Any US-Iran Talks Must Address the Elephants in the Room
As tensions between the US and Iran continue to escalate, there remains a chance that President Donald Trump might proceed with a much-rumored sit-down with his Iranian counterpart, Hassan Rouhani, when world leaders are gathered in New York City for the UN General Assembly next week. If the meeting were to happen, it would take place despite charges by US officials that Iran was responsible for the drone attacks on Saudi oil fields, Trump’s defiant posture towards the Iranian regime since he came to office, and the Iranian insistence that absolutely no meeting will happen.
But should this unlikely meeting occur, how should the US approach these discussions so that they might be more than a photo-op and lost opportunity, and ensure that Iran addresses the wide range of aggressions that it is inflicting internally, regionally, and globally?
Both the US and Iranian positions are well known. President Trump has long been interested in tightening the restrictions on Iran’s nuclear weapons program, while Iran is intent on immediately easing US-imposed sanctions. We are well familiar with this dynamic — it existed before the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
The ADL opposed the JCPOA, and was consistent in calling on then-president Barack Obama, and more recently on President Trump, to enact iron-clad and effective policies to ensure Iran would never develop nuclear weapons. We felt the JCPOA did not meet this standard.
But our concerns with the policies and actions of the Iranian regime go far beyond the nuclear issue.
At ADL, we are not experts in nuclear centrifuges or the half-life of fissile material. But we are alarmed by the raw and relentless antisemitism espoused by this regime, a kind of genocidal hostility that far exceeds the rhetoric of other governments.
Iran’s government routinely talks about wiping another country — Israel — off the planet. And just 70 years after the incomparable horror of the Holocaust, 50 years after the genocide perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge, and 25 years after the wholesale slaughter in Rwanda, it is imperative that we never forget one of the most searing lessons of these crimes: when leaders promise to kill you, take them at their word.
Moreover, the willingness of Iran to push its commitment to aggression and hatred out into the world is terrifying. We have seen the regime fund proxies who parrot the same horrific ideas. Moreover, the Iranians have been willing to fund these actors, heavily supporting Hezbollah, a Lebanese terrorist organization that has amassed a track record of murdering Jews in countries around the world and threatens Israel each and every day with words, weaponry, drones, and underground tunnels.
These actions remind us that the specter of a nuclear Iran, of an emboldened regime, is an unequivocal, existential threat to the safety and security of the Jewish people and the Jewish state.
And so, any real talks with the Iranian government obviously must ensure Iran never gains nuclear weapons, and that the threat of other weapons programs, such as ballistic missile development, is curbed.
But if President Trump pursues the path of direct negotiations with President Rouhani, he also must address other issues that fuel distrust between Iran and the rest of the Western world:
- Iran’s antisemitism: The Iranian regime systematically propagates antisemitism, including Holocaust denial, anti-Jewish conspiracy theories, and hateful tropes against Jews. The US must make clear that Iran’s antisemitism is wholly unacceptable. A government that instrumentalizes prejudice as policy has no place among the family of nations.
- Iran’s terrorism: The Iranian regime is the leading state-sponsor of terrorism, and has been behind numerous attacks on Jewish, Israeli, American, and allied targets. The US should ensure Iran’s patronage of terrorist groups such as Hezbollah ends immediately. There is no place for terror at the table, full stop.
- Iranian regional aggression: The Iranian regime regularly engages in aggressive policies across the Middle East, directly through its forces like the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and its proxies, including Hezbollah, Hamas, and other terror groups in Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere. Tehran conducts proxy military attacks against Israel, Saudi Arabia, and other countries. The US should demand that Iran extracts itself from Syria and ceases all operational support beyond its borders. These activities destabilize the region, directly threaten Israel’s security, and have led to little more than bloodshed and death.
- Iran’s human rights violations: Each and every day, the Iranian regime egregiously violates the rights of its minorities, including women, religious and ethnic minorities, LGBTQ people, journalists, and others. The US should exert any and all influence to counter this rampant persecution. If they are willing to violate the rights of their own people — to imprison, torture, and murder them — it’s a sign of what they would be willing to do to others.
We must be clear: US-Iran engagement cannot be just about the nuclear file and an associated structure for lifting sanctions. If President Trump finds himself sitting at the same table as President Rouhani, he must address the wide range of Iran’s belligerent policies, starting with its antisemitism.
Anything less would be a win for this extreme regime, and a step back for our global order.
Jonathan A. Greenblatt is CEO and National Director of ADL (the Anti-Defamation League).