Remember when the only alternative to the Iran nuclear deal was war? In the summer of 2015, with Congress debating whether to vote on nixing the recently negotiated Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, Barack Obama gave a speech at American University invoking that dire dilemma. Just “stating a fact,” he said: The choice we face is ultimately between diplomacy or some form of war. Maybe not tomorrow, maybe not three months from now, but soon.”
Well, I suppose it all depends on your definition of “soon” – and also maybe “fact” – but it’s been nearly two weeks since President Donald Trump walked away from the pact, and the battle hasn’t broken out yet. In fact, the immediate Iranian response was not to hurriedly restart its nuclear weapons research, but to call on the European signatories to the deal to negotiate a plan to keep it in place. Here’s the thing: The U.S. and its allies face a serious threat from Iran, which continues to test ballistic missiles in violation of United Nations resolutions and to foment instability and terrorism in its struggle for regional supremacy against Saudi Arabia and the other Arab states.
Of course, as former Secretary of State John Kerry and other Obama aides repeatedly pointed out, all that behavior fell far outside the scope of the deal. For many of the deal’s skeptics, the obvious yet damning retort was: Why not? In their minds, omission of Iran’s regional transgressions, more than the disagreements over centrifuge numbers and sunset provisions and anytime-anywhere inspections, was the crux of the problem. So, to discuss the immediate fallout from Trump’s announcement, I decided to talk to one of the leading critics: Kenneth M. Pollack.
He is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. Before that, he snaked an interesting career path through the capital: As a CIA analyst in the 1990s, he put together the agency’s classified after-action study of the Gulf War; while a professor at the National Defense University, he also advised the Joint Chiefs of Staff on Middle Eastern politics; and he twice served in the National Security Council during the Bill Clinton administration.
The big reason I wanted to talk to him at this moment is his 2004 book, “The Persian Puzzle: Deciphering the 25-Year Conflict Between the United States and Iran,” which the New York Times Book Review said “reminds us again and again how often American assumptions about Iranian concerns were wrong.” So as we look to post-deal Iran, what assumptions most need rethinking? Here is a lightly edited transcript of our chat:
Tobin Harshaw: First, let’s hash out how the pro- and anti-deal sides in the U.S. have established their narratives over the last two weeks. The Trump backers insist that the deal was so flawed it had to be nuked, and that Obama can only blame himself for using an executive order rather than getting a better deal through Congress. Is that fair?
Kenneth M. Pollack: Like everything in Washington these days, there’s no easy answer. From my perspective, the JCPOA was not a great deal: I felt it gave up more than it should and got less than it could. But it was still a very useful deal because it put the Iranian nuclear program on ice for 10-15 years, which would give us the time to address Iran’s aggressive expansion in the region and create the leverage to come back and convince the Russians, Chinese and Iranians to agree to a better, more permanent deal.
Unfortunately, neither Obama nor Trump evinced any interest in dealing with Iranian actions in the Middle East, and Trump has now walked away from the deal for no good strategic reason and without any plan (let alone ability) to get a better one.
As for the decision not to treat the JCPOA as a treaty, I think there is fault on both sides. I would have much preferred Obama to treat it as a treaty and get Senate approval. The fact that he didn’t made it all too easy for Trump to scuttle it despite the fact that the Congress staunchly opposed his doing so. Of course, in Obama’s defense, back in 2015, the Congress seemed so dead set against the deal (wrongly, in my view) that you could certainly understand why he was not going to trust his signature foreign policy achievement in the Middle East to a Congress determined to hurt him any way it could.
That said, I felt that the way that the Obama administration tried to sell the deal — “you are either for it or you are a warmonger” — was equally wrong-headed and made it that much less likely that the Republicans in Congress would be willing to vote for it. As always, there is plenty of blame to go around.
TH: Those disappointed by Trump, particularly former Obama administration figures like John Kerry and Ben Rhodes, insist that not only does this increase the chances of war with Iran but it shows America cannot be trusted to keep its word, which among other things will doom any negotiations with North Korea. What’s your response?
KMP: Again, I don’t particularly like how former Obama administration officials have been conducting their half of the debate, but on the substance I fear that they are right. It is one of the reasons that I see Trump’s decision as thoughtless, reckless and potentially harmful to the U.S.
TH: The Iranian regime reacted in some expected ways, from burning American flags in parliament to launching some missiles into Israel from Syria, but the leadership also insisted that they were eager to work with the Europeans on saving the deal somehow. Was that a surprise? Is the deal salvageable without U.S. involvement?
KMP: I don’t think it was at all surprising. It was the smart response – and while the Iranians certainly can be foolish, ignorant and obtuse, they have largely played the nuclear issue well all along. Iran benefits from the JCPOA, albeit not nearly as much as they hoped.
Right now, their people are very unhappy at the state of their economy and I think the regime would love to see if they can use Trump’s decision to get additional economic benefits from the other signatories to the JCPOA. The Iranians will be able to rightly claim that Trump is now denying them the benefits they were promised under the JCPOA, and if the others want Tehran to continue to abide by it, they are going to have to make it worth Iran’s while to do so.
TH: Many supporters of the deal argue that Trump’s killing it will only empower “hard-liners” and hurt “moderates.” Do you really think that dichotomy exists? Whether or not, how do you think Trump’s action may affect Iranian politics?
KMP: Iran has a hideously fragmented polity, and it is an overstatement to simply divide them up into two camps. Yet many Iranian politicians line up more or less consistently with what we call the “hardline” and “moderate” positions, and it isn’t wrong to use those labels either.
So with that caveat in mind, I will say that I am pretty confident that it will affect Iranian internal politics, and I suspect mostly in an unhelpful way. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is the critical “moderate,” and he hitched his star to the wagon of the JCPOA. His whole theory was that Iran needed to end the U.S. sanctions to enable the economic transformation that the Iranian people desperately want.
For two years, Rouhani has had to defend that position in the face of evidence that Iran’s economy has not suddenly prospered after the deal. To some extent that was because some American sanctions remained, but to an even greater extent it was a result of the endemic corruption and mismanagement of the Iranian economy, which had nothing to do with the nuclear deal.
Nevertheless, the hardliners tried to undermine Rouhani’s position by pointing out that the nuclear deal had not prompted a transformation of the Iranian economy, because in their telling, the U.S. had deceived Iran and never lived up to its commitments. Trump scuttling the deal and re-imposing sanctions is likely to reinforce that narrative and so further weaken Rouhani and other moderates.
All that said, we need to be careful about ascribing too much of what happens in Iranian internal politics to American policy. Americans consistently overestimate the extent that our actions can and will affect Iranian politics.
TH: The White House insists that the bite of its unilateral sanctions will bring Iran back to the table for an entirely new deal – an argument I expect to hear on Monday when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo lays out the administration’s new “comprehensive plan.” Do you think that’s plausible?
KMP: It’s possible, but as an analyst, I would not rate it as likely. And as a former policymaker, I would have assessed the probability as too low and the potential costs of being wrong as too high to justify the risk.
The big unknowns that I think people are missing are China, Russia, India and other countries who either oppose the U.S. or that used to be called “non-aligned.” All of the press pieces about the JCPOA have focused on what the Europeans are going to do. I think European-American trade ties are probably going to prove too strong, and so the Europeans will complain but won’t do very much. Moreover, European trade with Iran just isn’t very significant, so losing it probably won’t hurt Iran that much.
But Russia is Iran’s most important strategic ally, and China and India are two of its most important oil buyers. All of them (and others) could choose to defy American sanctions and dare the White House to try to penalize them. If they follow that course of action, it will be very helpful to Tehran financially, diplomatically and psychologically, and make it much harder to convince Iran to come back to the bargaining table.
Beyond that, the Iranian regime has repeatedly been willing to defy sanctions and accept hardship. Coercing Iran a second time around, after reneging on our own offer, is likely to be a lot harder, and it could be impossible.
TH: You and I both think the Iranian nuclear program is just one spoke on a bigger wheel – a desire to control vast swathes of the Middle East and surpass the Arab states as regional superpower. What are the current priorities for the U.S. and its regional allies in thwarting Tehran’s master plan?
KMP: For me the first priorities need to be Syria, Iraq and Yemen. Each deserves a much bigger conversation, but I know we don’t have hours to unpack each so let me just give you the broadest outlines.
Syria is critical both because the Syrian civil war is destabilizing the entire Middle East and Europe beyond it, but also because it could either be a huge Iranian gain or a giant Iranian liability. The Iranians’ role in Syria has grown enormously. If they are allowed to consolidate their control, Syria becomes an overland link to Lebanon and a launch pad to operate against Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, etc.
But Iran is now stuck propping up a corrupt, incompetent and unpopular regime. It’s the same mistake the U.S. made in Vietnam and Russia made in Afghanistan. What we all learned is that it is far, far more expensive and difficult to back the regime than it is to back the insurgents fighting them. Iran has set itself up for Syria to be its Vietnam. We should make sure it becomes just that by expanding our support to the Syrian rebels.
TH: And Iraq?
KMP: Iraq is harder, but just as important. It is one of the most important Arab states and the vast majority of Iraqis hate Iran, but we have allowed Iran to become the most influential external power there out of sheer neglect. If we are willing to maintain a sizable American military presence there (as we should have in 2011) and are willing to make a long-term commitment to help Iraq economically (say $1 billion to $2 billion per year for five years) we will be in a position to help nationalistic Iraqi leaders who have tried to stand up to Tehran but failed largely because they did not have our help. That remains true even after Iraq’s recent elections.
Yemen is harder still. There the most important things are to get our Saudi allies unstuck and convince the Houthis to evict their Iranian advisers. In a nutshell, the best prospect we have to do both is to help the Saudi-led military coalition to take the port of Hudaydah, the last and most important under Houthi control. Then, with that military victory in hand, convince them to offer a generous political deal to the Houthis, one largely along the lines of what the Houthis demanded at the start of the civil war. In return, we/they would demand an end to the war and an end to the Iranian presence.
While those are only three steps in a journey of many miles, they are also three big steps, both in terms of the impact they would have on Iran’s regional position and the demands on U.S. leadership. They are also entirely doable at a very reasonable price. The only question is really whether anyone can convince Donald Trump that they are worth doing.
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