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If Iran Changes Course, America Will Open Its Arms

In this edition of The Interview, Fair Observer talks to Matthew Kroenig, deputy director of the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council.

It has been more than six months since US President Donald Trump withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), popularly known as the Iran nuclear deal. The JCPOA was the outcome of months of talks between Iran, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, Germany and the European Union to find a viable solution to Tehran’s nuclear dilemma.

Leading up to the agreement in 2015, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and then-US Secretary of State John Kerry spoke to each other more than any other top diplomats in the world. This demonstrated that Iran and the United States, despite being rivals, can sit together respectfully and solve their differences through diplomacy.

However, things have changed radically since President Trump took office. Now, the sanctions against Iran that Washington lifted under the Obama administration are back and in full force. The US is no longer a party to the nuclear agreement, and State Department officials talk of a “maximum pressure” policy vis-à-vis Iran as they press Tehran to “change its behavior” in the Middle East and negotiate a new nuclear deal.

A group of more than 50 prominent US foreign policy, intelligence and national security figures noted in a public statement addressed to Trump that his strategy toward Iran is highly perilous and he should abandon his confrontational approach. They acknowledge the president’s criticism of Iran, but argue that “pressure and unilateral sanctions without viable diplomatic options” will produce dangerous results.

On the other side, there are observers who say that Trump’s Iran policy is reliable and his decision in withdrawing from the deal and imposing new sanctions will serve US national interests. One of these people is Matthew Kroenig, a distinguished American professor, foreign policy expert and former government official who believes it is up to Iran to win back Washington’s trust.

In this edition of The Interview, Fair Observer talks to Kroenig about the US withdrawal from the Iran deal and the future of Iran-US relations.

The transcript has been edited for clarity.

Kourosh Ziabari: President Donald Trump called the Iran nuclear agreement a badly negotiated, flawed and ridiculous deal several times before pulling out of it. He said withdrawing from the Iran deal would make America safer. What do you think? Was the de-certification of JCPOA a decision that serves US national interests?

Matthew Kroenig: The problem with the Iran nuclear deal is that it compromised one of the international community’s most important nonproliferation principles. Since the 1950s, the United States has worked to stop the spread of uranium enrichment capabilities to any country, including our closest allies. As soon as Iran’s enrichment program was announced in 2002, there was a bipartisan consensus in the United States that Iran must completely shut down its enrichment program. This was the position of both the Bush and Obama administrations.

Then, it proved too hard. Barack Obama compromised one of our most important principles in the JCPOA by not only allowing Iran to enrich uranium, but also by giving it an international stamp of approval. This set a dangerous precedent for nonproliferation and led to calls from South Korea, Saudi Arabia and others that they too be allowed to start dangerous nuclear fuel-making programs.

So, in short, the JCPOA did not serve American or global interests, and Trump was right to pull out.

Ziabari: The Iran nuclear deal was negotiated and signed to deter a perceived Iranian nuclear threat and prevent it from developing atomic bombs. The International Atomic Energy Agency confirmed 11 times before President Trump’s withdrawal from the deal that Iran was complying with its technical commitments. Was Trump’s decision based on sound logic that the JCPOA hadn’t eliminated the threat from Iran?

Kroenig: Iran was complying with the terms of the deal — that was not the problem. The problem is that the very terms of the deal were not in the US interest. They delayed but did not eliminate Iran’s path to the bomb and they set a dangerous precedent. So, yes, Trump’s decision to pull out was based on sound logic. 

Ziabari: US officials repeatedly note in their public statements that they want Iran to change its behavior and regional policies. What does a change that is acceptable to the United States look like? Will Iran ever agree to follow the guidelines set by the US and abandon its revolutionary ideals?

Kroenig: As Henry Kissinger has said many times, Iran needs to decide if it wants to be a country or a cause. For decades, its leaders have decided they want it to be a cause. But eventually I believe Iran will find that pursuing these revolutionary ideals are too costly and they will have to change course.

Ziabari: Since the 1979 revolution, Iranian authorities have accused the United States of interfering in the internal affairs of Iran, trying to destabilize the country and create divisions between different groups of people. Do you find these assertions close to reality?

Kroenig: No. Would the United States prefer that there were a different government in power in Iran that followed democratic norms and respected the human rights of its people? Of course. But this is not an official policy objective of the United States, and we do not have ongoing policies or programs devoted to interference in Iranian domestic politics.

Ziabari: Do you think Israel and Saudi Arabia are impediments to the normalization of relations between Iran and the United States? Will their security and interests be at stake if Tehran and Washington talk to each other respectfully and make a firm decision to solve their differences after four decades?

Kroenig: No. I think the behavior of the Iranian government is the foremost impediment to the normalization of relations between Iran and the United States. If Iran stopped its nuclear and ballistic missile program and its support for terrorism, Israel and Saudi Arabia would be less concerned about Iran and would have little ground to object to improved relations between Tehran and Washington.

Ziabari: How serious is the rift between the United States and its European allies over President Trump’s pullout from the Iran deal?

Kroenig: It is undesirable, but not serious. We have seen this pattern frequently over the decades, with the United States taking action it believes is necessary for global nuclear nonproliferation efforts, and European nations being more concerned with their narrow commercial interests. They will come around to supporting the US position as they have in the past.

Ziabari: In a letter addressed to Trump, dozens of US national security experts and former officials warned the president of the consequences of escalating tensions with Iran and asked him to abandon his aggressive policy toward the Iranians. Where do you think President Trump’s special antagonism toward Iran comes from, the likes of which was not seen during President Obama’s tenure?

Kroenig: Trump’s antagonism for Iran is not unusual. It has been widely shared by Democrats and Republicans in Washington for decades. The Obama administration simply had a different idea about how to resolve the nuclear crisis, but they were very careful to say that they did not see the nuclear deal as part of a broader rapprochement with Iran.

Moreover, there was bipartisan opposition to the Iran deal in the US Congress — every Republican and some Democrats opposed it. Security experts have good-faith differences over whether the deal was in our interests. Some liked the deal as you point out, but I and many others believe that pulling out was the right step.

Ziabari: For how long do you think hostility and animosity between Iran and the United States will persist? Are the two countries determined to dissipate misunderstandings through engagement and diplomacy instead of exchanging hostile rhetoric and threats?

Kroenig: It is up to Iran’s leaders. Americans have short memories. Germany and Japan went from being sworn enemies to treaty allies within years after World War II. If Iran abandoned its threatening policies, I suspect Washington would quickly embrace Tehran with open arms.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.