Not all in the administration seem to agree with Trump’s harder-line approach on Iran. Defense 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,” he asked.
Tillerson’s remarks evoked an encounter told 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 U.S. 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?”
It’s clear that decades of estrangement have led to a fundamental misunderstanding of Iran in Washington. Notwithstanding the Obama administration’s nuclear negotiations, every U.S. 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 U.S.-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 above all else view mutual respect as integral to their foreign relations. However, Foreign Minister Zarif told me that Trump’s speech to the United Nations 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, U.S. regime-change policies have been self-defeating. The principal reason for lasting Iranian distrust of the United States since the revolution has been U.S. policies aimed at undermining and overturning the Iranian political system. In June, Tillerson openly declared that U.S. policy towards Iran included regime change — a statement not heard from a senior U.S. official in years and which marked a sharp departure from conventional U.S. rhetoric of seeking Iranian “behavior” change.
In stark contrast, Barack Obama told the UN that “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 program, and reach the July 2015 nuclear deal. The respectful letters exchanged 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.
Third, since the 1953 U.S.-led coup that overthrew democratically-elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddeq, Iranians have resented U.S. interference in Iran. The political landscape of conservatives, moderates, and reformists in Iran is in many ways similar to the competition between Democrats and Republicans in the United States. 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 challenges the nuclear deal has been subject to in Washington by the Republican Party is testament to this need. With respect to Iran too, 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 neighborhood. Washington must recognize that U.S. 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 U.S. influence wanes in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and elsewhere. From Iran’s perspective, its post-1979 foreign policy has been driven by the aim of 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, 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 United States 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 Cooperation Council countries along with Iraq and Iran.
Finally, the record of U.S.-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 Secretary of State John Kerry highlighted how by the time he 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 here 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.
About the Author
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.