It is indeed a “good thing for all parties concerned and a good thing for the world,” as President Donald Trump said Wednesday, that “Iran appears to be standing down.”
Now it’s time for Trump to stand up for a coherent Mideast strategy that goes beyond inconsistent tactics that alternately suggest impending withdrawal and deepening involvement. While there are occasional successes, the current approach alienates allies and emboldens adversaries.
Specifically, the administration must articulate a clearer objective regarding Iran. It shouldn’t be regime change, as some hawks hope, but should focus instead on preventing proliferation. A nuclear-armed Iran would not only be an existential threat to some countries but also trigger a Mideast deployment dash.
The Iran nuclear deal was designed to preclude that. But Trump scrapped that pact (more formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA) and embarked on a “maximum pressure” campaign that has backfired. In the wake of the killing of Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, Tehran announced that it would no longer abide by the deal’s nuclear-enrichment limits. And in response to the U.S. pulling out of the deal and ratcheting up sanctions, the theocracy has responded with a maximum-pressure campaign of its own that has deeply destabilized the region.
The JCPOA was imperfect — as any agreement between world powers and Iran would be. “By definition a deal is a compromise, and so people who are criticizing the deal because it didn’t meet their ideal objectives would have to say that about any deal,” Robert Malley told an editorial writer. Malley, who was a special assistant to former President Barack Obama on Iran and is now president of the International Crisis Group, added that “the only kind of deal that would satisfy would be a surrender by one side, and that was not what negotiations usually produce.”
Iran, of course, did not unilaterally surrender. And European allies who were signatories to the agreement are unlikely to give up on the pact, despite reports that the administration will ask them to do so. They know that such a move would drive Tehran even deeper toward Moscow and Beijing, two other signatories who, like all parties to the pact, acknowledge that Iran was technically in compliance until after the U.S. pullout.
Whether the deal is salvageable is unknown. If re-elected, Trump is unlikely to try. And even if a Democrat takes the oath of office in January 2021, geopolitical fluidity would likely require a renegotiation. Either way, diplomacy is essential. There clearly is no will and little wallet for yet another major Mideast war for regime change.
Indeed, if Iran is going to change, it will happen from within. Before the U.S. drone strike, brave Iranians took to Tehran’s streets to demand reform. But that was undercut by the rally-around-the-theocracy momentum that seized the nation after the Soleimani killing.
And in the streets of Baghdad and beyond, there was also a growing anti-Iran sentiment that led to mass demonstrations in Iraq.
Much of the anti-Iran sentiment that had led to mass demonstrations in Iraq also froze after the drone strike on Iraqi soil made the U.S., not Iran, the issue among Iraqi citizens and lawmakers, who passed a nonbinding parliamentary resolution calling for the withdrawal of U.S. forces.
A “huge relationship repair” with Baghdad is due, William Wechsler, director of the Middle East Programs at the Atlantic Council, told an editorial writer. “You want to go back to the situation where Iran was the center of ire, both on the street and in political chambers, and where the United States is the defender of Iraqi sovereignty.”
It’s understandable that many war-weary Americans want to leave the region. But that would leave more malevolent regional forces, let alone Russia and China, to fill the void. And in fact, one of the biggest challenges in the Mideast, Wechsler said, is overcoming perceptions not of deeper U.S. involvement but “the overwhelming perception of an imminent withdrawal.”
That perception invites miscalculation by state and nonstate actors alike, which would inevitably require U.S. re-involvement, just as the rise of al-Qaida and ISIS did. “I’d rather have a minor presence over a long period of time than a major presence for a short period of time,” Wechsler said.
A more coherent strategy will require sitting down with — and not talking down to — U.S. allies. Trump’s ongoing disparagement of NATO is damaging, and he’ll approach any kind of diplomatic engagement with low global equity, according to a new Pew Research Center poll across 32 countries. Not surprisingly, 64% or respondents said they do not have confidence in America’s commander-in-chief to “do the right thing in world affairs,” while only 29% said they did. The numbers are even worse among Western Europeans, with nearly 3 in 4 lacking confidence.
For its part, despite the throngs mourning Soleimani, the Iranian government is deeply unpopular among many in the country. And its leaders are viewed as overbearing in some Shiite-majority countries such as Iraq, a direct threat to many Sunni-majority nations and a pariah among many countries worldwide. And Tehran’s terrible perception will only worsen with Iran’s admission that it shot down a Ukrainian airliner with 176 civilians on board, mistaking it for an enemy target.
Both Iran and the U.S. will have challenges building coalitions. Yet diplomacy must somehow proceed, lest the next clash spiral out of control.