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Iran Will Change When the US Changes

To change Iran’s stance, Trump must change Washington’s.

National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster listens during a daily briefing at the James Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House, July 31, 2017, in Washington, DC. (Photo: Alex Wong / Getty Images)

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Donald Trump wants to kill the Iran nuclear deal. Exactly why he aims to destroy a perfectly functioning arms control deal that has prevented both an Iranian nuclear option and war with Iran remains unclear. Despite Iran’s confirmed adherence to the deal, Trump claims Iran is in violation of its “spirit.” (I have written a book on the negotiations and the deal but have yet to come across the text of the deal’s spirit.)

National Security Advisor H. R. McMaster gives us a hint about what Trump interprets to be the spirit of the deal: “The intent was to prevent them from getting a nuclear weapon,” McMaster told MSNBC’s Hugh Hewitt, “but also then to — to get them to moderate the beha — their behavior. What — what the regime did is the opposite of that. They actually intensified their destabilizing behavior acr — across the region.”

If McMaster is to be believed — meaning, Trump’s opposition is not rooted in either an obsession with undoing all of Obama’s achievements or in his Faustian bargain with the Saudis — then Trump is opposing the Iran deal because it hasn’t achieved what it didn’t aim to achieve.

A change in Iran’s regional policies was not part of the deal. It was not part of an annex to the deal. It wasn’t even part of the spirit of the deal.

Certainly, the Obama administration hoped that in the long run, Iran’s greater integration in the global economy would have a taming effect on its policies, and perhaps even pave the way for a new relationship between Tehran and Washington.

As part of Obama’s larger strategy of reducing the US’s footprint in the decreasingly strategic region of the Middle East, the idea of exploring a different relationship with Iran over the next 15 years was “attractive,” a senior Obama official told me.

A more functioning relationship with Iran would after all enable the United States to have a more conditional friendship with Saudi Arabia — which Obama saw as a greater destabilizer in the Middle East than Iran — and more tough love with Israel’s right-wing government.

But the success of the deal was never designed to hinge on Iran changing its regional policies or improving its relations with the US. It only hinges on Iran not building a nuclear weapon.

Ironically, some of the voices that today criticize the deal for not explicitly addressing Iran’s regional policies were the same actors that during the negotiations exerted immense pressure on the US and the EU not to expand the agenda to include issues beyond the nuclear crisis: Benjamin Netanyahu’s government in Israel and the Saud royal family in Saudi Arabia.

Netanyahu, whose main objective was to use the nuclear issue to foster a crisis that would force the US to take military action against Iran (which he calculated would usher in a new and more favorable regional balance of power for Israel), preferred a singular focus on the nuclear issue because he believed it was the most difficult issue to resolve. On regional issues, it would be easier to find common ground between the US and Iran — collaboration against ISIS, for instance — which then would undermine Netanyahu’s objective of seeing the talks fail and eventually lead to war.

The Saudis, in turn, were haunted by the ghosts of the Iran-Contra scandal and the invasion of Iraq. In the 1980s, the US was ostensibly a lethal enemy of Iran and a covert backer of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Washington had even imposed an arms embargo on Iran. But in 1986, evidence emerged showing that the Reagan administration had played a double game. Reagan had conducted secret talks with the Iranians (with the help of the Israelis) and sold them sophisticated missiles under the table — violating the US’s own arms embargo on Iran.

Arab states led by Saudi Arabia were furious. They felt betrayed by Washington and a suspicion grew that the United States would not hesitate to throw its Arab allies under the bus to regain Tehran’s friendship. When the George W. Bush administration began planning the invasion of Iraq almost two decades later, the Saudis vehemently objected, warning Bush that Iran would be the biggest benefactor of Saddam’s overthrow. Bush didn’t heed Riyadh’s advice.

But the Saudis turned out to be right. Today, Iran has more influence in Iraq than does the United States. To many Saudis, this cannot be a coincidence. Rather than viewing the Iraq war for what it is — a profound and murderous strategic mistake born out of the Bush administration’s ineptitude and incompetence, Riyadh tends to see a conspiracy in which emboldening Tehran was the American plan all along. “The Americans gave Iraq to Iran on a silver platter!” a Saudi official told me angrily in Riyadh in 2010.

By the time the nuclear negotiations got started, Riyadh pressured the Obama White House to “not talk to the Iranians about regional matters without the Saudis being in the room.” When I encouraged Obama administration officials in 2011 to expand the agenda and include both regional issues (like Syria) and Iranian human rights abuses on the bilateral US-Iran agenda, they pushed back hard, citing Saudi pressure.

Today, however, both the Netanyahu government and the Saud dynasty disingenuously criticize the nuclear deal for not having addressed Iran’s regional policies.

However, of course, the nuclear deal was not the only opportunity to address these policies. Can Iran’s regional posture be amended? Of course it can. Perhaps the most important lesson from the nuclear talks for the United States is to recognize that if it seeks a change in Tehran, it needs to be coupled with a change in Washington.

The nuclear deal was a success because it was based on a genuine compromise. Both sides changed their policies. Iran restricted its nuclear program and accepted unprecedented inspections and transparency. Washington and the EU accepted enrichment on Iranian soil and lifted economic sanctions. Neither one of these steps would have worked alone.

Indeed, just as much as officials in Washington complain that Iran’s policies in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen have not changed much since the nuclear deal, decision-makers in Tehran lament that Washington hasn’t changed either. The United States continues to give political and military support for Saudi war crimes in Yemen. Indeed, Trump’s backing of Saudi Arabia has increased, emboldening the House of Saud to initiate a disruptive conflict against another US ally, Qatar. And while the Iranian parliament is seeking to increase its missile budget by $0.26 billion, this decision is coming months after Trump signed an agreement to sell an additional $110 billion of weaponry to Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration is itself in violation of the nuclear deal, by undermining what is now legal trade with Iran.

So, Trump accuses the Iranians of violating the spirit of a deal they actually are adhering to, while he himself actually is in violation of the letter of that deal. And then he complains that Iran has not changed its hostile policies outside of the nuclear field, while the US itself has doubled down on hostility against Iran in addition to giving a green light to Saudi Arabia to destabilize the Middle East.

If changing Iran’s regional policies is the goal, Trump’s strategy is doomed to fail. The pattern of US-Iran relations in the past decades is clear: Hostility begets hostility, goodwill begets goodwill. To change Iran’s stance, Trump must be open to changing Washington’s.

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