Hard Choices Facing Tehran and Washington

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by Daniel Brumberg

Perhaps Iran has done the Trump Administration a favor by announcing that it has moved to enrich uranium at five percent, thus violating the terms of the 2015 nuclear agreement (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, JCPOA). In the wake of that decision, the White House—and President Donald Trump in particular—faces greater pressure to decide between two very different approaches to Iran: to find a way to work with a regime that the US government and many US friends in the Middle East see as a dangerous threat, or alternatively, to sustain a policy of economic warfare and regime change designed to push the Iran question, in all its complex dimensions, to some kind of resolution. The first choice would require a mix of both containment and engagement; in effect, it would echo key features of Barack Obama’s Iran policy. The second choice would risk falling into the black hole of war but without any guarantee that the administration would achieve its key objectives. Indeed, if the White House hitches its policy horse to a strategy of regime change, Tehran’s leaders might very well eventually embrace a nuclearization strategy that they have so far abjured.

The conventional wisdom in Washington is that a powerful coalition of domestic and international forces is pushing Trump toward war. This assessment, however, might prove premature. Many Middle East states fear war, even if they hope that the threat of US military action might force Iran’s compliance. Now that this wager has been dealt a severe blow by Tehran’s defiance, Israel, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia will probably watch to see where the administration’s Iran policy is moving. On the US domestic front, the only White House advisor who has clamored for an attack on Iran appears increasingly isolated. As one New York Times columnist noted, National Security Advisor John Bolton has been embarrassed by a president whose political instincts incline him to be skeptical of steps that could produce a full-fledged war, as his last-minute June 20 decision to call off a US air attack on Iran suggests. Moreover, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stated on June 2 that the administration is ready to talk to Tehran “with no preconditions,” thus abandoning his insistence that Tehran comply with 12 US demands, not one of which any Iranian leader could possibly accept—as Pompeo knew from the outset.

But this shift is far from sufficient. Trump must make a basic choice or circumstances beyond his control will choose for him. His recent move to directly sanction Ayatollah Ali Khamenei adds to the bad news because, while it will have zero economic consequences for Iran’s leader, Tehran will read Trump’s measure as a clear signal that US policy is ultimately based on regime change in Iran. Still, it would help if Trump would finally appoint a defense secretary with the political acumen and security credibility to coax the president toward a more rational policy.

The chances for this would increase if efforts by Western Europe to forge a mechanism to sustain Iran’s oil sales would succeed sufficiently to convince Iran to keep complying with the JCPOA. Backed into a corner, Tehran has chosen to violate one key clause of that pact in the hope that this carefully calculated move will force Europe to create such a mechanism. In short, Tehran’s actions are designed to save rather than destroy the agreement. The fact that France and Britain have already denounced Iran’s actions highlights the uphill battle Iran faces as it tries to breathe life into the basic policy choice it made when Tehran signed on to the nuclear agreement.

Iran’s Fundamental Choice in 2015

The decision to sign the JCPOA was dictated by one overriding goal: regime survival. While the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) is vital to that strategy, regime survival also depends on reviving an oil and gas sector that has suffered decades of sanctions, not to mention the intrinsic inefficiencies (such as pervasive corruption) that come with a massive and sprawling state-owned industry. The income from that industry has been distributed through myriad institutions—including the parliament—that provide arenas for negotiating and competing over the allocation of rents. To cut off that income is tantamount to undermining the multifaceted political mechanisms that are part and parcel of politics in the Islamic Republic of Iran.

This elemental connection between regime survival and the oil and gas sector helps to explain Iran’s decision to sign on to the JCPOA. In fact, whether defined in purely energy terms or through the prism of a military strategy, “nuclearization” has never offered Iran a dependable or, more importantly, safe path to regime survival. On the domestic front, the evidence suggests that Iran could be better off relying on conventional energy programs rather than trying to build a nuclear one that is unlikely to mitigate critical problems such as electricity shortages. It is true that Iran’s leaders have claimed that their decision to move toward five-percent enrichment was dictated by the needs to sustain fuel for the Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant. But a far more expansive nuclear power program must be built if Iran is to have any chance of making a serious dent in meeting its domestic power needs. More significantly, because the state budget depends on oil and gas sales, it makes no sense to divert scarce resources to a nuclearization strategy, especially if such a strategy leads to the predisposition of sanctions.

As to the potential geostrategic and military benefits of nuclearization, Iran’s leaders have evinced a keen grasp of the costs and dangers that would come with such a choice. The dangers stem from the fact that if Iran is to have anything close to real nuclear deterrence, it requires an array of nuclear weapons sufficient to threaten a “second strike.” Any effort to move farther in this direction would require a much more ambitious enrichment and testing program, one that could not be accomplished in the open without inviting a massive Israeli or US attack. Iran’s leaders might try to anticipate or deter such an attack by trying to create a secret program. But then the challenge of testing would still exist, quite apart from the scope of the program required to build anything similar to the capacity of North Korea.

Rather than go down this dangerous path, in the early 2000s Iran’s leaders used an enhanced enrichment program as a bargaining chip to drive the removal of sanctions. The country’s push to produce enough uranium for one bomb was thus a diplomatic rather than military strategy designed to open the door to revitalizing the state-owned oil and gas industry. Whatever its possible faults, including perhaps the absence of any agreement on ballistic missiles, Iran’s signature on the JCPOA signaled a decisive choice dictated by its own economic factors—not to mention the resolve of a unified global community to embrace a pact that would hopefully open opportunities for foreign investment in Iran’s oil and gas sector.

Khamenei and his hard-line supporters in the IRGC warned from the outset that the United States could not be trusted to adhere to the agreement. Nonetheless, they reluctantly agreed to a strategy that President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif argued—with good reason—was the best of the worst alternatives. What these two leaders could not predict (along with the rest of the world) was the election of a US president who would abandon the JCPOA and, in so doing, rip apart the foundations of a diplomatic strategy that, with all its limitations, provided the best path to encouraging Iran to avoid the perils of nuclearization.

Tehran’s New and Difficult Choice in 2019-2020

It is painfully obvious that for Iran, there is no going back to trying to use a carefully calibrated enhanced enrichment program to reestablish a basic bargain, one that the Trump Administration has now repudiated. Nevertheless, this fact has not prevented Tehran from trying to get the attention of Western European states by exceeding the enrichment levels spelled out in the JCPOA. The goal, at least for the moment, is not to set the stage for pursuing nuclearization. Rather, Tehran is gambling that once it takes steps that could be seen as jeopardizing the JCPOA, Europe will create the trading mechanism Iran needs to keep its original strategy alive. While the elements of such a mechanism have reportedly been assembled, it depends on a complicated set of arrangements and tools that Zarif has described as insufficient. As a result, the leaders in Tehran are under greater pressure to consider the very strategy they had previously abjured and that Khamenei still seems to oppose.

This does not mean that Iran’s leaders will try to move toward nuclearization at warp speed. On the contrary, they will advance slowly to avoid further antagonizing European governments, several of which have already denounced Iran’s step toward five-percent enrichment. They will probably also move cautiously in the hope that Trump will lose the 2020 election, thus opening the door to finding a way back to the JCPOA. But because Trump’s actions have confirmed in the eyes of all Iranian leaders that the United States will always violate its word, the chances that any US president would find the diplomatic space to negotiate any agreement with Iran are slim. With their stance on the agreement now fully validated, Iran’s hard-liners—with Khamenei’s blessing—will likely oppose any talks with Washington. Indeed, they are pushing for a policy of “resistance” that could snowball into the war that Trump apparently wants to avoid.

Trump’s Choice in 2019-2020

It is far from clear if Trump ever understood the wider security and political implications of his decision to abandon the JCPOA. It was, he insisted, a “terrible agreement” that needed to be replaced by a better one. Treating Iran in a manner very similar to the way he had previously browbeat businesses that had not complied with his dictates, he simply reneged on the nuclear agreement. Trump seems to see that the threat of force is part of a bullying strategy that will force Iran’s compliance with little more than a quick street brawl conducted by his enforcers.

What he does not seem to understand is that coercive diplomacy only works if the party that threatens force also offers its adversary a politically viable option to economic war or military conflict. This was the premise of President Obama’s approach to Iran. Having based his domestic and foreign policies on repudiating all of the key choices that Obama made, Trump perceives offering incentives to Iran as humiliating. An imperfect policy of carrots and sticks, one that both engages and tries to contain an Iranian regime that will not give up its efforts to project power in its immediate neighborhood, may be a choice that Trump cannot swallow without losing face on the front that counts most for him: the US political arena.

Blessed are the Negotiation Makers

If the prospects for Trump making the better of two choices are slim, they might be improved by some critical steps. To begin with, Trump would do well to fire Bolton. Past experience with others indicates that the president will not do so unless Bolton makes statements or takes actions that Trump sees as violating his trust. Thus far Bolton has preferred the option of keeping his job over his desire to wage war with Iran. But if Trump again blocks such an action, Bolton may eventually resign rather than endure further humiliation. Such a development could open up space for Pompeo to define precisely what he means when he claims that the United States will now talk with Iran “with no preconditions.”

Appointing a well-respected and permanent secretary of defense would also help. The issue is not only finding someone who can advance a broadly supported hawkish realism; the bigger point is that such a defense secretary might be in a position to communicate the expert judgments of a defense department whose leaders in the Pentagon and in the field are best placed to assess the potentially uncontrollable risks of war. Trump may have his doubts about the Central Intelligence Agency, but as he reminded the country during his July 4 speech, he sees the military as the mainstay of American power.

Prospects for inching toward an engagement/containment strategy would also be improved by signaling, in a consistent manner, to US Middle East allies that Washington is not looking for a fight. On that score, it is worth emphasizing that Emirati and Saudi leaders have both underscored their preference for diplomacy over war. As for Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is fighting for his political life. Rather than support a war that could unleash Hezbollah rockets, which may have the capacity to reach the Israeli nuclear installation at Dimona in the Negev Desert, Netanyahu might welcome working with a US administration which, after all, has pretty much given up the two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

The biggest hurdle may be finding common ground with Western European leaders. Although they have made clear their displeasure with Iran’s recent enrichment decision, they will sustain their efforts to find a way to bypass US sanctions. But this is a very weak stick given the complex task at hand. What Europe needs is some carrots. For example, European states might indicate their readiness for an international dialogue on Iran’s ballistic missile system if and when Trump signals that he is as ready to seriously consider talks with Iran.

Even if Trump eventually reaches out to a regime that he insists continues to be “ready to make a deal,”  this may be a case of too little, too late. Stung by a major case of buyer’s remorse, Iran’s leaders will avoid any measure that gives credence to the White House. Moreover, Iran’s leaders may have already concluded that the only reason Trump took the historic step of meeting Kim Jong-Un on North Korean soil is that Pyongyang possesses the kind of nuclear weapon system Iran chose not to pursue. Still, any bid by Tehran to emulate North Korea’s nuclearization strategy will be fraught with danger, thus underscoring the nearly impossible dilemma that Trump has foisted on Iran without grasping the costs that Washington—and Tehran—might one day pay for his rash action.

Daniel Brumberg is a Non-resident Senior Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Daniel and read his publications click here Reprinted, with permission, from Arab Center Washington DC.

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22 Comments

  1. There is a third, more important choice. Let the non-violent Iranian opposition be more involved in any matter involving Ayatollahs.

    At the end of the day, we are the secular sane Iranians. Insane Ayatollahs do not put Iran first. They morally feel that Islam comes first and foremost. They have an apocalyptic agenda.

    So the question is, does the United States want to be seen to be negotiating with sane or insane people?

    There are thousands of very gifted Iranian in United States, that are already contributing to the US society. Why not gather them around and save Iran?

  2. Unfortunately your claim of “Iran violating the JCPOA” is inaccurate. The country that breached the agreement is the US which is a major violation of the agreement. The uranium concentrations of 3.67% is a technical and nominal number in terms of a true chemistry of uranium and the concentration is actually around 2.6% so it is not a violation technically and is NOT a violating the spirit of the agreement. Please do your research.
    BTW, according to the latest revealed secret and classified emails Trump left the agreement simply because the agreement was signed by President Obama! So the racism is going very deep for this administration!

  3. Monty Ahwazi

    No, no, no.

    The Americans have, at different times, supplied different explanations for the abrogation of JCPOA, all of them are misinformation.

    The abrogation of JCPOA was for the benefit of American Protestanism and its obsession with Jews & Israel. Likewise US moves against the Palestinian people, against Islam in Jerusalem, and against Iran and the Shia.

    Imagine USSR sanctioning the Vatican and the Pope, or the Chinese sanctioning France and the Bishop of Paris in order to promote Marxism-Leninism with Chinese Characteristics!

    I think the idea was to destroy all elements of the Iranian & Shia power to make the Middle East safe for Israel by waging an economic war to cause Iranians to overthrow the best government that they have ever had in the last 2500 years.

    In which case US could substantially decamp from the Middle East (to East Asia, I persume) without having had to strategically settle with Iran and her allies in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon.

    Of course, Americans and Israelis did not want war, in case of war, US could not afford the cost of protecting Israel.

    Note that EU states, from the beginning, stated that they will not go against US in order to protect JCPOA. EU has shared Trumps goals but not, perhaps, his methods.

    (When floods hit Iran, Germany sent a plane load of blankets and tents. )

    When Iranians did not implode, it became clear that US and Israel had failed in their war of choice against Iran.

    For the Americans, it has meant that they have dug themselves even deeper into the Middle East and were facing a prolonged period of time before diplomacy could resume, say in 2038.

    As is, even then I cannot see useful diplomatic engagement between US and Iran, US has established the indisputable fact the no deal with them is durable.

    Furthermore, US-Iran diplomacy or deal making no longer has the potential of commercial investment in Iran by foreign entities, they will not take the risk of US reneging on any arrangements with Iran.

    What we are going to witness, in my opinion, in the coming years and decades, is the development of an intense inward-looking Shia Crescent which aims to extend and cosolidate an autoarkic economy all the while maintaining and expanding her strategic autonomy and power against the West as well as Sunni Muslims.

    US war against Iran has the same geo-strategic import as Vietnam and Iraq wars. Here, of course, the costs of war has been pushed on all other countries of the world. US has hit the world in its pocket book and will face the consequences of that wanton act (expecting a quick victory, just like Saddam Hussein in 1980, war followed by offers of negogiations)

  4. Why is Zarif coming to the UN again? I know he needs some sort of a cover but wouldn’t it have been better to have started negotiations months earlier? What was Khamenei thinking?

  5. ALI MOSTOFI,

    As an advocate of real nonviolence and just peace (per Dr. Mossadegh, and later Iran’s reform movement, including courageous leaders like Mostafa Tajzadeh), I am amused, if not sickened, when supporters of the return of fascistic colonially-backed monarchy, pretending to be (in your words) “non-violent Iranian opposition,” beg colonial masters, especially in DC and Tel Aviv, to take such “opposition” seriously.

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