by Derek Davison
In a new report signed by 76 scholars and national security experts, including former officials from both Republican and Democratic administrations, the National Iranian-American Council is arguing that the incoming Donald Trump administration should take the opportunity presented by the Iran nuclear deal (Joint Comprehensive Program of Action, or JCPOA)) and expand upon it in order to improve U.S.-Iran relations more broadly. The report, unveiled at a panel discussion held at the Stimson Center on November 16, contends that, given the current instability in the Middle East, Washington and Tehran must try to work together to try to end that instability despite the challenges that remain in their relationship:
If diplomacy could be successful in resolving the most volatile and complex point of tension between the U.S. and Iran – the nuclear dispute – President Trump should also employ diplomacy to peacefully resolve or manage the remaining differences between Washington and Tehran. Undoubtedly, this is not a simple proposition. Iran’s willingness and ability to engage with the U.S. on regional matters has not yet been fully tested. Internal Iranian (and American) politics continue to pose a potent challenge for sustained engagement. Moreover, in some areas, U.S. and Iranian interests are diametrically opposed – such as the Israeli-Palestinian issue – and their differences there can at best be contained. In other areas, such as the fight against ISIS, their interests are largely overlapping and both sides would benefit from increased collaboration and coordination.
But what remains unquestionable, is that it lies in the interest of the United States to better manage its relationship with Iran so that the two countries have functional – though not perfect – relations. A quick glance at the geopolitical chessboard demonstrates this necessity. Iran has substantial latent power – population size and potential for wealth generation – and thus it is bound to be a leading power in the greater Middle East. Washington cannot change this. Nor can Washington stabilize the Middle East without Iran’s involvement. Iran will be part of the regional solution – or there won’t be a solution. The only question is how the U.S. will approach Iran and its role as a major power in the region. Having recognized that Iran cannot be indefinitely contained, pursuing a policy of non-engagement would simply be detrimental to U.S. interests.
Key Issues in the U.S.-Iran Relationship
The NIAC report looked at eight issues surrounding the U.S.-Iran relationship and offered recommendations to the Trump administration with respect to each of them:
- Direct U.S.-Iran Relations: The report argues that the Trump administration should “communicate to Iranian leaders” that the United States seeks improved relations with Tehran rather than regime change and perhaps consider appointing a special envoy to Iran as a way to keep lines of communication open. Improving U.S.-Iran relations could influence Iran to take steps to resolve the lingering conflicts between the two countries, in particular with respect to Iran’s support for Hezbollah and its hostility toward Israel, and they may also be essential to the JCPOA’s long-term success. As political scientist John Mearsheimer said at the Stimson event, the United States has a “deep-seated interest” in improving relations with Iran in order to ensure that Tehran does not feel “threatened” enough to pursue nuclear weapons when most of the JCPOA’s terms sunset in 10-15 years.
- Saudi Arabia: As author Sanam Anderlini put it at Stimson, “the United States should not be in the business of taking sectarian sides” in the Middle East. NIAC’s report calls for the Trump administration to act as a neutral party in the Saudi-Iranian rivalry, and to focus its efforts on increasing dialogue between the two countries and implementing “military confidence-building measures” in the Persian Gulf.
- Iraq: The report recommends the formation of “a trilateral U.S.-Iraq-Iran group at the senior official and ultimately ministerial level,” with the goal of creating a more inclusive Iraqi government, rebuilding the Iraqi military in a non-sectarian way, and increasing overall transparency and reducing corruption in Baghdad.
- Syria: NIAC’s recommendation, that the Trump administration stop talking about overthrowing the Assad regime and instead engage with Russia, Iran, and other external actors to secure a truce, is one that Trump may actually be prepared to follow. He has already said that his attention in Syria would be focused on the Islamic State, not Assad, and his interest in improving ties with Russia, Assad’s ally, suggests that he would take a softer line on Assad’s future. Last week, Trump told the Wall Street Journal that he plans to end American aid for Syria’s rebels, saying that “we have no idea who these people are.” On Wednesday, Assad told a Portuguese TV station that, while he remains “dubious” about what America will do in Syria, the Trump administration could be a “natural ally” for Syria.
- Afghanistan: Iran’s interest in helping the U.S. to stabilize Afghanistan was apparent in the early days after the attacks of September 11, 2001, before the Bush administration opted to include Tehran in its “Axis of Evil.” NIAC argues that, as in Iraq, the Trump administration should establish a U.S.-Afghanistan-Iran working group to support the Afghan government. In general, as historian Andrew Bacevich told the audience at Stimson, “the Iran deal may be the off ramp” that the U.S. has been trying to find in order to move past its many military challenges in the Middle East and Central Asia.
- Sanctions: The report argues that Trump “should immediately communicate in a public manner that he will veto any sanctions legislation that risks U.S. obligations under the JCPOA, and is prepared for early Congressional battles over legislation aimed at upending the nuclear accord” and recommends that he look for “strategic trade openings” with Tehran. Although Trump’s public statements on Iran, and the early makeup of his administration, would suggest that he is not going to take this step, one of Trump’s complaints about the JCPOA was that remaining U.S. sanctions prevent American companies from reaping any of the benefit from the opening of the Iranian market.
- Energy Security: In an effort to “[balance] Russian influence in the gas market, [strengthen] regional economic interdependence to help stabilize the Middle East, and [promote] economic development that marginalizes extremist groups,” the NIAC report calls for “integrating Iran’s oil and gas plans into existing regional structures and creating energy security linkages between Washington and Tehran.”
- Human Rights: Iran’s human rights record remains a challenge in terms of improving Tehran’s relations with the United States and other Western nations. NIAC argues that the Trump administration should continue to support international efforts to push Iran to improve on this issue. However, it should avoid “using human rights as a political tool to advance its other objectives with the country,” as that “undermines the human rights situation in Iran and harms U.S. credibility.” If suspicions that Trump may reduce America’s focus on human rights turn out to be correct, this last point may no longer be a point of contention between the two countries.
The Effect of Trump’s Election
Trita Parsi, NIAC’s founder and president, said at Stimson that NIAC staffers wrote their report before last week’s election and their recommendations would have applied equally to an incoming Hillary Clinton administration. But the election of Trump, who campaigned on the idea of “renegotiating” the nuclear deal—which he called “the worst deal ever negotiated”—presents a particular challenge to those hoping the deal will lead to an overall thaw in U.S.-Iran relations. Trump already appears to be surrounding himself with high-profile advocates for regime change in Tehran, which could poison the well of U.S.-Iran relations even before Trump takes office. Though NIAC’s research director, Reza Marashi, was right when he told the Stimson audience that “it doesn’t matter” who the president is, “because core U.S. national interests remain,” there are already plenty of reasons to believe that Trump doesn’t see those core interests.
Trump’s election also risks the JCPOA itself, never mind the chances for increased U.S.-Iran ties. Congressional Republicans have been consistently hostile to the deal but were constrained in their ability to block its implementation, modify its terms, or impose new penalties on Iran by the promise of an Obama veto. Would Trump be willing to take on his own party to defend a deal he lambasted during the campaign? Mearsheimer seemed to offer an optimistic take, arguing that Trump “is not going to have a lot of time” to threaten the JCPOA if some of his other controversial campaign promises—repealing Obamacare, for example, and resetting U.S.-Russia relations—take priority. “I would bet,” he added, “given how complicated the Iranian deal is, that no matter who is advising him they will not challenge that deal in a meaningful way.” Trump, despite his inflammatory rhetoric, was less antagonistic toward the JCPOA than any of his other serious rivals for the Republican nomination, and he did express an interest in removing more U.S. sanctions in order to allow American companies to do business with Iran.
There are several reasons why Trump might not want to challenge the Iran deal, including pressure from Moscow and a desire to bring more, not less, stability to the Middle East, but there would seem to be no question that the JCPOA is under more threat from a Trump administration than it would have been from a Clinton administration.
Photo of Trita Parsi courtesy of Center for American Progress via Flickr.