We need to try to talk with Iran’s government, seek a better relationship with the Iranian people, and a more constructive role for Iran in the region
Last week, Donald Trump made one of the most reckless moves of his presidency: withdrawing from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action(JCPOA), also known as the Iran nuclear agreement. With this decision, the president discarded years of hard work by our diplomats, who had obtained an extremely rigorous set of restrictions and inspections guaranteeing that Iran would not obtain a nuclear weapon. He also slammed the door on a once-promising possibility of detente between the US and Iran.
It’s important to understand that the JCPOA is not just an agreement between the US and Iran, but one negotiated alongside our partners in the P5+1 – the UK, France, China, Russia and Germany – and endorsed by the United Nations security council. Trump’s withdrawal further deepens tensions with our most important democratic allies, France, the UK and Germany, who all continue to support the agreement and have consistently said that it is in their own national security interests to see it upheld.
Trump also rejected the advice of his own top national security officials like the joint chiefs chairman, Gen Joseph Dunford, and defense secretary, James Mattis, both of whom have repeatedly stated that staying in the agreement is in the national security interests of the US. Nuclear non-proliferation and national security professionals around the world share that assessment. Just as he has done on the issue of climate change with his withdrawal from the Paris climate accord, Trump has chosen to ignore the overwhelming expert consensus and sided instead with a small ideological faction, with disastrous consequences for our global security.
Withdrawing from the JCPOA also seriously harms the US’s ability to negotiate future non-proliferation agreements, such as one with North Korea. Why would any country in the world sign such an agreement with the US and make the tough concessions that any such agreement requires if they thought that a reckless president might simply discard that agreement a few years later?
To be clear, Iran is engaged in a lot of bad behavior, including backing dictator Bashar al-Assad’s war against the Syrian people, support for violent extremist groups like Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Palestine, and human rights abuses inside Iran. However, if we are genuinely concerned about these Iranian policies, as I am, this is the worst possible course. It will make addressing all of these other issues harder. Unfortunately, we heard no strategy from Trump when he announced his decision, just the usual bluster.
Bluster and Iran-bashing will not get us to a better future. We need to continue to try to talk with Iran’s government, seek a better relationship with the Iranian people, and a more constructive role for Iran in the region. Trump’s approach makes achieving those goals more difficult. It has already emboldened the regime’s hardliners, who are much more comfortable dealing with a hostile America than with a reasonable, peace-seeking one.
After 17 years of war in Afghanistan and 15 years of war in Iraq, the American people do not want to be engaged in never-ending wars in the Middle East. They do not want to drawn into a Sunni-Shia, Saudi Arabia-Iran regional conflict. But I am deeply concerned that that is exactly where President Trump is taking us. If anyone were inclined to dismiss those concerns, I would remind them that Trump’s newly installed national security adviser, John Bolton, wrote an article a few years ago entitled “To Stop Iran’s Bomb, Bomb Iran”. By withdrawing from the nuclear agreement, and making clear their goal of escalation, Trump and his administration seem to be creating their own excuse for doing exactly that.
We should remember that the road to the Iraq war did not simply begin in 2003. It was laid down brick by brick over a number of years with policy decisions that might have seemed relatively small at the time, but that ultimately led us to the worst foreign policy blunder in our history. The Iraq war had enormous unintended consequences that we are still dealing with today, and will be for many years to come. Indeed, one of those unintended consequences was the empowering of Iran in Iraq and elsewhere around the region.
It is folly to imagine that, having unleashed these problems through the misuse of military force, we can solve them in the same way. Yet President Trump’s bellicose speech last week clearly seemed to shift American policy toward the same goal of regime change that underlay the Iraq war. Real American leadership, and real American power, is not shown by our ability to blow things up, but by our ability to bring parties together, to forge international consensus around shared problems, and then to mobilize that consensus to address those problems. That is what the JCPOA did. Unfortunately, President Trump has now chosen to put us on a very different, more dangerous path.