Donald Trump is foolish to underestimate Iran

If the US president scuppers the nuclear deal, Iran, a proud, resource-rich nation, which also has a large uranium stockpile, will not capitulate, says Seyed Hossein Mousavian.

Iranian president Hassan Rouhani and Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan review an honor guard at the Saadabad Palace in Tehran.

WITH the Iran nuclear deal at stake, US president Donald Trump has until Sunday to tell Congress if he believes Tehran is complying with the seven-nation agreement. Many expect that the US president will decertify Iranian compliance with the deal, returning US-Iran relations to overt hostility.

Not all in the administration agree with Trump’s harder-line approach on Iran. Defence secretary James Mattis has publicly stated that Trump “should consider staying” in the deal, while secretary of state Rex Tillerson has reportedly argued against decertification. Speaking after his first meeting with Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif, Tillerson also seemed to indicate a willingness to take a longer-term view when he told a media conference that the Washington-Tehran relationship had “never had a stable, happy moment in it”.

“Is this going to be the way it is for the rest of our lives and our children’s lives, and our grandchildren’s lives?” Tillerson asked.

His remarks evoked an encounter recounted to me by Mohsen Rafiqdoost, a former Iranian Revolutionary Guards commander, of a 1982 meeting he had with Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic.

Rafiqdoost recalled suggesting that the US embassy grounds in Tehran be converted to a Revolutionary Guards base. Ayatollah Khomeini rejected the idea, asking: “Why would you go there? Are we not going to have relations with America for a thousand years?”

Decades of estrangement have led to a fundamental misunderstanding of Iran in Washington. Notwithstanding the Obama administration’s nuclear negotiations, every US administration since the 1979 Iranian revolution has failed in its declared objective to contain Iran.

If Trump wishes to free future generations of anxiety over US-Iran tensions, he should pay careful attention to five points in formulating his Iran policy.

First, American officials need to stop speaking about Iran in threatening and insulting terms. The Iranian people are proud of their thousands of years of history and view mutual respect as integral to their foreign relations. However, Zarif told me that Trump’s speech to the UN General Assembly last month was the “most insulting speech of any American president toward Iran since the revolution” and that it “made any potential for dialogue with the United States meaningless”.

Second, US regime-change policies have been self-defeating. Since the revolution, the principal reason for lasting Iranian distrust of the United States has been US policies aimed at undermining and overturning the Iranian political system. In June, Tillerson openly declared that US policy towards Iran included regime change — a statement not heard from a senior US official in years and which marked a sharp departure from the conventional US rhetoric of seeking Iranian “behaviour” change.

In contrast, former US president Barack Obama told the UN: “We are not seeking regime change and we respect the right of the Iranian people to access peaceful nuclear energy.”

Consequently, he was able to diplomatically engage Iran on its nuclear programme, and reach the July, 2015 nuclear deal. The respectful letters between Obama and Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei helped set the process in motion. This would not happen today, even if Trump made a similar overture, as the key to successful negotiations with Iran is to first drop regime-change policies.

Since the 1953, US-led coup that overthrew democratically-elected prime minister Mohammad Mosaddeq, Iranians have resented US interference in Iran. The political landscape of conservatives, moderates, and reformists in Iran is similar to the competition between Democrats and Republicans in the US. As such, any agreement between Washington and Tehran must be negotiated in a way that transcends the partisan divide in each country — or else it would be inherently fragile.

The undermining of the nuclear deal in Washington by the Republican Party is testament to this need. Negotiations must be carried out in a way that respects Iran’s political makeup and hierarchies.

Fourth, the Trump administration needs to accept that Iran, as a large country with immense natural resources and an educated population, has legitimate security concerns and interests in its neighbourhood.

Washington must recognise that US policies aimed at isolating Tehran and refusing to accept a legitimate Iranian role in the region have only seen Iranian influence grow in countries such as Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Lebanon, while US influence has waned in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and elsewhere.

From Iran’s perspective, its post-1979 foreign policy has been aimed at deterring foreign aggression and securing the country’s borders, rather than the pursuit of regional hegemony.

After the revolution, Iran was invaded by Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and, for much of the past decade, there has been chaos on its thousands of miles of borders with Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan — all factors that have compelled it to play a regional role. If the US wants to avoid scenarios where regional states aggressively compete for power, it must encourage the creation of a regional security system, involving the six Gulf Co-operation Council countries, along with Iraq and Iran.

Finally, the record of US-Iran negotiations shows that ‘dual track’ policies of pressure and diplomacy are destined to fail. While Trump appears to be trying to bring Iran to the negotiating table in a position of weakness, Iranian policymakers tend to respond to pressure by retaliating in kind.

In a recent Washington Post op-ed, former US secretary of state, John Kerry, highlighted how, by the time he had entered into negotiations with Iran, after years of sanctions, Iran had “mastered the nuclear fuel cycle” and built a uranium stockpile large enough to make 10 to 12 bombs.

“In other words, Iran was already a nuclear-threshold state,” wrote Kerry.

The lesson for Washington is that if push comes to shove, Tehran will develop its own bargaining chips — not capitulate in the face of whatever threats are made when Trump delivers his next policy speech on Iran.

  • Seyed Hossein Mousavian is a Middle East security and nuclear policy specialist at Princeton University and a former head of the Foreign Relations Committee of Iran’s National Security Council.

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