Withdraw, renegotiate, or enforce?
With apologies, I’ve been slow to post this fine piece by Sarah Timreck on an event that occurred the week before last:
The Hudson Institute January 25 discussed the Iran deal’s prospects and challenges during the Trump administration. Participants were Michael Pregent, Adjunct Fellow at the Hudson Institute, Gary Samore, Executive Director for Research at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, and Trita Parsi, Founder and President of the National Iranian American Council. Suzanne Kianpour, Capitol Hill and Foreign Affairs Producer at BBC News, moderated the panel.
With a background as an intelligence officer in Iraq and military experience on the ground facing the IRGC, Pregent opposes the Iran deal and feels that the concessions given by way of sanctions relief are fundamentally destabilizing. Pregent said that he hopes for changes under the Trump administration, which might recognize the deal’s potential to fuel Iran’s hegemonic aspirations and further weaken the region. Although the deal was intended to benefit Iran economically, right now it allows Iran to more freely support groups such as Hezbollah and regimes such as Assad’s. Trump does not need to rip up the deal but rather enforce it, end secret side deals, deny Iranian companies with IRGC stakeholders access to US banking, and continue to put pressure on Iran’s human rights abuses and support of terrorism.
Samore outlined Trump’s options for the deal moving forward. The first , to renege on the agreement and withdraw current presidential sanctions waivers, would undermine support if other members of the P5+1 saw the US as responsible for killing the agreement without just cause. It could also make Iran resume nuclear activity. The second option, renegotiating with Iran for a better deal, is a more complicated choice. The US would add new conditions in order to trade with Iran but also be prepared to offer additional sanctions relief. Samore was not confident that Trump would support this option or if Iran would come to the table. The third option, in which Trump abides by and enforces the deal, would be the option most favored by the P5+1, the foreign policy establishment, and allies in the region. It is therefore Trump’s safest choice. Samore concluded by saying that he is not confident that the deal will last, citing current minor Iranian violations, lingering tension between the US and Iran, and Iranian frustration over the lack of visible sanctions relief.
Parsi discussed the Iran deal in the context of America’s future in the Middle East. The deal was reflective of a change in US-Iranian relations, signaling progress that many believed would never occur. Ultimately, opposition to the deal was more about the regional and geopolitical repercussions than about coming to terms with Iran on critical issues. The Middle East has lost strategic significance for the US and its focus should shift, pivoting towards Asia and other global challenges. The deal allows America to focus its attention elsewhere and not bog down in the region.
Kianpour then asked the panelists about the potential for renegotiating the deal. Pregent emphasized America’s need to remain focused on the Middle East, calling a US pivot away a mistake considering Iran’s strategic goal of keeping the region fractured. Samore believes renegotiation is possible, but does not see willingness within the Trump administration to make more concessions towards Iran. Parsi also did not see a strong likelihood of re-entering talks given how gruesome and tiring the first round was. He also felt the deal gave the US a degree of maneuverability in its relations with regional allies.
Kianpour also asked the panelists about the impact of the deal on internal politics within Iran. While Parsi said there is curiosity on the part of Iranians about Trump’s actions, American conduct in the region, as well as Iranian conduct, will only slowly reveal themselves over the long term. Pregent felt that the deal has emboldened Iran to continue its “nefarious activit[ies],” while also constraining the US, in particular in Syria. Conversely, both Samore and Parsi felt that Pregent was overstating Iran’s influence on America. Problems in the Middle East did not originate from the deal, nor did the Obama administration feel Iran was central to its decision-making.
Many of the questions focused on the impact of destroying the deal and methods of countering Iranian influence in the region. Pregent took the view that because Iran constantly cheats, strictly enforcing the deal would help keep them in check. He advocates that the US take a position of strength when entering negotiations and hold Iran accountable for its actions. Samore remained skeptical the deal would last the entirety of its lifespan, but also warned about what might come after the deal’s expiration, namely the resumption of nuclear activity. Parsi emphasized the need to honor the deal. He also urged the US to listen to the sentiment within Iran to better understand how the deal impacts prospects for the future of the region and American interests there.