President Donald Trump says he wishes Iran would call him. All he wants, he insists, is “a deal, a fair deal.” Apparently, he’s realized he was wrong to believe that the regime he’s attempting to overthrow would grovel before him. So now the White House has announced that it’s given the Swiss government his phone number to pass along to Tehran.
Of course, Switzerland probably feels whiplash. In 2003, Tehran offered to negotiate with George W. Bush through a Swiss emissary. The neocon-heavy, war-happy Bush administration dismissed the proposal out of hand.
The Trump administration is also unsuccessfully pushing Europe to stop resisting U.S. sanctions. Washington’s tone has alternated between imperious and whiny, neither of which has attracted much support. The usual warrior wannabe pundits, meanwhile, have made a similar suggestion: the Europeans should be as faithless as America and offer to join in receiving Iran’s surrender.
Tehran unsurprisingly disdains contact with Washington. Barely a year ago, the president cavalierly took the U.S. out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the multilateral nuclear agreement and product of a highly complex international negotiation and difficult give-and-take within as well as between nations. At 159 pages, the JCPOA was the most detailed nuclear inspections regime ever created. (A month later, President Trump cheerfully accepted the substantively meaningless two-page Singapore summit statement as a definitive commitment by North Korea to disarm.)
Trump might enjoy posturing as negotiator-in-chief, but he has made it almost impossible for the Iranian government to engage him, let alone accept his demands. In truth, the administration’s confrontational approach has been a failure for America and a disaster for the Iranian people. The president’s policy has guaranteed continued tensions. His coterie of warmongering appointees are determined for regime change. The administration’s hypocrisy is also staggering: they accuse Iran of meddling in the Mideast—while Washington invaded Iraq, attacked Libya, and sought to oust the Syrian government—and of committing human rights violations—while the U.S. allied with autocratic Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.
The Trump administration has discouraged peaceful engagement in multiple ways.
- Tossing out the JCPOA and insisting on massive and unilateral concessions. This demand would be dismissed by any other country, including America. What government, absent total military defeat, would accept a public call for de facto diplomatic surrender and national humiliation? Real estate developer Donald Trump certainly would not react well if someone demanded the same of him.
- Misjudging the reason Tehran entered into negotiations with the Obama administration. Iran desired sanctions relief, but even more important was U.S. acceptance of the former’s right to continue enriching uranium, which the Trump administration rejects.
- Unilaterally tearing up the JCPOA, thereby making Washington an unreliable negotiating partner. Even if a new agreement were to be reached, what would prevent the president from declaring it to be insufficient later on, reimposing sanctions, and making new threats of war absent additional Iranian concessions? What would stop a future administration from following his precedent? Iran has little incentive to reach any deal with the administration.
- Destroying a compromise promoted by more moderate factions in Tehran, dramatically discrediting those most interested in negotiating with Washington. The relative balance of power has now shifted toward those in Iran who preach distrust and confrontation. What intelligent Iranian politician today would endorse Donald Trump as a serious negotiating partner? Even President Hassan Rouhani is now playing the hawk, announcing that Iran will gradually leave the JCPOA if the Europeans fail to deliver continued economic benefits, as promised.
- Imposing sanctions, which hit hardest the westward-looking middle and commercial classes. While they may be dissatisfied with the Islamic government, their focus increasingly is on economic survival. And the main cause of their distress is Washington, not Tehran.
- Insisting that Iran abandon its primary means of defense by eliminating its missile program. The country’s conventional military forces have shrunk dramatically in capability even as the U.S. has bolstered the arsenals of Tehran’s enemies, most notably the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, with modern arms. Because those nations remain essentially amalgams of city states in the desert, the one thing Iran can do is hit them with missiles.
- Expecting Iran to abandon an independent foreign policy. At Baghdad’s request, Tehran helped its Shia neighbor defeat the virulent Sunni Islamic State insurgency (which had been loosed by America’s invasion). Similarly, answering Damascus’s call, Iranian forces assisted in defeating multiple insurgents, many aided by Washington. With good reason, the Islamic Republic views the U.S. as its enemy—plotting the 1953 coup, supporting the repressive Shah, backing Iraq’s invasion of Iran, constantly threatening war. Yet the Trump administration expects Tehran to accept being treated as a veritable puppet state within Washington’s sphere of interest.
- Expecting Shia Iran to also accept the de facto suzerainty of Sunni Saudi Arabia. The aggressive Saudi crown prince has pushed the U.S. to actively join the Sunni-Shia struggle. Thus has America become an ally in Saudi Arabia’s brutal war of aggression against Yemen. Riyadh also wants the U.S. to wage war against Iran. Accepting the administration’s demands would deliver the Mideast to Saudi Arabia’s not so gentle mercies without a shot being fired.
- Attempting to foment revolution and regime change by starving Iran’s population. Doing so is not only inhumane but counterproductive. Sanctions have stoked internal dissatisfaction while allowing the regime to blame America. Moreover, violent crises and implosions rarely yield liberal, pro-Western regimes. Notably, the administration has had no better results elsewhere—Cuba, Venezuela, Russia, North Korea. If Washington does succeed in wrecking Iran’s existing government, the winners in any resulting power struggle probably won’t be our friends.
Of course, Iran would be better off freed from radical Islamic rule. But for all its sanctimonious rhetoric, the Trump administration doesn’t seem to care about Iranians’ human rights. Moreover, its general approach to Iran is almost entirely wrong, driven by both Saudi Arabia and Israel. Policy should instead reflect America’s interest in minimizing regional tensions, reducing our number of adversaries, and shifting security responsibilities onto friends and allies.
That requires engagement. So far, President Trump has used but one tactic: sanctions. The Obama administration was correct in thinking that the JCPOA could help transform Iran. The process was never going to be easy or simple, especially since Islamist factions understood the West’s appeal to many Iranians, including younger urbanites. Before President Trump inadvertently helped Islamic hardliners by junking the nuclear accord, Tehran’s internal political struggle was sharpening. Creating additional foreign economic opportunities would have increased pressure on the regime to expand outside cooperation. And that pressure would have steadily grown. While there was never a guarantee that a democratic Iran would have emerged, the chances would have been much better than they are today.
The U.S. also needs to acknowledge and respect Iran’s security interests. Yes, the regime is malign. However, governments do not voluntarily dismantle themselves and they do not willingly weaken their defenses. Every American military threat increases the case in Tehran for building more missiles and restarting the nuclear weapons program. Insisting that Iran accept American and Saudi domination makes it imperative that the Islamic Republic maintain and deploy unconventional forces and foreign proxies. Washington would do much better to encourage its well-armed partners to seek détente rather than permanent sectarian conflict.
Imagine a foreign power imposing harsh economic sanctions on and threatening war against the U.S., attempting to starve Americans into revolt, insisting that Washington accept Mexican domination of the continent, and demanding that America yield its principal defensive weapons. No doubt a few Americans would advocate surrender. But the vast majority would shout not only “no!” but “hell no!” In this respect, foreigners are a lot more like us than we might like to think.
The U.S. and Iran should talk. But contrary to the president’s hope, giving Tehran an economic ultimatum will not bring it to the negotiating table. Trump has destroyed the possibility of normal diplomacy between his administration and the Iranian government. Unless he dramatically changes direction, the Middle East will become a much more dangerous place.
Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. A former special assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.