Author of New Iran Book: Following Trump Victory, It’s Hard to See How Nuclear Deal Will Survive
If President-elect Donald Trump and his foreign policy advisers stick to their past rhetoric regarding the nuclear agreement reached last year between six world powers and Iran, “it’s hard to see how the deal will survive,” the Wall Street Journal’s chief foreign affairs correspondent and author of a new book detailing US-Iranian relations over the past decade and a half told The Algemeiner in an interview this week.
Referring to Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton in last week’s presidential election, Jay Solomon joked, “I’ll probably have to write a new epilogue to the book when the deal collapses in six months.”
Solomon, whose book The Iran Wars: Spy Games, Bank Battles, and the Secret Deals That Reshaped the Middle East came out in August, said, “On one hand, Trump probably doesn’t want to have a crisis in his first year in office. He’s a business guy, so maybe he’ll tone it down. But at the same time, when you see some of the names being floated for top administration positions — like John Bolton, Rudy Giuliani, Mike Flynn, guys with decades of track records of being hawkish on Iran — it’s possible we could see a crisis pretty quickly.”
The Obama administration, Solomon noted, has been “pretty clear it was going to constantly take steps to try to keep Iran in compliance [with the nuclear agreement]. But I can guarantee you Trump is not going to start buying heavy water from the Iranians to keep them under the cap. So I think its going to be dicier now.”
Looking ahead at what Trump’s policy vis-a-vis Iran might look like, Solomon predicted, “I think the softest it’ll be is to abide by the deal, but really try to hit the Iranians through what they’re doing in places like Yemen and Syria…On a more cynical side, you could say the Trump administration is going to try to enforce things to a point where it knows the Iranians will back out.”
The long-term sustainability of the nuclear agreement, Solomon pointed out, was always going to be politically fragile, due to the “divisive way” the Obama administration sold the deal to Congress and the American public.
“You live by the sword, you die by it,” he said. “There are dynamic changes and there’s not going to be a lot of institutional support for the deal. [Secretary of State John] Kerry and [Secretary of Energy Ernest] Moniz are leaving, these people are invested in it and now they’re suddenly all going to be gone.”
One complicating factor for Trump, Solomon said, would be Russia, which is allied now with Iran in Syria.
“He’s going to alienate [Russian President Vladmir] Putin if he scraps the deal,” Solomon said.
Turning to his book, Solomon described it as narrative from 9/11 to the current day detailing “US-Iranian cooperation in Afghanistan, the effort to cooperate in Iraq and how that backfired and deteriorated into a regional proxy war.”
To fight this shadow conflict with Iran, Solomon said, the US “created new national security tools that I think will continue to be around for a long time in cyber and financial warfare.”
“I think the most controversial headline of the book, and I had US officials say this, was that Obama really decided not to support the Iranian Green Movement in 2009 in part because he had this overture to the supreme leader [Ayatollah Ali Khamenei] regarding nuclear diplomacy,” Solomon said.
Regarding the conflict in Syria, Solomon said, “Obama was pursuing this secret diplomacy with Iran at the same time he was preparing to launch strikes in Syria [in 2013]. And Iranian officials told me, for the book, that the message was basically communicated to Obama that if he started striking Assad, the ability of Iranian diplomats to continue would be very difficult because of the Revolutionary Guards and the supreme leader.”
In the years before the nuclear deal was reached, Solomon stated, “the US really had these guys on the ropes. Officials in Iran were talking about how they had no hard currency and when [current President Hassan] Rouhani took power [in 2013] after [former President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad, they basically found this huge hole in their financial system and they had to get a deal. So I think the question is, did we let them off the hook? They were really in financial straits and we kind of backed off a lot of the initial red lines we had set and I think it would be pretty hard to get that kind of financial pressure on Iran again.”
Assessing the US diplomatic approach to Iran, Solomon said, “I understood the strategy. In a lot of ways, I think the book was pretty complimentary in how it was set up. From Bush into Obama, the US took Iran off the global energy market and cut it off from the financial system.”
However, Solomon said, “tactically, once they moved from the private to the actual formal process, the US seemed to give away its leverage. It gave up the issue of enrichment at the front end basically to even get the talks, which was totally to the Iranians’ benefit. And Obama would publicly say, ‘All options are on the table,’ but privately the administration would say if we launch a military strike, it would guarantee Iran gets a bomb. And they started to talk down their own sanctions and decided not to give Congress any role, even as a foil.”
“So I think the Iranians were gaming the system and realized they were in a pretty good position, even though the cards were stacked against them,” he continued.
Asked how the nuclear deal would be viewed in the future, Solomon replied. “I’m open-minded. But there’s a real risk it will basically be a repeat of what Rouhani and those guys did in 2003, which they talked about, saying, ‘Oh, we used the diplomacy to reduce pressure, but we continued on with the program.’ It could be seen as that the sanctions created a real national security crisis for the Iranians and they used diplomacy to basically shelter themselves without ever really changing their strategic calculus to develop a latent nuclear weapons capability. Part of me is still sympathetic, and maybe the US will pull it off with the go-slow approach and the reduction of pressure will allow Iran — with its pro-West population — to open up a bit. I guess that is still a possibility, but my gut thinking is that the deal won’t last and there will be a situation in which there is another round of war talk or basically we just accept that Iran will become a latent nuclear weapons state.”