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Abandoning the Iran Deal Is Just One Example of Irrational U.S. Diplomacy

Ted Galen Carpenter

All signs indicate that President Trump will rescind
Washington’s adherence to the nuclear agreement reached
between the leading international powers and Iran in 2015. That
agreement, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), placed
significant restrictions on Tehran’s nuclear program—at
the very least greatly slowing any quest for a nuclear-weapons
capability. Nevertheless, hawks in the United States have
excoriated the deal from the very beginning, arguing that Iran was
merely buying time and lulling a gullible Obama administration and
other governments into complacency while continuing to covertly
develop its nuclear capabilities. During the 2016
presidential-election campaign, Trump himself repeatedly blasted
the JCPOA as the “worst deal ever negotiated.” Other
opponents equated the agreement with Neville Chamberlain’s
appeasement of Nazi Germany at Munich in 1938.

The hostility to the JCPOA is merely the latest manifestation of
an unhealthylack of prudence and realism in U.S.
foreign policy on so many issues. Washington’s approach is
characterized too often by impossible objectives, boorish,
ham-handed diplomacy, and an unwillingness to make even the most
imperative concessions to achieve success.

The reality is that the JCPOA was probably the best deal that the United States and the
other signatories could hope to get from any Iranian government.
Indeed, it is surprising that Tehran was willing to accept even
those restrictions. And despite allegations from opponents that
Iran is violating the terms of the deal, the International Atomic
Energy Agency continues to certify that Tehran is in compliance.
Until now, even the Trump administration has had to concede,
however grudgingly, that Iran has abided by the JCPOA’s
requirements. Admittedly, the president did grouse that the
Iranians were violating “the spirit” of the agreement,
whatever that meant.

Pressing for a so-called
“better” nuclear deal reflects the lack of realism that has plagued
overall U.S. foreign policy in recent decades.

JCPOA supporters warn that trashing the accord will create
horrid dilemmas for the United States. The likelihood is that
Tehran would resume its full nuclear development program. U.S.
leaders might then face the choice of accepting Iran as a
nuclear-weapons power within a few years or launching a preemptive
war to thwart that outcome.

Most JCPOA critics deny that they are pushing for a war against
Iran—although there are exceptions, including Sen. Tom
Cotton. Less brazen types insist that they simply want “a
better deal”—one that would impose far more rigorous
restraints on Iran. Even if such individuals are sincere—and
there are substantial reasons to doubt their
sincerity—pressing for a so-called better deal reflects the
lack of realism that has plagued overall U.S. foreign policy in
recent decades.

The only reason that negotiators were able to conclude the JCPOA
with Tehran was because they backed off from some of their original
demands. Hardliners (especially in the United States) wanted Iran
to have no nuclear capabilities whatever—not even the
technology appropriate for developing peaceful nuclear energy. The
usual flock of hawks also wanted any agreement to include a virtual
ban on ballistic-missile development and a commitment from Tehran
to abandon its support of Hezbollah and other “terrorist
movements.” Indeed, critics still insist on those points. Had
negotiators demanded such concessions, however, there never would
have been a JCPOA.

Unfortunately, the lack of prudent realism that hawkish types
continue to exhibit regarding policy toward Iran is not confined to
that issue. Too often, U.S. officials and much of the
foreign-policy community act as though the only legitimate
diplomacy consists of making a laundry list of maximalist demands
to a foreign government—usually without offering any
meaningful concessions in return. That scenario has played out in
recent years regarding policy toward both North Korea and
Russia.

Since the mid-1990s, Washington has insisted that Pyongyang
abandon its entire nuclear program. Given the U.S. track record of forcible regime change against
nonnuclear adversaries like Serbia, Iraq and Libya, Pyongyang was
not inclined to rely on vacuous assurances that the United States
would refrain from trying to achieve the same outcome in North
Korea. Moreover, Washington’s proposed substantive
concessions to Pyongyang consisted of little more than vague
promises of a partial lifting of the economic sanctions that had
been imposed. There never has been a clear willingness to address
the North Korean regime’s other goals—including a peace
treaty formally ending the Korean War, U.S. diplomatic recognition
of the regime, and the end to Washington’s annual
joint-military exercises with South Korea.

Insisting on Pyongyang’s return to nuclear virginity,
especially without offering major concessions, was not very
realistic even before North Korea conducted multiple nuclear and
ballistic-missile tests. Once developments reached that point and
it was clear that the country already had built a number of nuclear
weapons, U.S. policy became totally unmoored from reality. Yet
there is little indication that the Trump administration has
softened Washington’s negotiating strategy. Instead, the U.S.
position has hardened and become worrisomely belligerent.

Both the Obama and Trump administrations have pursued a similar
futile, uncompromising stance toward Russia. The recent sanctions legislation that Congress
overwhelmingly passed and that the president signed into law
epitomizes that rigid, unproductive attitude. Among other
provisions, the measure cited Moscow’s alleged interference in
America’s 2016 election as a justification for imposing tighter
sanctions. But the legislation offers no hint of how Russia could
atone for that offense and get the sanctions lifted. Would a
written pledge never to engage in such conduct in future elections
be sufficient? Would something additional be necessary? There is no
way to tell.

In addition, the sanctions law codifies the previous White House
demands during the Obama and Trump administrations that the Kremlin
cease supporting separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine and return
the Crimea Peninsula to Kiev’s control. Russia’s compliance with
the former demand is unlikely, especially given the Russian
government’s well-founded fears that the United States intends to
turn Ukraine into a Western client state with membership in both
the European Union and NATO. Brazen Western meddling in Ukraine’s political affairs to help
demonstrators unseat the democratically elected, pro-Russian
president in 2014 certainly does not incline Moscow to soften its
policy toward its neighbor.

Demanding that Moscow relinquish control of Crimea is even more
of a diplomatic nonstarter. The Kremlin will abandon that
acquisition at about the same time that Israel rescinds its
annexation of Syria’s Golan Heights or Turkey repudiates its puppet
Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus and returns that occupied
territory to the Republic of Cyprus. That is to say, a Russian
capitulation on the Crimea issue likely will never take place.

Such examples underscore that Washington’s overall
diplomacy is dangerously unrealistic on multiple fronts. More
restrained and modest strategies are badly needed. A good place to
start is to refrain from torpedoing the constructive and beneficial
JCPOA. There is no “better agreement” in the offing, and the
consequences of pursuing such a mirage could be very
unpleasant—not only for the Middle East, but the United
States as well.

Ted Galen
Carpenter
, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and a
contributing editor at the National Interest, is the author of ten
books, the contributing editor of ten books, and the author of more
than 650 articles on international affairs.