by Gary Sick
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the entire U.S. government insist that the United States has authorization to strike Iran at will since, among other things, it temporarily sheltered some al-Qaeda leaders when the United States invaded Afghanistan. By this logic, Iran is subject to the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) that permits attacks on those who planned and carried out the 9/11 attacks.
At the same time, the United States is engaged in the final stages of diplomacy with the Taliban in Afghanistan. Now, the Taliban did not plan or conduct the 9/11 attacks, but they provided shelter and sovereign protection for Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda, who did. Reports indicate that Washington will ask the Taliban to give solemn assurances that they will not do that again in return for the removal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan.
To add to the confusion, Afghanistan has a government that the United States originally installed—with the active assistance of Iran—to replace the Taliban. However, that government is not included in the negotiations, although it is the sovereign state and will have to deal with the Taliban on its soil once the deal is struck. Why? Well, because the Taliban (the terrorist opposition to the ruling government) won’t talk to them. And the United States acquiesces in the interests of negotiation.
Washington insists that the fatal flaw of the Iran nuclear deal (officially the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA) was that it permitted Iran to enrich uranium on its own soil. Contrary to the rest of the world, the United States insists that Iran should not have a single centrifuge spinning. And the Trump administration enforces that minority opinion by imposing crushing sanctions not only on Iran but on every other country in the world that might be prepared to carry out the decisions agreed unanimously in 2015 and ratified by a vote in the UN Security Council.
But President Trump, in his negotiations with the ruler of North Korea, may be prepared to let the government of Kim Jong Un keep the bulk of its nuclear weapons, if they promise not to increase them. National Security Advisor John Bolton has made it clear that he does not approve, but it remains to be seen what will happen in the end. At a minimum, such a generous offer is at least on the table.
Iran, for those who have forgotten, has already given absolute assurances that “under no circumstances will Iran ever seek, develop or acquire nuclear weapons.” And that commitment has been ratified by all the leading powers of the world and is now firmly enshrined in international law. It is in the preamble of the JCPOA, so despised by the Trump administration. And it is enforced by the most advanced monitoring of the International Atomic Energy Agency. In perpetuity.
That, if I understand it, is precisely the kind of denuclearization commitment that the Trump administration would like to get from North Korea.
According to official statements, the United States believes its security interests are threatened by the malign actions of Iran. Yet one of our principal allies in the region has launched a brutal war against its neighbor that has created the greatest humanitarian crisis of modern times. It has put a blockade around another neighboring state—an intimate military ally of the United States—in an attempt to coerce its government. This close U.S. ally has attempted to extort a resignation from the prime minister of a third state, and it has brutally murdered a dissident journalist in its own consulate in a fourth regional state. But these rulers are wealthy, and their behavior is breezily dismissed with a casual presidential suggestion to just “take the money.”
In the interest of confronting Iran, the U.S. government has sacrificed its credibility, has put at long-term risk U.S. primacy in global finance, and has infuriated virtually all of this country’s closest traditional allies. Washington is goading Tehran to renege on its nuclear promises, bringing both countries perilously close to another catastrophic war in the Middle East.
Trump administration policy toward Iran has been, in my view, mistaken from the start. Increasingly it appears to be at war with itself, contradicting even its own transactional principles in what may prove to be, in the famous phrase, worse than a crime: it’s a blunder.
Gary Sick served on the National Security Council staff under Presidents Ford, Carter and Reagan. He was the principal White House aide for Iran during the Iranian Revolution and the hostage crisis and is the author of two books on U.S.-Iranian relations. Mr. Sick is a captain (ret.) in the U.S. Navy, with service in the Persian Gulf, North Africa and the Mediterranean. He was the deputy director for International Affairs at the Ford Foundation from 1982 to 1987, where he was responsible for programs relating to U.S. foreign policy. Mr. Sick has a Ph.D. in political science from Columbia University, where he is Senior Research Scholar, adjunct professor of international affairs and former director of the Middle East Institute (2000-2003). He is a member (emeritus) of the board of Human Rights Watch in New York and chair of the advisory committee of Human Rights Watch/Middle East. He is the founder and executive director of the Gulf/2000 project.