The US must find a third way over Iran, one that is neither reticent nor reckless
The proposed plan would involve sticking with the nuclear deal, while stepping up pressure on Tehran over its destabilising policies
The internal debate regarding the Trump administration's policy towards Iran is coming to a head. A sensible – and indeed significantly improved – American approach is now competing with foolish and potentially disastrous impulses. The coming weeks will provide very strong indications of which will prevail.
US president Donald Trump, UN ambassador Nikki Haley and others are pushing for an aggressive confrontation with Tehran. An improvement over Barack Obama’s policies is clearly required, but their approach would surely be a dangerous over-correction.
This faction wants Washington to either abandon or sabotage the nuclear deal, beginning by at least declining to certify to Congress next month that Iran is in compliance with its obligations. That could easily lead to the unraveling of an arrangement that is, by all accounts, effectively restraining Iran's programme to develop nuclear weapons.
While limited strictly to nuclear issues, the deal is working so far. It makes no sense for Washington to scupper it. That’s a dream scenario for Iranian hardliners. They would have managed to get rid of the international sanctions by reaching a deal with Mr Obama, only to be relieved of their commitments by Mr Trump. Heads they win, tails we lose.
And it would be especially damaging, well beyond Iran-related issues, to American credibility and international leadership if Washington is perceived by the other global powers as having unilaterally and capriciously undone years of painstaking multilateral diplomacy, particularly if there is no plausible alternative stratagem that makes sense to anyone outside of the White House.
Thankfully, there are strong signs that a second administration faction, which wisely urges maintaining the nuclear agreement, while intensifying a range of other pressures and countermeasures against Iran, may be winning the day.
Defence secretary Jim Mattis, secretary of state Rex Tillerson, national security adviser HR McMaster and others presented a plan for such an approach at a recent National Security Council meeting.
Their proposal is designed to preserve the gains secured by the nuclear agreement and avoid the harm that scrapping or sabotaging it would cause to American interests, while intensifying policies designed to confront Iran's persistent destabilising policies.
These would include continued or expanded economic sanctions addressing a variety of non-nuclear issues, including Tehran's support for terrorism. Washington would intensify efforts to interdict Iranian weapons shipments to violent extremist organisations such as the Houthis in Yemen, Hamas in Gaza and radicals in Sinai.
The plan also proposes strengthened US engagement in Bahrain, particularly as evidence of Iranian-inspired and supported violent radicalism on the island continues to mount. The proposal also advocates that US naval forces react more aggressively if confronted or harassed by Iranian speedboats in international waters.
From what is known so far, this plan hardly seems perfect. It does not, for example, suggest doing anything serious to reverse Iran's domination of Syria, instead maintaining an exclusive focus on ISIL. It also fails to recognise the need or value of exploring potential grounds for US-Iranian cooperation. But it would help to correct some weaknesses of the Obama approach without the kind of reckless overreach Mr Trump has suggested.
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If such a relatively sophisticated approach ends up guiding Washington's stance on Iran, it would mark an improvement over Mr Obama's baffling naivety, while avoiding impulsiveness and rash mistakes.
In an encouraging sign that this comparatively nuanced perspective may be starting to prevail, Mr Trump on Thursday declined to re-impose some major sanctions against Iran, allowing a congressionally-mandated deadline for him to act to expire.
Moreover, Mr Tillerson is scheduled to meet with Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif at a September 20 meeting of the nuclear deal signatories.
In June, Mr Tillerson caused outrage in Tehran by suggesting Washington is seeking regime change as a long-term outcome in Iran. Next week's meeting could be a useful opportunity to clear the air.
A sophisticated approach to Iran would have to include balancing the virtues of sticking with the nuclear agreement – as long as it is really being implemented – and confronting Tehran over its aggressive and destabilising conduct.
But it also requires pursuing avenues of co-operation and confrontation with an eye to promoting, at the very least, significant and long-term strategic policy change, if not full regime change, in Iran.
That means, above all, recognising that Iran is neither a policy monolith, nor is it politically homogenous. Much of the population appears to want a very different approach to the outside world than the ruling faction. Even within the establishment, there are significant differences over strategy, foreign policy and basic international attitudes, and it matters which prevails.
Any major decision regarding Iran should involve a serious evaluation of how it will impact strategic thinking, decision-making and the balance of power within Iran. That is why a calibrated approach towards Tehran that avoids both Mr Obama's reticence and Mr Trump's recklessness would be greatly welcome. It may not be perfect, but the new plan is an important step in the right direction.
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Updated: September 20, 2017 11:44 AM