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October 20, 2017 12:07 pm

A Message to Congress: Don’t Tamper With Iran Deal, Build on It

avatar by Alon Ben-Meir

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An Iranian nuclear site in Natanz. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

The Trump administration’s approach to the Iran deal is problematic due to the multiple conflicts raging throughout the Middle East, including the conflicts in Syria, Yemen, Iraq and Lebanon. The question is, will Tehran be more cooperative in the search for solutions to these conflicts if the signatories to the Iran deal, especially the US, fully adhere to it — or will Iran add fuel to the regional fires because of what happens to the nuclear deal?

By all accounts, Iran continues to fully adhere to all the official provisions of the deal. Although the deal was limited to Iran’s pursuit of a weaponized nuclear program, it offers opportunities to build on this in the search for solutions to the regional conflicts, especially Iran’s continuing transgressions. Trump’s reckless decision will take away any incentive that could entice Iran to be a positive regional player.

I am not condoning Iran’s reprehensible behavior. I condemn in the strongest terms its support of violent extremists and terrorist organizations; I condemn it for being one of the most vicious culprits behind Syria’s tragic civil war, and its ruthless support of the Houthis in Yemen, the Shiite insurgents in Iraq and Hezbollah in Lebanon.

That said, Iran cannot simply be dismissed as if it were irrelevant to the unfolding tragic events in the region, which cannot be resolved without Iran’s full participation.

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Those who deal with Iran will do well to remember that there is a psychological dimension to Iran’s behavior. Iran is a major Middle Eastern power; it is a proud nation with a rich, millennia-long history and huge human and natural resources; the country enjoys a critical geostrategic position and importance unmatched by any other state in the region.

This, of course, does not excuse Iran’s behavior — but given its deeply-rooted national pride, Iran does not respond well to intimidation and threats. Now that Iran is in full compliance with the deal that was negotiated in good faith by the Obama administration, Tehran has enhanced its credibility and stature in the eyes of the international community. Sadly, the same cannot be said about the Trump administration.

Why should Tehran agree to renegotiate the deal when the EU, Russia and China remain committed to it as it stands? Last Monday, the European Union backed the accord, saying that “the EU is committed to the continued full and effective implementation of all parts of the [agreement]” because it is working and is a key-part of nuclear non-proliferation efforts. Risking the Iran deal will isolate the US rather than Iran, because the US is the party who is violating the letter of the agreement.

The likelihood that Congress would modify the agreement to make it palatable to Trump is extremely slim, and will open the door for Iran to back out of the deal and resume its development of its nuclear program — which will inevitably lead to the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

If Trump terminates the deal completely, it would trigger the reimposition of sanctions against the will of our European allies, which will only widen their rift with the US.

For a president who is naïve about foreign relations and the implications of terminating the deal to refuse to listen to the advice of his national security team (including Defense Secretary James Mattis) that the deal serves US national security interests is astonishing.

Instead, Trump is listening to Israel’s prime minister, who is ignoring the fact that once the deal is terminated, Iran will be free to resume its nuclear program. Moreover, Netanyahu looks at Iran through the narrowest of lenses, as if Tehran responds only to the language of force and sanctions.

Even if Iran is determined to acquire nuclear weapons somewhere down the line, which is possible, to suggest that its intention is to destroy Israel or any other US ally in the region is absurd.

Tehran is deliberate, careful and rational; it knows that once it embarks on developing nuclear weapons, Israel, the US, or both, will use any means (including military force) to prevent it from achieving its goal. Indeed, however hardline Iran might be, the regime is not suicidal.

Any modification to the nuclear deal should first be attempted through diplomatic channels. That is, if the purpose is to prevent Iran from pursuing a weaponized nuclear program once the current deal expires, then why not engage Iran now in quiet diplomacy (notwithstanding its vocal public opposition) and gauge where it really stands and what sort of quid pro quo Tehran would seek to modify the agreement.

To be sure, in the search for a solution to the conflict with Tehran, the US must seek areas where there are mutual interests that serve both sides well. The raging conflicts in the Middle East provide opportunities to work with Iran to bring an end to the civil war in Syria, to mitigate the conflict in Yemen and even to cooperate on addressing violent extremism and radicalization. Yes, Iran does seek regional hegemony, but as long as it is treated with respect and feels assured that the US is not seeking regime change, I believe that it would tamper its ambitions.

Trump’s thoughtless and damaging campaign promise to tear up the Iran deal did nothing but embarrass the US, rather than demonstrate what he foolishly keeps repeating — that the deal itself was the worst deal the US has ever made.

If Republican Senators and House of Representatives members have any spine left, they should stop behaving like a cult that blindly follows a blind leader and pass a bill that would prevent Trump from terminating the deal, similar to the one they passed preventing Trump from lifting sanctions on Russia.

Congress may be able to modify the deal, but losing the support of our allies — who are determined to keep the deal in place and refuse to reimpose the sanctions on Iran — would be the greatest embarrassment to what’s left of America’s leadership.

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