One of us (Max Boot) was critical of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal — the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. The other supported it. We both agreed, however, that, with Iran abiding by the JCPOA, it was a mistake for President Trump to exit the agreement in 2018. That move, followed by the imposition of sanctions, has created the current standoff with Iran that nearly led to war last week.
But there is no way to unscramble this omelet. We are where we are, and it’s not a good spot to be in. We believe the most prudent way forward is to entice Iran back to the negotiating table while working with our allies to stop its attempts to disrupt international shipping.
The unilateral sanctions that Trump is pursuing are imposing severe pain on Iran: Its oil exports fell 80 percent over the past year. But so far, they have not made Iran more pliable. Instead, Tehran is threatening to break out of the JCPOA limits on uranium production, and it is almost certainly the culprit behind a series of attacks on oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman. Ray Takeyh of the Council on Foreign Relations argues that these attacks are not a prelude to war but rather to negotiations. Iran, he writes, wants “to enter talks with Washington claiming to be the empowered party that has withstood America’s strategy of maximum pressure.”
If Takeyh is right, the Trump administration needs to make clear that it is open to talks without preconditions. This is what Trump has said, but if he imposes sanctions on Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, it will send a different message. “You call for negotiations. If you are telling the truth, why are you simultaneously seeking to sanction our foreign minister?” Iranian President Hassan Rouhani asked on Tuesday. It’s a good question.
For negotiations to succeed, the administration will need to come in with a unified position. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has delivered 12 demands, including that Iran cut off its regional proxies and end its missile program. Trump, on the other hand, has focused on the nuclear issue. Last weekend, he told reporters: “We’re not going to have Iran have a nuclear weapon. And when they agree to that, they are going to have a wealthy country, they’re going to be so happy, and I’m going to be their best friend.” Trump muddied that message by demanding on Monday: “No Nuclear Weapons and No Further Sponsoring of Terror!”
Iran might ultimately reach a pro forma agreement to end support for terrorism, but it would come with a big asterisk: Tehran doesn’t consider groups such as Lebanese Hezbollah or the Yemeni Houthis to be terrorist organizations. And in truth, these groups, however repugnant, have evolved into quasi-states with their own militias and social services. The revolutionary regime in Iran will not agree to cut off proxies that it views as essential to projecting its influence and to defending against enemies such as Saudi Arabia and Israel. To blunt Iran’s regional influence, the United States would be better advised to work with its own allies, such as the government of Iraq and the Syrian Democratic Forces. That means keeping U.S. military advisers in Syria and Iraq.
The best we could hope for in negotiations with Iran is, as Evelyn N. Farkas argued, an enhanced JCPOA with limits on missile production and a longer timeline. (The current agreement expires in 2031.) These cosmetic improvements would allow Trump to proclaim that he has turned the world’s worst deal into the greatest ever.
In the meantime, Washington needs to make clear that Iran will not be able to disrupt the 20 percent of global oil supplies that flow through the Strait of Hormuz. Trump demands to know “why are we protecting the shipping lanes for other countries (many years) for zero compensation” and suggests that countries such as China and Japan “should be protecting their own ships.” He is right that other nations have a stake in safeguarding the Persian Gulf, but no other nation has the kind of assets the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard can bring to the task. If the United States takes the lead, as it did in counter-piracy operations off the coast of Africa, it will be possible to assemble a multinational flotilla. But if the United States refuses to protect freedom of navigation, there will be no effective way to deter Iranian aggression. China cannot take over America’s role — and we should not want it to.
This set of policies makes it possible to avoid war and achieve the core U.S. objectives — safeguarding commerce and stopping Iran’s nuclear program. But it will also demand effective diplomacy, and that in turn will require more consistency and less bellicosity from Trump. Is he capable of that? His Tuesday tweet threatening the “obliteration” of Iran is not an auspicious sign.