Iran: policy disarray

Foreign policy is not a science; it is a difficult and uncertain craft even in the best of times. But there are certain guidelines and verities. The purpose of foreign policy is to serve the national interest. Its most effective practitioners are strategists — orchestrating the use of economic, political and military assets including the support of allies and partners. The classic manifestation of an effective American foreign policy was the strategy that won the Cold War. It took over 40 years and it utilized the full range of U.S. assets and instruments from Radio Free Europe to the Strategic Air Command. It enjoyed bipartisan support so it could be sustained through Democratic and Republican administrations. It crucially relied upon a broad international coalition of support across Europe, Asia and Latin America that the Soviet empire could never match. These were essential components of a policy/strategy that defeated a hugely powerful Soviet monolith.

American foreign policy today is not even a shadow of what Truman, Marshall, Eisenhower and Reagan produced. The current confrontation with Iran is a case in point. Iran is a classic foreign policy problem — it is complex, with deep historical roots; it defies easy solutions and the consequences of success or failure are profound. In today’s Washington, history is routinely overlooked, even if it weighs heavily on the present. Few remember that as late as the 1970s Iran (under the Shah) was a close security partner of the United States — and Israel. The Shah lost domestic support and the 1979 revolution brought to power a clerical regime deeply hostile to the United States — and Israel.

The new regime was revolutionary; it sought to transform Iran and the surrounding region as well. The geopolitical ambitions of Tehran’s Shiite ayatollahs brought them into direct conflict with the Sunni Arab states led by Saudi Arabia and Iraq under Saddam Hussein. When the George W. Bush administration chose to invade Iraq, overthrow Saddam Hussein and install a Shiite-led government, it handed Iran a huge strategic opportunity. As part of its support for the Shah, the United States supplied Iran with a nuclear reactor. Iran’s new regime, not surprisingly, took an interest in the potential of nuclear technology for energy production — and maybe for nuclear weapons. Tehran, with a large number of very capable Western-trained nuclear scientists and engineers, soon built an impressive (and largely clandestine) infrastructure capable of supporting both civilian and military uses of nuclear power.

The foreign policy challenge facing the Obama administration was daunting. Could something be done to dissuade a suspicious and unfriendly Iranian regime from going further down the path toward nuclear weapons? The dangers were obvious — nuclear weapons in the hands of a radical Islamist regime. How long would it be before the Sunni Arab states responded by building their own nuclear arsenals?

The Obama administration responded — in close coordination with an impressive array of international partners including the Europeans, Russia and China — by initiating a painstaking, lengthy negotiation with Tehran. It ultimately produced a detailed, verifiable agreement by which Iran would stop any work that supported a nuclear weapons program for at least 15 years in return for economic benefits — a relaxation of punishing international sanctions. Since 2015, the International Atomic Energy Agency has monitored the agreement and has pronounced that Iran has fulfilled its obligations. The agreement with Iran was reached against the odds and the Obama administration rightfully viewed it as a major accomplishment.

One of Donald Trump’s first pronouncements as president was to declare the Iran agreement “the worst in history” and that the United States would withdraw from it. Why? Because the Obama administration had produced it. Trump made good on his threat to withdraw from the agreement, but the other signatories did not follow his lead. From Beijing to Berlin, other governments reaffirmed the importance of the Iran agreement. Acting alone, the United States reimposed sanctions on Iran and — crucially — imposed secondary sanctions on foreign corporations that deal with Iran. That effectively bars any foreign company that deals with Iran from entering the U.S. market or using the U.S. banking system — a sanction so potent most international businesses will boycott Iran for fear of the consequences. The Europeans, who view the Iran agreement as critically important, have tried to develop a special purpose trading vehicle that will allow companies to effectively evade U.S. sanctions. It has not worked so far. Iran is feeling the economic pain and has threatened to restart its nuclear program if this continues. Washington has responded by dispatching a carrier battle group to the Persian Gulf.

So where are we after two years of the administration’s “strategy”? Nuclear weapons are the overriding U.S. national interest regarding Iran. Now Iran has started to dismantle the limitations on its nuclear program imposed by the previous agreement. America’s best hope in Iran lies with the political moderates who negotiated the nuclear agreement over the resistance of anti-American hardliners. By trashing their achievement, the Trump administration has discredited and weakened the moderates. As pro-Western influences in Iran are diminishing, they are being replaced with a growing Russian and Chinese presence. In addition, oil prices are being driven upward — and we are closer to a new war in the Middle East than we have been in years. The administration cannot even produce a unified message regarding what it wants to achieve. Secretary of State Pompeo recently acknowledged that Iran’s leaders will not give in to sanctions, so the goal of U.S. policy is to overthrow the regime. President Trump tweeted that all he wants from Iran is an assurance they will not build nuclear weapons. Someone might tell him that is exactly what the Iran agreement has already achieved.

Marvin Ott

Marvin Ott

Columnist at The Ellsworth American
Marvin Ott is a professor at Johns Hopkins University and a Public Policy Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center of the Smithsonian Institution. He is a summer resident of Cranberry Isles.
Marvin Ott

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