What Must Be Done
What is actually in the interest of the United States is Iran’s continued full compliance with the JCPOA, not to mention the United States rejoining the deal and ratcheting down the sanctions-based economic pressure on the Iranian regime. The Trump administration is making a major strategic blunder insofar as it is strengthening the hardliners in Iran while weakening the moderates, which adversely militates in favor of Iran proceeding to cheat on the deal.
Almost on cue again, on the one-year anniversary of Trump’s decision to pull out of the nuclear deal, Iran has declared that it intends to engage in a small-scale technical violation of the accord. There is little doubt the Trump team will treat this as a game changer, crossing a major red line with Iran perhaps walking right into the trap they put in place.
Nonetheless, although the chances are minimal, it is incumbent on this administration to scale back the sanctions and cease rattling sabers at Iran.
By contrast, the Obama administration was right to negotiate the deal and test the hypothesis that it might lead to some form of moderation in the Iranian regime and its behavior. The sound basis for agreeing to the deal by the United States was the fact that Iran actually pulled back and partially withdrew it and its proxies’ forces in Syria, Iraq and Yemen while the deal was being negotiated.
Now Iran is at long last on the cusp of its first “technical violation” of the deal, having declared that it is being forced by the United States to do this. Were Trump in response to order a U.S. attack on Iran, such an alarming result would be the ultimate self-fulfilling prophecy: at home, young and moderate Iranians would rally around the flag, endorsing likely Iranian force projection abroad via the Quds Force. The deeper, strategic repercussions would involve any form of cooperation between Iran and the West being put off for at least a generation.
The origins of this crisis are found in misperception, namely Iran inaccurately believing that the United States was preparing to attack it. Hence, a low-level mobilization of Iranian and its proxies’ forces commenced, which was met with a higher-than-normal propensity for the Trump administration to target Iran, which was already looking for a pretext to do it in the form of Bolton, Pompeo and even Trump’s stated preferences.
If, against the odds, Iran somehow avoids additional misperception and accurately assesses where the remaining U.S. red lines actually lie, then a longer lasting lowering of tensions is possible. But Iran is intent on not meeting the Pompeo conditions for talks, so if this administration truly does not want conflict with Iran then it will need to begin decreasing the “maximum pressure” it has placed this regime under. Pursuing Omani or Swiss backchannels is advisable for these two governments in need of publicly saving face right in the middle of a serious crisis.
Dr. Jeffrey A. Stacey is a former State Department official. He is the author of the forthcoming book, Rise of the East, End of the West? and is a resident of Washington D.C.