US policy toward Iran in the days running up to the November election has been a counterproductive, contradictory, and embarrassing mix of economic sanctions, botched diplomacy, and harsh rhetoric combined with announced plans to withdraw thousands of US troops from Iraq and Afghanistan—something Iran has long promoted.
It has always been somewhat of a mystery what the real goal of the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign has been. Demands that Iran give up its entire nuclear program and withdraw support from Arab proxies, among other stipulations laid out by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in a 2018 speech, would be difficult to achieve without removing the Iranian regime. The chances for any meaningful renegotiation of the 2015 nuclear accord as a result of the current policy approach are nil while the world waits to see if Donald Trump is a one-term president.
Trump has boasted that he could do a new deal with Iran “within four weeks” if he is re-elected. But Iran has rejected any negotiations unless the US returns to compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and, even then, says it would only sit with the Americans in a multilateral setting. In the meantime, Tehran is increasing its stockpile of low-enriched uranium and reducing the time in which it could theoretically produce enough material for a nuclear weapon to a matter of a few months, while saying these actions can be reversed if the US returns to the JCPOA. Additionally, the US is isolated diplomatically, as evidenced by the Trump administration’s recently announced “snapback” of United Nations (UN) sanctions on September 19—a move that was rejected by the UN Security Council and the US’s European allies.
If Trump wins re-election, he will have an opportunity to review his failed approach toward Iran and appoint officials less associated with regime change advocacy. In case he is truly interested in a new agreement with Iran, he will need to offer concrete economic incentives in return for realistic objectives; not photo ops—as was the case of talks with North Korea—which Iranian leaders have rejected. Even then, there is no assurance of success given Iran’s understandable distrust after the traumatic experience of Trump’s unilateral withdrawal from the JCPOA in 2018 and imposition of draconian sanctions. A new agreement might have to be codified by the US Congress to avoid another sudden about-face by a new president through executive orders.
If it remains outside the JCPOA, the US has no ready channel to engage Iran even in a multilateral forum. One alternative is to encourage a regional approach to security and non-proliferation that leverages existing channels between Iran and its Arab neighbors. Iran has repeatedly said that it is not seeking nuclear weapons and might support a weapons of mass destruction-free zone among Persian Gulf states in order to create assurances that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates also keep their expanding nuclear activity confined to civilian purposes. Last year, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani introduced the HOPE initiative, or “Hormuz Peace Endeavor,” modeled after the Organization for Peace and Security in Europe. It’s intended to bring the eight countries bordering the Persian Gulf together for a security dialog.
The five permanent members of the UN Security Council—the declared nuclear weapons states—and the European Union could promote such talks, using a version of the model that facilitated the successful conclusion of the JCPOA. Talks could take place in Vienna or Geneva or in Oman, Qatar or, Kuwait. An agreement could be sought on regionalizing nuclear restraints that Iran embraced under the JCPOA, such as the Additional Protocol of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, international conventions on nuclear safety, limits on enriched uranium, and a ban on reprocessing plutonium. The agenda could eventually be broadened to include maritime safety and advance warning of missile tests.
To facilitate dialogue of this kind, the Trump administration will need to ease its sanctions policy toward Iran, giving the country access to its own oil revenues frozen in foreign banks at minimum. This is particularly the case if the US wants to smooth the way for a continued reduction of American troops from Iran’s neighbors. US sanctions are making economic progress in Iraq and Afghanistan more difficult and are penalizing theirs and Iran’s ordinary citizens.
Given the additional damage done to economies by the coronavirus pandemic and the uncertain long-term outlook for the oil industry, all the countries of the region need to focus on ways to diversify their economies and reduce wasteful government spending, including on ever more advanced weapons systems and especially on the humanitarian disaster that is the five-year war in Yemen. They should maximize trade with each other and end counterproductive boycotts, such as the one Saudi Arabia and the UAE imposed on Qatar three years ago.
The Trump administration should lobby harder to end those schisms in tandem with its promotion of normal ties between Arab monarchies and Israel, which also needs to be included in regional diplomacy at some point. A UN umbrella could help overcome Iranian objections to the presence of Israelis in regional forums, though, in any event, the Islamic Republic is playing a losing hand by continuing to refuse to recognize the modern Israeli state.
Of course, it is easier to envision a robust US return to diplomacy under a Joe Biden administration, given his expressed willingness to rejoin the JCPOA if Iran returns to compliance. The nuclear deal was always meant to be a foundation for broader talks on regional issues and US-Iran relations but its potential was cut short by Trump’s 2016 win.
Whoever becomes US president will face the reality that the Islamic Republic is not going away no matter how weakened it is by sanctions and internal discontent. A policy based only on the wishes of Israelis and Sunni Arabs will inevitably incentivize more destabilizing “resistance” by Iran and its partners and do further damage to the interests of the United States, its friends, and the wider international community.
Barbara Slavin is director of the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council. Follow her on Twitter: @BarbaraSlavin1.
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