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By Sanam Vakil

A year ago, U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal on the grounds that he wanted a bigger, better agreement. Criticizing the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) for its limited scope and scale, Trump has called for a deal that would impose longer-lasting, more stringent restrictions on Iran’s nuclear work, while limiting Tehran’s ballistic missile program and stemming its interference in neighboring countries. To get to such a grand bargain, the Trump administration has pledged to enlist the support of regional players as well as Congress.

How viable is Trump’s ambitious plan? Together with colleagues at Chatham House, I took this question, among others, to 75 analysts and policymakers in ten countries: the United States, Iran, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Israel, Russia, China, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia. Respondents assessed the possibility that the United States could yet broker a grand bargain with Iran. They also answered questions relating to the nuclear, regional, and ballistic missile issues that have been under negotiation.

From this survey, we can determine how those most in the know—and likeliest to participate in future talks—evaluate Trump’s Iran policy and its prospects of success. The respondents were overwhelmingly skeptical, and many pointed to the same deficits. The U.S. administration has called for something—a deal—that requires diplomacy but then consistently reached only for the bluntest of coercive instruments. Washington has further undercut its prospects by failing to nurture its European alliances or to create favorable conditions for Tehran to engage in talks. Yesterday’s announcement that Iran will limit compliance with parts of the nuclear agreement is proof positive that the Trump approach is not working.

A ZERO-SUM APPROACH

Most people we interviewed felt that Washington’s policy of “maximum pressure” on Iran was not meeting its stated objective of bringing Iran back to the negotiating table. Less than 20 percent of our respondents thought a grand bargain with Iran was achievable. The remaining respondents were divided. Some thought an improved JCPOA lay within the realm of the possible, while others saw more potential in separate negotiations addressing discrete issues, and still others could envisage no deal at all.

When asked why the Trump administration’s policy had not been more successful to date, about half of the interviewees pointed to divisions and competition within the administration over Iran policy. While President Trump has clearly stated his desire for a deal with Iran, other members of the administration have sent contradictory messages, respondents noted. In particular, National Security Adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have communicated ideological motives and destabilizing objectives that run counter to the president’s transactional approach. A number of interviewees, including Americans from both sides of the aisle, voiced concern that Bolton and Pompeo would try to undermine the success of any discussion with Iran. The Iranians we interviewed expressed reluctance to negotiate with an administration they perceive as divided and disorganized. 

The administration has further boxed itself in by taking what many respondents perceive as a zero-sum approach toward Iran. Speaking to the Heritage Foundation last May, Pompeo listed 12 demands (he added a 13th, on human rights, later) for inclusion in any new deal with Iran. A number of our interviewees identified this list as the starting U.S. negotiating position, although it has never been publicly articulated as such. The demands include ceasing all uranium enrichment, ending the proliferation of ballistic missiles, releasing dual nationals held in Iranian prisons, and cutting off support for Iranian proxy groups throughout the Middle East.

Our respondents tended to agree that these issues deserved attention. But listing them as demands and repeatedly and publicly hammering Iran, they told us, has provided no opening for new negotiations. The United States has reimposed sanctions, which have restricted Iran’s economic growth and inflicted pain on its government and population; but sanctions have not changed Tehran’s behavior in the region or impelled it to concede to any of the demands. If the United States assumed that Tehran would capitulate under pressure, our respondents noted, it seriously underestimated the Islamic Republic’s stability and misinterpreted its security assessment and worldview. If Iran is to begin a new negotiation with the United States, the experts noted, it will need to save face—something that a policy of maximum pressure without enticements or sweeteners makes impossible

*Published in Foreign Affairs

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