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The Goal for Now is Not Diplomacy with Iran, But Avoiding War

The Goal for Now is Not Diplomacy with Iran, But Avoiding War

Wednesday, 19 June, 2019 - 07:30
So, is America going to war?

For the first time in over 15 years, perhaps, that’s a very sensible question. The answer is: likely not. At least not in the Middle East.

Ships have been attacked in the Strait of Hormuz. The Iranians have denied responsibility. The Trump administration says it has videos proving otherwise. I was at a conference Friday and ran into Ilan Goldenberg, formerly a top aide to Secretary of State John Kerry (the guy who signed off on the Iran nuclear deal, for better or worse) who now directs the Middle East program at the Center for a New American Security. Here is a (lightly edited) transcript of our chat:

Tobin Harshaw: Let’s start with the latest tanker bombings. The US started issuing warnings weeks ago about exactly this sort of thing. If the video can be believed, Iran was behind it. Were the Iranian actions planned long in advance, or was it a reaction to our warnings that Tehran was going to act?

Ilan Goldenberg: I think it's fundamentally a reaction to the US maximum-pressure campaign of the last year. The Trump administration has been saying, “We're going to apply pressure, we're going to strangle Iran economically.” And in early May, it made the decision to try to cut Iranian oil sales to zero. And so Iran, for a year, has had a strategy of trying to be restrained but also to split the US away from the international community. And that wasn't getting them anything. And I think they've finally decided they need to demonstrate to the other side that there are costs for continuing to pursue this.

TH: Assuming Iran did this, one of the possible results is that international oil prices will rise. But, given sanctions, that's not going to do a whole lot for the Iranians. So what's the game?

IG: I think that the game for them is to try to get the US to back off, or to try to get the international community to back off. And one of the interesting things about hitting these oil tankers is that they also may be trying to split the US apart from the Gulf states. Are we really going to go to war or start striking Iranian targets over a couple of tankers in the Gulf?

TH: You worked for John Kerry, who masterminded the now-discarded nuclear deal. I'm assuming that you feel the deal, whether flawed or not, was better than nothing. The Trump administration obviously felt otherwise. The Europeans have been trying to keep this going. Has that been a farce? Is there any chance of actually getting the deal back in place?

IG: The Europeans have been stuck in the middle because they're taking all this criticism from the US for trying to keep the deal going, and they're taking all this criticism from Iran for not doing enough to keep the deal going. They were dealt a very tough hand, and have done the best they could at what they were trying for, which is to buy time.

I support the idea that all the Democratic candidates are saying, “Let's go back to the nuclear deal.” But I think it's more of a proxy for, “Let's go back to diplomacy.” I'm worried that by the time you get to early 2021, things are going to be too far gone to be able to go back into that deal.

TH: OK, let’s say we go back to the table. One legitimate criticism of the deal was that it didn't deal with ballistic missiles and didn't deal with terrorism in the neighborhood. Is there any way to deal with these issues in the future?

IG: One of the reasons the nuclear pact didn't deal with these issues is that people on both sides, the US side and the Iranian side, felt it was too complicated to try to do everything at once. There was also no international unity on the questions of Iranian support for terrorism. You're not going to be able to get Russia and China on board for something like that. One administration after another has had the same problem here.

The Trump administration came in saying, We're going to be tough on Iran in the region. And all they've done is sanctions, they haven't done anything militarily to counter some of Iran’s other behaviors. We almost threatened to pull all of our troops out of Syria, totally undercutting our position to counter Iran.

TH: Describe how other administrations had the same problem.

IG: During the George W. Bush administration, we lost over 600 Americans in Iraq through Iranian weaponry. And we never found a way to militarily counter Iran without the danger of escalating dramatically. We feared we'd end up in a war. So the Bush administration chose not to do it either. So one administration after another comes in and says, We're gonna deal with the regional challenges with Iran. And one administration after another fails to do that. At least the Obama administration managed to do something that put the nuclear program in a box.

TH: So, finally, let's assume we do get out of this Gulf attack situation without actually coming to a limited war or total war. What are the lingering effects of something coming this close? What are the diplomatic avenues coming out for the post-2020 Trump administration, or non-Trump administration?

IG: I think ultimately Trump wants to negotiate. It's very clear he wants to do the North Korea playbook. I think Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe went over to Iran last week partially at Trump's encouragement. And it's really an unfortunate missed opportunity, because if the Iranians want to speak to Trump and find a way to do it while bypassing hardliners Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton, Abe could have been that guy. The Iranians could have offered something that Abe could have taken to Trump, and Trump could have said yes even if Pompeo and Bolton were against it.

TH: OK, what happens over the next two years, under either Trump or a Democratic administration?

IG: The Iranians look like they are in no mood to negotiate right now with Trump. They think that they would be rewarding him for walking away from the nuclear deal. So this plays out for the next year.

If he's re-elected, I think the Iranians find the way back to the negotiating table through someone like Abe, because they have no choice. They're under too much pressure.

TH: And if Trump loses?

IG: If a Democrat is elected, then you get into a new series of negotiations. Going back into the old nuclear pact might not be possible. We're going to have elections in Iran where they might have a more hardline president. And there's going to be this overhang of, How can we trust anything you tell us? Because the next president might erase it all.

Diplomacy is probably off for the next 18 months – and the aim is avoiding war.


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