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West’s faltering steps on path to new Iran deal

The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, also known as the Iran nuclear deal, which was agreed by the Obama administration, is interpreted as one of the great successes of American foreign policy since 9/11. But the deal was not without its critics, and at least some of the critique of the deal was fair. Though it may not be “the worst deal in history,” as Barack Obama’s successor Donald Trump called it, like any diplomatic arrangement it did involve unpleasant compromises. 

The one inexplicable compromise, however, was the deal’s limited scope. By focusing exclusively on Iran’s nuclear program, President Obama let Iran run amok in the region through its extensive proxies. It was effectively free to attack American interests at its leisure, even as the US was lifting sanctions on Tehran. 

In his rush to sign off the deal before the end of his second term, Obama handed the mullahs a financial boost through the lifting of sanctions, which, unfortunately, Tehran chose to promptly pour into their regional proxies in Yemen, Syria, Iraq and Lebanon, all of which fought in direct opposition to American interests in the region. 

The calculation in the Obama White House may have been that Iran’s nuclear program was an issue of such acute urgency that putting the lid on it first, and as quickly as possible, should take priority over all other considerations. They may have calculated that, if this first diplomatic entreaty proved successful, that would allow Washington and Tehran to build trust and then move on to further negotiations on the activities of Iran and its proxies in the Middle East.

Either way, we will never get to find out whether those calculations would hold. As one of Obama’s landmark achievements, next to the Affordable Care Act (ACA), the deal became a totemic item that Trump would make a point of dismantling. And, unlike the ACA, the nuclear deal only had executive force, so he could kill it unilaterally, without asking Congress. He did so at the first available opportunity.

For all the damage this will have done to the US’ standing in the world — after all, you are much less likely to get agreements with other countries if those parties cannot rely on you to hold up your end of the bargain from one election to the next — Trump’s decision does open the prospect of a reimagined deal with Iran. This would include nuclear development, but also account for Iran’s other pursuits in the Middle East.

How likely would such a new deal be? For some, America’s unilateral withdrawal from the very deal it championed just two-and-a-half years prior marks it as an unreliable interlocutor. However, as the deal was never ratified by Congress, Trump had the ability to withdraw from it in the same way that Obama signed up to it — by executive order. This is why Trump is now keen on ensuring that any deal he does arrive at is ratified by Congress, ensuring it actually becomes law.

Nevertheless, this change of heart is a major obstacle. Obama spent his first five years in office trying to earn the necessary trust from Tehran’s leaders to get them to the negotiating table. That trust is now completely gone. And would Trump ever be able to win trust like Obama did? Certainly not after the ways in which he has been posturing on the international stage since he took office. 

But Trump does have leverage even without trust from the angle of being a bull in a China shop in charge of the world’s largest military power. The Trump administration would not invite a delegation from Iran to sensible discussions between mutually respectful parties, but instead would threaten war and ultimately force Iran to the negotiating table. And if we could have any confidence that, once they met at the negotiating table, Washington would then put reasonable, proportional demands to Tehran, then a better deal may well be possible. 

Included on any reasonable agenda would be issues such as Iran’s support of Syrian President Bashar Assad and the presence of Iranian militias in Syria (who are doing most of the work for Damascus in the civil war there); Tehran’s support for Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen; and Iran’s ominous influence in Iraqi politics and military presence in that country. In exchange, the US could offer sanctions relief and broader economic incentives by opening up to Iran the whole breadth of global markets. 

Even so, it seems unlikely that either Trump or Tehran will be willing to be seen to make the first move. That is why the efforts of the Europeans, who so far have been trying but failing to keep the Obama-era Iran deal alive, will be crucial. A notable first step was taken last week at the G7 summit in Biarritz, where Iran was at the top of the agenda and where French President Emmanuel Macron surprised everyone by inviting over Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif. This could have gone badly, but so far it seems like an inspired first step on the path to the negotiating table. 

Securing a new deal will be very difficult, but the good news is that we have at least started moving in that direction. The bad news, on the other hand, is that President Hassan Rouhani has repeated the condition that sanctions be lifted prior to any actual talks. So it seems we are back where we started.