Donald Trump’s Iranian policy is geopolitically illiterate.
Though he decries Iranian aggression, he has no strategy to counteract it. Instead, he threatens to repudiate America’s sole success: the international agreement that prevents Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.
Under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with China, Russia, Germany, Great Britain, the European Union, and the United States, Iran agreed to halt its nuclear program for 15 years. To verify Iran’s compliance, the International Atomic Energy Agency inspects its nuclear facilities. Every 90 days, the State Department must recertify to Congress that Iran remains compliant.
Thus far it is. But now, despite the recent assurances of the IAEA and the assessment of our own intelligence community, Trump proposes conjuring a finding of noncompliance to precipitate our withdrawal
Such an obvious sham would be destabilizing and self-defeating. Under the aegis of The Iran Project, 47 leaders from US military, intelligence, diplomatic, and political communities warn that “such a unilateral act would have grave long-term political and security consequences for the United States.”
Iran could renew its nuclear program, with dangerous and unpredictable results. But Iran insists that it would continue complying in cooperation with the other parties. The resulting risks cited by The Iran Project include a rupture between America and its negotiating partners; expanded trade and investment between those countries and Iran, further isolating the United States; and enhanced efforts by Russia and China to divide the United States from its Western allies. Far from discouraging Iranian aggression, Trump would strengthen Iran and hamstring America.
According to Iran Project director William Luers, Iran agreed to severe constraints on its nuclear program for compelling economic reasons. Sanctions relief, foreign investment, and robust trade will benefit Iran’s restive young people, often highly educated, who face unemployment running at 50 percent.
Iran gains little from racing to revive nuclear facilities that, because of JCPOA inspections, the United States or Israel could locate and destroy; it gains much more from closer relations with our partners. For the United States to respond by sanctioning European companies who do business with Iran would exacerbate the schism caused by our withdrawal. Walking away only buys us trouble.
A better strategy would be to strengthen the deal — working toward enhancing inspections; extending the agreement’s duration; and advancing it as a template for regional arrangements barring nuclear weapons.
Upholding the agreement is also essential to addressing the core problem for which Trump has found no answer: restraining Iranian aggression.
Iran’s interventions in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Yemen have helped roil the region. Iran’s aims are rational enough: By becoming a dominant regional power, it can create a buffer zone in neighboring countries, and a safe space for a Shia minority menaced by Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Gulf states allied with the United States. For its own reasons, Russia is pleased to provide strategic assistance where it can.
In Trump’s worldview, Iran is the wellspring of all regional problems, the Saudis our autocracy of choice. But the Saudis finance and countenance terrorism aimed at the West. With our ill-advised support, they are the protagonist of catastrophic sectarian strife in Yemen, which has created space for the Islamic State and Al Qaeda. The Saudis, like Iran, are a source of instability, and their rivalry is combustible.
This tinderbox is too dangerous to ignore, or to address with one-sided bluster. The United States needs a sustained strategic and diplomatic effort to restrain Iranian adventurism, stop Saudi support for terrorists, and temper the two nations’ volatile conflict.
Such an undertaking far exceeds the capacity of Trump’s diminished State Department — or America’s military. However arduous the process, it requires the cooperation of other nations, including our partners in the JCPOA. Measures commended by The Iran Project include attempting to engage Saudi Arabia, Iran, Russia, Turkey, China, and the European Union in regular exchanges regarding serious regional problems; opening direct channels of communication with Iran; and coordinating strategies with US partners to combat further adventurism by Iran or proxies like Hezbollah.
More immediately, Trump must moderate his drastic tilt toward Saudi Arabia. Whatever the president may imagine, the Saudis cannot quash Iran, or facilitate an Israeli-Palestinian settlement neither party wants. And though our motives may conflict, the United States and Iran share a broad interest in defeating ISIS and stabilizing the government in Iraq.
But first do no harm. For America’s sake, Trump must continue the Iranian nuclear deal.
Richard North Patterson’s column appears regularly in the Boston Globe. His latest book is “Fever Swamp.’’ Follow him on Twitter @RicPatterson.