The Time Has Come to De-Escalate Conflict With Tehran
Written by Jack Carlos Mindich, 11/02/17
Critics of the Iran Deal argue it will do little to reduce the danger Tehran poses to American interests in the Middle East. However, the current moderate Rouhani regime is the best chance the US has to negotiate with Iran. Rejection of compromise could usher in a less conciliatory government and further threaten Middle Eastern stability. Thus the US should continue to recognize the nuclear treaty and work with Rouhani.
After hinting for months, on October 13th President Donald Trump officially struck a major blow against the Iran nuclear deal by refusing to certify that Iran remained in compliance. The deal, signed in 2015 over the unanimous objection of Republicans, headlined former President Barack Obama’s foreign policy accomplishments. However, even so, the deal faced opposition from members Democratic leadership. Senator Charles Schumer (recipient of nearly 400k of campaign contributions from the pro-Israel lobby) voted no and asserted that he “[believes] Iran will not change” even under the deal’s framework. Such language is ironic. The United States has shunned Iran’s attempts at becoming more cosmopolitan in the past and doing so only empowered hardliners inside the Islamic Republic. Iran’s election of Hassan Rouhani in 2013 and his reelection earlier this year is providing the United States with an opportunity to de-escalate tensions not available since Mohammed Khatami’s tenure as President. Failure by the United States to negotiate in good faith with the Rouhani government will influence Iran to turn to the right in order to appease the hardliner base and could usher in another conservative threat like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad by cementing the perception that Iran cannot hope to deal with the West.
The great incongruity of American anti-Iranian policy is that it has directly exacerbated the very issues that administrations have attempted to address. Donald Trump, in explaining his decision, proclaimed that “we will not continue down a path whose predictable conclusion is more violence, more terror and the very real threat of Iran’s nuclear breakout." Yet, history tells us that those consequences will be heightened only if America severs ties with Iran. In 2003, after the rout of Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi military, the United States seemed to have secured the “new world order” policy makers craved. At that point, according to author Trita Parsi, then Iranian President Mohammad Khatami and his reformist government made overtures to the United States and offered to “put a series of U.S. aims on the agenda, including full cooperation on nuclear safeguards, "decisive action" against terrorists, coordination in Iraq, ending "material support" for Palestinian militias and accepting the Saudi initiative for a two-state solution in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” The United States sharply declined embarrassing Iran and soon the balance of power shifted with Iraq’s rapid descent into failed state territory.
Iran emerged from the Iraq War an unconditional winner. For Iran, the war solved two serious security dilemmas at once: American military failure rendered a future attack on Iran impossible and Iraqi instability caused de facto submission to Iran, turning a country once Iran’s most feared neighbor into a puppet. This strengthened Iranian nationalists no longer greatly concerned about American invasion. Parsi argued that the action “strengthened the hands of those in Iran who believe the only way to compel the United States to talk or deal with Iran is not by sending peace offers but by being a nuisance.”As a result, Khatami’s policies of outreach towards the West fell out of favor in Iran. Iranians saw no willingness in the West to make peace and saw no reason that the west would be helpful.
The consequence was the rise in popularity of a strong Iranian nationalist and anti-Westerner in Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. While Khatami had pledged only seven years earlier to seek a nuclear weapon free Middle East, Ahmadinejad quickly accelerated it leading to initial UN sanctions in 2006 which quickly ramped up. By 2012, Iran was at the brink of war. Israel threatened military intervention and had purportedly already orchestrated the assassination of multiple Iranian nuclear scientists. Ahmadinejad exacerbated these conflicts with his rhetoric and refusal to compromise and put the possibility of peace into doubt.
The election of Hassan Rouhani in 2013 made negotiation possible. Increasingly worried about the possibility of Iran developing full nuclear capabilities, America sanctioned and then doubled down on sanctioning Iran and seized billions of dollars in Iranian foreign assets. The sanctions were enough to force Iran towards the negotiating table as the instability the sanctions caused in Iran lead to Iranians seeking new leadership. Rouhani was elected with over 50% of the vote-enough to avoid a runoff and quickly reached out to President Obama and attempted to jump start negotiation, which culminated in the nuclear deal--something that would not have happened under Ahmadinejad.
The deal’s is far from perfect, but the central issue at play should not be the treaty itself. Rather, the deal’s paramount significance is that it is the beginning of changing Iran’s powerful anti-Americanism central to Iranian identity since Operation Ajax in the 1950s, and especially since the Iranian Revolution in 1979. It is a great failure of the Realist paradigm to continue to view the Iranian government as homogenous. Critics argue that the deal provides Iran capital for funding terrorism, allows it to threaten Israel in the region and will not change Iran’s anti-American position and these are reasonable concerns. However, history shows a significant difference between the policies pursued by Iranian reformists and hardliners. Iran is much less likely to cause trouble for the US or Israel with reformists in power than they would under nationalists. Tearing up the deal would signal to Iran that reformist negotiation tactics will no longer be effective and would force Rouhani to harden his tone with the west. Worse, it could cause reformers to lose control of the presidency either by unilateral action by the Ayatollah or by simple electoral defeat to a nationalist. Such a result would be far more catastrophic for us and our allies than any negatives reformists cause within the deal’s framework.
By dealing productively with the Rouhani government we can both give ourselves the possibility of a powerful ally in the Middle East and avoid the prospects of an Iranian-Israeli war. To return to Senator Schumer’s quote, Iran has changed and it changed because of reformists. Failure to deal productively with the current regime could cause another reversion to nationalism. That is a path we must do everything to avoid.