President Donald Trump’s announcement of a new strategy for confronting Iran offers a modicum of hope that the United States will stop kicking the can down the road in the Persian Gulf. But to do that, we have to recognize the point of the Iran nuclear deal wasn’t to restrain Iran. It was to restrain the United States.
The Iran nuclear deal may be the most poorly designed agreement the U.S. has ever signed. It gave Iran immediate relief from Western sanctions in return for Iranian pledges of good behavior in the future.
Iran knew that once sanctions were lifted, it would be hard for us to re-impose them. To do that, we need European cooperation, and with Iranian dollars flowing to Europe’s industries, we’re unlikely to get it.
The Iran deal destroyed the means by which we could enforce the Iran deal. It rendered itself unenforceable. That makes it a bad deal.
Now, the people who negotiated the Iran deal weren’t dumb. So why did they negotiate a bad deal? Simple: The Iran nuclear deal wasn’t intended primarily to control Iran’s nuclear program. It was intended to eliminate Iran’s nuclear program as an issue in U.S. politics.
The idea of a deal to control Iran’s nuclear program never made much sense. If Iran genuinely wanted a purely civilian nuclear program, we wouldn’t need a deal to control it.
We didn’t need a deal on Finland’s nuclear program, for example, because – unlike Iran – Finland’s a democracy that makes no fuss about regular IAEA inspections.
The real end game of the Iran nuclear deal was to enlist Iran as a U.S. partner in the region. President Obama acknowledged this in January 2014. Obama said he wanted “a new geostrategic equilibrium” in the region. But to get that, he needed partners. A prime candidate for that role, he explained, was Iran.
But as long as the U.S. was focused on Iran’s nuclear program, the U.S. was never going to get Obama’s “comprehensive agreement” with Iran. Nor could Iran become, as Obama hoped, “a very successful regional power.”
Obama therefore sought to get the Iranians to accept a deal – any deal. That would turn the U.S. focus away from Iran’s nuclear program, and onto the deal itself.
And that is what happened. We’re not focusing on Iran‘s conduct any more. We’re focusing on the nuclear deal itself – which comes equipped with one of Obama’s patented straw men, that anyone who opposes the deal is a warmonger.
Nonsense. The one thing the Sunni powers – led by the Saudis – don’t want is to see Iran become “a very successful regional power.” That’s what’s happening in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. By feeding Sunni fears, the nuclear deal sets the stage for a big regional war.
The problem is that, thanks to the deal, the U.S.’s best tool for restraining Iran without war – sanctions – lies in ruins.
Sanctions aren’t like a parking gate that swings easily up and down. They’re like a medieval cathedral: they take ages to build. We should re-impose them, a decision Trump has kicked to Congress. But we shouldn’t kid ourselves about their effectiveness.
A better policy doesn’t start with sanctions. It starts with rejecting Obama’s core assumption: that Iran is a useful regional partner for the U.S. The Iran deal is merely a symptom of that assumption. Rejecting it means opposing Iranian influence across the Levant.
But as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson noted, the U.S. decided not to put Iran’s Revolutionary Guards on the State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organizations – because that would impede U.S. military cooperation with Iran in Syria. Yet Iran’s military role in Syria is central to its regional influence.
Trump clearly regards the Iran deal as a bad one – and he’s right. But unless his administration rejects the assumption underlying the deal, decertifying the deal won’t do much more than give the can another kick down the road.
This piece originally appeared in Newsday