Trump strat­egy pushes Iran to­ward ne­go­ti­a­tion


The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s with­drawal from the Iran nu­clear deal and a sub­se­quent speech by Sec­re­tary of State Mike Pom­peo have en­gen­dered a range of re­sponses: Some wel­comed the new hard line, but most ex­pressed con­cern and crit­i­cism. Crit­ics have ac­cused the ad­min­is­tra­tion of call­ing for war or regime change; oth­ers have de­nounced its strat­egy as un­re­al­is­tic.

In ac­tu­al­ity, though, the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s ap­proach has a rea­son­able chance of suc­ceed­ing with Iran. A key point that seems to have been over­looked by many of the com­men­ta­tors is that the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion has in­di­cated a will­ing­ness to en­ter into ne­go­ti­a­tions, even as it es­ca­lates pres­sure against Iran through sanc­tions. And a pol­icy of max­i­mum pres­sure, fol­lowed by ne­go­ti­a­tion and deal-mak­ing, means that a com­pre­hen­sive agree­ment be­tween the two coun­tries is not out of the ques­tion.

Per­haps the most in­trigu­ing mes­sage em­bed­ded in the Pom­peo speech was the sig­nal­ing of a de­sire to en­gage Iran in ne­go­ti­a­tion for a com­pre­hen­sive agree­ment lead­ing to nor­mal­iza­tion of re­la­tions. Pom­peo in­vited Iran to “look at our diplo­macy with North Korea” as ev­i­dence of the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s will­ing­ness to en­gage ad­ver­saries in ne­go­ti­a­tions on very com­plex is­sues.

Trump’s pres­sure tac­tics likely won’t bring Iran to its knees or fa­cil­i­tate the over­throw of the regime in the fore­see­able fu­ture, but his ap­proach might bring the Ira­ni­ans to the ne­go­ti­at­ing ta­ble.

Tehran is at present dis­in­clined to take up the idea of di­rect ne­go­ti­a­tions with the United States. It is fo­cused on seek­ing an agree­ment with the Euro­peans to com­pen­sate for the losses that it will suf­fer be­cause of new Amer­i­can sanc­tions.

In the months ahead, how­ever, it will prob­a­bly as­sess its own op­tions with sev­eral fac­tors in mind.

First, Iran is likely to be dis­ap­pointed by Eu­rope. It is true that Eu­ro­pean govern­ments are un­happy with the U.S. with­drawal from the nu­clear agree­ment and the im­po­si­tion of sanc­tions on Iran. But to Eu­ro­pean firms, the U.S. mar­ket is far more im­por­tant than Iran. Global Eu­ro­pean com­pa­nies are with­draw­ing from Iran, and no re­al­is­tic Eu­ro­pean pol­icy can fun­da­men­tally change this real­ity.

Sec­ond, a race to­ward nu­clear weapons is fraught with risks. Given U.S. ac­tions, Iran could aban­don the nu­clear agree­ment and pro­duce as much ura­nium as quickly and at as high a level of en­rich­ment as it would like. Ay­a­tol­lah Ali Khamenei has al­ready an­nounced that he has or­dered prepa­ra­tions to “up­grade” Iran’s en­rich­ment ca­pac­ity. Iran could also de­cide to restart work on weapon de­signs and fuses, and sprint to a nu­clear weapons ca­pa­bil­ity with­out declar­ing that it is do­ing so. But any such Ira­nian de­ci­sion, if it be­came known, would most prob­a­bly lead the Euro­peans to join the United States in im­pos­ing sanc­tions. Given that Wash­ing­ton has stated that it will not al­low Iran to ac­quire nu­clear weapons, Tehran would also be risk­ing an at­tack aimed at its nu­clear in­fra­struc­ture (and per­haps more). The Ira­ni­ans would prob­a­bly also lose the sup­port of Rus­sia and China — at a time when some in the Ira­nian lead­er­ship are push­ing for stronger ties with both. It ap­pears un­likely that they would pur­sue this course in the near term.

Third, Iran’s cal­cu­la­tion will cer­tainly be shaped by as­sess­ments of the im­pact of U.S. strat­egy. It is un­clear how com­pre­hen­sive U.S. sanc­tions will be and how dam­ag­ing these would be to Iran’s al­ready weak econ­omy. It is likely that fresh U.S. sanc­tions will cause sig­nif­i­cant dam­age by dis­cour­ag­ing in­vest­ment, en­cour­ag­ing fur­ther cap­i­tal flight and per­haps in­creas­ing la­bor un­rest.

If sanc­tions against Iran are ac­com­pa­nied by pres­sure against Ira­nian prox­ies in the re­gion, through sup­port to those will­ing to re­sist them, Iran will con­front the choice be­tween re­treat or es­ca­la­tion. Es­ca­lat­ing will di­vert re­sources from use at home and add to Tehran’s eco­nomic and per­haps po­lit­i­cal prob­lems, in­clud­ing in­creas­ing ten­sions among fac­tions in­side the regime, strength­en­ing those who seek a fun­da­men­tal change. Such a development in turn could risk in­sta­bil­ity and per­haps even re­volt.

Fourth, Iran will watch de­vel­op­ments in the U.S.-North Korea ne­go­ti­a­tions. The Sin­ga­pore sum­mit was a promis­ing start, with dif­fi­cult, com­plex and vi­tal de­tails of a fi­nal agree­ment to be ne­go­ti­ated. Real progress with North Korea could have a salu­tary ef­fect on Iran, en­cour­ag­ing its lead­ers to en­gage in ne­go­ti­a­tions with the United States.

Iran is for the mo­ment un­pre­pared to en­ter di­rect ne­go­ti­a­tions with the United States. But with more eco­nomic pres­sure and in­creased costs, Tehran may change its ap­proach and be­come will­ing to start a di­a­logue that can lead to talks based on the in­ter­ests of the two coun­tries, ul­ti­mately lead­ing, per­haps, to nor­mal re­la­tions.

The al­ter­na­tive path would en­tail huge eco­nomic costs and even the risk of a con­flict — out­comes that Iran can ill af­ford.

Zal­may Khalilzad was the U.S. am­bas­sador to the United Na­tions from 2007 to 2009.

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