thing that eight other non­nu­clear weapons states were do­ing? At the least, hav­ing given up so much else, draw­ing the line at en­rich­ment was a way for Tehran to keep the deal from look­ing, and feeling, like a de­feat.

This non­ne­far­i­ous ex­pla­na­tion is much eas­ier to take se­ri­ously now that an agree­ment has been reached and ad­hered to. In truth, the US still does not know what Tehran’s nu­clear in­ten­tions were and how they may have evolved. Ira­ni­ans’ views on crit­i­cal ques­tions are no less di­vided than are Amer­i­cans’. Some mem­bers of Tehran’s lead­er­ship may have wanted Iran to be a nu­clear weapons state. Oth­ers may have wanted to get just to the brink with­out cross­ing over—the so-called Ja­pan op­tion. A de­fin­i­tive choice may never have been made. US in­tel­li­gence con­cluded in 2007, and reaf­firmed twice there­after, that Iran had aban­doned its weapons pro­gram some years ear­lier. Per­haps nu­clear weapons were the goal un­til the price im­posed by world­wide sanc­tions got too high.

As re­luc­tant as Pres­i­dent Trump and his team are to ac­knowl­edge it, the nu­clear deal has re­moved a ma­jor dan­ger, al­low­ing him to fo­cus on other Ira­nian poli­cies, es­pe­cially in Syria where US and Ira­nian in­ter­ests are likely to clash as ISIS is pro­gres­sively weak­ened there.* The range of threats to US na­tional se­cu­rity—and in­deed to global se­cu­rity—looks en­tirely dif­fer­ent than it did in 2012, when there was a real prospect of a nu­clear-armed Iran that could in turn pro­voke nu­clear pro­lif­er­a­tion across the un­sta­ble Mid­dle East—in Saudi Ara­bia, Egypt, and Turkey in par­tic­u­lar. While the deal is not per­fect, Iran has thrown away tens of bil­lions of dol­lars and decades of work on weapons-re­lated ma­te­ri­als and fa­cil­i­ties, has taken, in the most pes­simistic out­look, a ten- to fif­teen-year hia­tus in pur­suit of nu­clear weapons, and re­mains a per­ma­nent mem­ber of the Non-Pro­lif­er­a­tion Treaty. Are there les­sons from this suc­cess that might be ap­plied to the grow­ing nu­clear threat in Asia?


Korea is years be­yond the nu­clear “break­out” the US so fears in Iran. Py­ongyang’s first nu­clear test was more than a decade ago. Four more have fol­lowed with yields up to twice the size of the Hiroshima bomb. The coun­try is be­lieved to have around twenty fis­sion bombs and to be pro­gress­ing along the path to a much larger hy­dro­gen bomb. More­over, the regime is con­sis­tently mak­ing faster progress on mis­sile tech­nol­ogy than US in­tel­li­gence has ex­pected, in­clud­ing the stun­ning July 4 test of what ap­pears to be a bona fide in­ter­con­ti­nen­tal bal­lis­tic mis­sile (ICBM). North Korea’s shorter-range mis­siles can now be fired from mo­bile launch­ers rather than fixed sites, and fu­eled with solid rather than liq­uid fuel. Both of th­ese ad­vances make prepa­ra­tion for a mis­sile launch much quicker and harder to de­tect. The cru­cial re­main­ing un­knowns are how long it will take Py­ongyang to per­fect an ICBM ca­pa­ble of reach­ing the con­ti­nen­tal US and to minia­tur­ize nu­clear weapons so that they can be de­liv­ered atop a mis­sile.

The dif­fer­ences with Iran are ob­vi­ous, but there are also sim­i­lar­i­ties that sug­gest how US pol­icy to­ward North Korea should be shaped. In both cases there is a nearly bot­tom­less well of distrust—in Py­ongyang, even of its Chi­nese ally. Amer­i­cans and Ira­ni­ans so feared each other that they needed the help of a mid­dle­man, Sul­tan Qa­boos of Oman, to get close enough even to be­gin ne­go­ti­at­ing. There is no per­son or coun­try that can play that part for North Korea, but the ab­sence of trust must some­how be reck­oned with in US strat­egy.

Sim­i­larly, in both Iran and North Korea, though for dif­fer­ent cul­tural and his­tor­i­cal rea­sons, “re­spect” and “dig­nity” carry a weight that is very hard for Amer­i­cans to ap­pre­ci­ate, but which has to be un­der­stood. In a somber video mes­sage to clar­ify Tehran’s po­si­tions recorded in Novem­ber 2013, Javad Zarif, for­eign min­is­ter and chief ne­go­tia­tor, opens with the sur­pris­ing words: “What is re­spect? What is dig­nity?” Sum­ma­riz­ing their de­tailed study of the North Korean sit­u­a­tion, Sung Chull Kim and Michael D. Co­hen, ed­i­tors of a valu­able new vol­ume of schol­arly es­says, write: “For North Korea, the sen­si­tive nerve of Kim Jong-un’s le­git­imiza­tion—the so-called dig­nity—is ap­par­ently one of the most vul­ner­a­ble parts of the regime.”

Py­ongyang and Tehran share a third un­usual char­ac­ter­is­tic that must in­flu­ence US pol­icy. In both cap­i­tals regime sur­vival has of­ten been more im­por­tant to those in power than the na­tional in­ter­est. The re­cent fate of Muam­mar Qaddafi af­ter he gave up his nu­clear pro­gram and of Sad­dam Hus­sein makes this anx­i­ety even more acute. Re­peated US talk of regime change will be just as coun­ter­pro­duc­tive in deal­ing with North Korea as it was with Iran.

Above all, in nei­ther coun­try is there an at­trac­tive mil­i­tary op­tion. North Korea is ca­pa­ble of in­flict­ing mil­lions of ca­su­al­ties on South Korea with con­ven­tional heavy ar­tillery be­fore those guns could be si­lenced. Ne­go­ti­a­tion is there­fore unavoidable. This means that a win­ner-take-all goal (com­pa­ra­ble to the zero-en­rich­ment po­si­tion vis-à-vis Iran) is un­achiev­able. Time spent pur­su­ing one will be wasted.

In­stead, as with Iran, what can be achieved has to be cal­i­brated against present cir­cum­stances. In view of Py­ongyang’s large nu­clear arse­nal and ad­vanced mis­sile de­liv­ery sys­tems, the long-stand­ing US in­sis­tence that North Korea agree to com­plete de­nu­cle­ariza­tion as a pre­con­di­tion to talks is far out of date and must be dropped.

How much can sanc­tions help? As Iran demon­strated, they can raise the cost of un­de­sired be­hav­ior, but they will not halt it so long as the coun­try in ques­tion is will­ing to suf­fer the con­se­quences—some­thing North Korea is clearly will­ing to do. More­over, over long pe­ri­ods of time, sanc­tions lose an edge. Ex­ter­nal pres­sure unites those sub­jected to it and economies adapt, cre­at­ing black mar­kets that per­versely pro­duce a class of peo­ple who profit from sanc­tions and want them pro­longed. Parsi goes so far as to as­sert that the sanc­tions regime im­posed on Iran “ul­ti­mately proved only that sanc­tions do not work,” but this is the Ira­nian line and it is false. He ad­mits else­where in the book that the sanc­tions cre­ated sub­stan­tial lever­age for Iran’s op­po­nents through the eco­nomic pain and in­ter­na­tional iso­la­tion they in­flicted. Sanc­tions are also es­sen­tial to demon­strat­ing in­ter­na­tional re­solve. Yet North Korea’s ex­tremely closed econ­omy and iron-fisted au­toc­racy make it the least sus­cep­ti­ble of any coun­try on earth to such pres­sure. Sanc­tions have to be main­tained but, short of pos­ing a mor­tal threat to North Korea’s regime, they are not a so­lu­tion.

China could, but won’t, cre­ate that mor­tal threat—by with­hold­ing oil and food. Trump is not the first Amer­i­can pres­i­dent to hope that if only the US leans heav­ily enough on China, China will lean hard enough on North Korea to force it to back down. Bei­jing fears both the in­ter­nal chaos and the flood of refugees that would fol­low a col­lapse of North Korea’s govern­ment. But the prin­ci­ple rea­son why it will not force regime change is a deeply held strate­gic fear of a united Korea al­lied to the US, which would put Amer­i­can forces on its own bor­der. Pres­sure from Wash­ing­ton won’t al­ter China’s as­sess­ment of its na­tional in­ter­est.

Ul­ti­mately, then, the only ap­proach that might work is one that has not yet been tried: a joint ef­fort by the US and China. As an even­tual out­come, both sides’ in­ter­ests would be met by a uni­fied, de­nu­cle­arized, neu­tral Korea. While this end state is not hard to de­fine, the process of get­ting there would be tor­tu­ous and re­quire a de­gree of mu­tual trust be­tween Wash­ing­ton and Bei­jing that does not now ex­ist. Small, con­fi­dence-build­ing steps would be needed over a long pe­riod. North and South Korea would have to find an ac­cept­able ba­sis for re­uni­fi­ca­tion— over­com­ing moun­tains of dif­fi­culty in bring­ing to­gether a dic­ta­tor­ship that is noth­ing with­out its weapons and a democ­racy whose econ­omy is more than one hun­dred times larger. North– South agree­ments signed in 1991 and 2000 point to a con­fed­er­a­tion be­tween the two states as the means of start­ing the process.

The ef­fort would take years. In the mean­time, the US and the world will have to de­pend on a de­ter­mined de­fense and, more im­por­tantly, de­ter­rence. Rhetor­i­cal blus­ter and mil­i­tary ges­tures—like fir­ing off mis­siles in re­sponse to North Korean tests—only con­firm the regime’s para­noia and un­der­mine US cred­i­bil­ity. Py­ongyang will not be fright­ened into chang­ing di­rec­tion at this late date. Wash­ing­ton can and should tighten sanc­tions on Chi­nese banks and com­pa­nies trad­ing with North Korea, and con­tinue to pres­sure Bei­jing into tak­ing a tougher stance. But it would be a huge mis­take to make this is­sue the sole test of the US–China re­la­tion­ship, as Pres­i­dent Trump re­peat­edly sug­gests he will do. That would be to trade one strate­gic threat for two.

Mean­while, the US must pre­serve the Iran deal—which can­not be taken for granted. The deal’s great­est weak­ness is not to be found in its pro­vi­sions but in the hos­til­ity of those in Tehran, Wash­ing­ton, and Jerusalem who, for mostly po­lit­i­cal rea­sons, would like to see it die. In the US, through more than thirty years of frozen non­re­la­tions, Iran be­came a two-di­men­sional cartoon of evil that too many mem­bers of Congress, es­pe­cially, and lead­ing of­fi­cials in the present ad­min­is­tra­tion, in­clud­ing the pres­i­dent, still be­lieve in. And though Is­rael’s top gen­eral called the deal a “strate­gic turn­ing point,” Prime Min­is­ter Ben­jamin Ne­tanyahu’s op­po­si­tion, which be­gan long be­fore a deal was ac­tu­ally ne­go­ti­ated, hasn’t ebbed.

Such car­i­ca­tures don’t sur­vive di­rect ex­po­sure. Parsi quotes a Ger­man diplo­mat who makes the point:

Ger­many has nor­mal diplo­matic re­la­tions, which makes a huge dif­fer­ence in our un­der­stand­ing of Iran. Just re­ly­ing on in­tel­li­gence, as the US is forced to do, can dis­tort things. It be­comes all about drama, doom and gloom, and never about the nor­mal things. Till this day, the US still has an un­nat­u­ral re­la­tion­ship with Iran. He’s right, of course. Our con­tin­u­ing lack of diplo­matic re­la­tions does not make it any eas­ier to main­tain the nu­clear agree­ment in the face of pro­found geopo­lit­i­cal strains. The onus for this to change is on Tehran.

The ad­min­is­tra­tion and op­po­nents of the deal in Congress—nearly all of them Repub­li­cans—need to up­date their rhetoric. Con­trary to what they ex­pected, the deal is be­ing hon­ored and con­tin­u­ing de­nun­ci­a­tions are not cost-free. They un­der­mine the work­ing re­la­tion­ship with the Ira­nian govern­ment needed to keep the deal in force—tech­ni­cal and fi­nan­cial is­sues crop up and must be man­aged—and they en­cour­age dan­ger­ous mis­chief on Capi­tol Hill by mem­bers who want to score what seem to be cheap po­lit­i­cal points or even see the deal col­lapse. Provo­ca­tions from Wash­ing­ton will be in­stantly re­sponded to by Tehran—es­pe­cially as the US es­ca­lates its mil­i­tary ac­tiv­ity in Syria, Yemen, and Iraq. And the crit­i­cisms raise ex­pec­ta­tions among Iran’s op­po­nents in the Mid­dle East that the US can­not meet with­out throw­ing away what has been achieved. It may be too much to hope that the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion will come to rec­og­nize that pariah sta­tus does not im­prove any na­tion’s be­hav­ior, and that the Iran deal is the start­ing point from which other is­sues the US has with Iran, be­gin­ning with the fu­ture of Syria, can be ad­dressed. But we should at least be able to ex­pect that the ad­min­is­tra­tion is ca­pa­ble of rec­og­niz­ing the boon to na­tional se­cu­rity it has in­her­ited and that it can ex­er­cise the dis­ci­pline and fo­cus nec­es­sary to main­tain it.

—July 12, 2017

Pres­i­dent Trump with Saudi Ara­bia’s King Sal­man bin Ab­du­laziz al-Saud in Riyadh, Saudi Ara­bia, where Trump gave a speech that was, Jes­sica Mathews writes, ‘a full-throated em­brace of the Saudi view of Iran as the re­gion’s chief male­fac­tor,’ May 21, 2017

North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un view­ing the test of a medium-to-long-range bal­lis­tic mis­sile in an un­dated photo re­leased May 22, 2017

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