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US President Donald Trump announces his Iran strategy, 2017. Courtesy of The White House

Give Up the Dream of a Grand Bargain: Why a Trump Can’t Strike a Deal with Iran

Albert Wolf
Commentary, 27 September 2018
Iran's Nuclear Programme, United States, Iran, Defence Policy, Global Security Issues, Proliferation and Nuclear Policy
The US administration pretends that its decision to withdraw from the nuclear deal with Iran is a radically new approach which may change the entire regional strategic equation, similar to the huge policy reversal towards China executed by President Nixon in the early 1970s. But the Trump White House will be disappointed; the comparisons with Nixon are misconceived.

Code Pink, the ‘Women for Peace’ NGO that describes itself as a ‘grassroots peace and social justice movement’, caused a brouhaha at a recent Hudson Institute briefing when one of their members interrupted a presentation by Brian Hook, head of the State Department’s Iran Action Group, and demanded the reinstatement of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran. Hook defended the US withdrawal from JCPOA on the grounds that it did not address Iran’s ballistic missile programme and the Trump administration’s goal is to negotiate a comprehensive deal that will alter the full scope of Tehran’s disruptive behavior.

Here we would usually insert the ‘it takes a Nixon to go to China’ analogy. Given Trump’s relentless campaigning against the nuclear deal, maybe his administration would be in a better position to cut a stronger deal than the Obama administration had been? But America should give up dreams of a grand bargain. Policymakers from both sides should recognise a big deal is not on the table. The real alternative is to cooperate where possible (nuclear issues and Afghanistan, for example), and keep competition under wraps (in arenas like Iraq). 

The logic of ‘it takes a Nixon to go to China’ is simple and elegant: politicians are known by their ‘types’ or brands and by the behaviour expected of them within the bounds of these types. But a politician who behaves against his or her publicly-perceived type appears to know something that we don’t about a policy, making us – the voters – more likely to believe their policy is the right course of action.  

Behaving against type carries political risks, but by doing a ‘one-eighty’ turnaround, politicians like Nixon or Israeli Premier Menachem Begin have been able to sell controversial policies to their public, demonstrate their centrism, and reap rewards at the ballot box as well as the history books. Theoretically, enemy states know this, too. Cooperating with hawkish politicians can be risky, because of the possibility they might renege, but it allows a state to show that it is willing to take a chance for peace

Here’s where the ‘Nixon goes to China’ analogy breaks down. Nixon was trying to get a deal that exploited the Sino-Soviet split; he was not trying to get a better deal after scrapping an arrangement both sides had been in compliance with. Trump decertified Iran from JCPOA not because it violated the agreement but because it violated the agreement’s spirit. This meant a variety of things, from its ballistic missile program to its support for terrorism to its atrocious human rights record. 

Proponents and opponents of engaging Iran focus on its behavior and its capabilities. Iran is simultaneously insecure and the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism; these are not mutually exclusive facts. It faces threats from regional actors ranging from the US, several of America’s Gulf allies, and Daesh (also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, ISIS), while it supports the Assad regime in Syria, Hizbullah, and the Hashd al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilisation Forces) in Iraq. Like the US, it wants to improve ties with India and have a stable Afghanistan on its border. It is wary of China’s long-term intentions with the Belt and Road Initiative, and its public is just as sceptical of potential Russian infringements on their sovereignty.

Iran is weak relative to the US. However, it can impose costs across several lateral domains, from its relations with terrorist organisations, to its ability to engage in hybrid warfare, to its limited conventional and cyber capabilities. 

After the US pulled out of JCPOA, New York Times columnist Bret Stephens argued, ‘All this means the administration is in a strong position to negotiate a viable deal’. This could not be further from the truth. Hardline measures make it harder for weaker states to back down domestically and internationally. Iran finds itself in a position analogous to that of Finland in the winter of 1939. The Soviet Union was vastly more powerful than Finland and invaded in order to make territorial gains. However, the Finns were fearful that if they made concessions to Moscow it would encourage Stalin to make additional demands in the future. 

President Trump should think back to his dealings with creditors in the early 1990s, not Nixon in 1972. When Trump was facing financial ruin, he did not cut a single grand bargain with all the banks he owed money to; he cut a series of deals that allowed him to stay afloat. A similar model should be pursued with Iran. 

The US should find areas where the two sides can work together, while they agree to disagree on others. Early in his term, John F Kennedy pursued a charm offensive with Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, where the two agreed to put seemingly intractable issues into the ‘icebox’ while working on areas of common interest. Trump could repeat this approach with Iran. 

One area of shared Iran-US interest is actually the nuclear accord, JCPOA. This will be a tricky domestic climb down for the Trump administration. However, JCPOA is an improvement over the status quo (stalemate with the possibility of escalation) for both sides. It also deflates rising popularity in Iran for neo-populist hardliners as the economy continues to backslide. 

A second area of developing interest is the war in Yemen. There is growing elite and popular disgust within the US with its involvement with this conflict. Some fail to see what strategic interest the US has at stake, while others have become sickened by the growing human carnage. Iran is fighting a proxy war against Saudi Arabia. It is aiding the Houthis, a Shia minority based in the north of the country responsible for overthrowing the central government that was friendly to Riyadh in 2015. If the US were to simply pull out from an arena where it has, at best, minimal interests, much like it did from South Vietnam, this would ameliorate the security dilemma between itself and Iran.   

A third area of common interest between Iran and the United States is limiting the influence of Russia and China in the Middle East.  This can be done by an objective shared by both Tehran and Washington: broadening India’s reach. Tehran continually exhibits concern that Russia will leave it out of the spoils that will come with the reconstruction of Syria. Iran prefers working with India rather than China on economic development projects, such as the port at Chabahar, and is concerned over the potential impositions on its sovereignty that would come with joining China’s Belt and Road Initiative. The US fears growing Chinese and Russian domination of the region. Specifically, it welcomes an expanded Indian presence as a means of offsetting China’s growing influence with the states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). 

Fourth, a source of Iran’s domestic instability is a prolonged drought, which is particularly bad in the Sunni-majority province of Sistan and Baluchestan. This has compelled the Iranian regime to support elements of the Taliban so as to engage in water smuggling from nearby Afghan provinces while countering Daesh. A potential area of competition that would benefit both parties would be a renegotiation of the water-sharing agreements between Tehran and Kabul in exchange for a limitation of support of the Taliban. 

Donald Trump is unlikely to have a ‘Nixon goes to China’ moment with Iran. Instead of a flashy grand bargain, he should focus on narrow areas of common interest and cooperation, which are more pressing and likely to be more fruitful.

Albert Wolf is the Dean of the College of International Studies at the American University of Kurdistan, Duhok in Iraq. 

BANNER IMAGE: US President Donald Trump announces his Iran strategy, 2017. Courtesy of The White House

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI or any other institution.

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