President Donald Trump, who seems obsessed with undoing his predecessor’s legacy, is in danger of repeating Barack Obama’s fundamental mistake on Iran: Making the confrontation with the Islamic Republic almost exclusively about nuclear weapons.
In recent weeks, Trump has on several occasions repeated his willingness to negotiate with the regime in Tehran, even as he slapped more sanctions on Iranian institutions and individuals, and threatened “obliteration” if Americans are attacked. While not quite the same as talking softly and carrying a big stick, it is at least a simulacrum of a strategy – except that, as I have written before, the administration hasn’t properly defined its objectives.
But when pressed for a definition, Trump has talked mostly about Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons, suggesting that preventing such an outcome would be the purpose of any talks with Tehran. “I think they want to negotiate,” he said on NBC’s Meet the Press program. “And I think they want to make a deal. And my deal is nuclear. Look, they’re not going to have a nuclear weapon.”
He said that was the message he sent Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei through Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe: “I said, ‘Send the following message: You can't have nuclear weapons. And other than that, we can sit down and make a deal.’”
But that is exactly the signal Obama sent – through his secretary of state, John Kerry – after the Iranians agreed in 2013 to negotiations aimed at ending the economic sanctions. And the principle was enshrined two years later in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action: Tehran would give up its nuclear ambitions in exchange for access to international markets and billions of dollars in frozen assets.
The deal was deeply flawed. In effect, it gave the Iranian regime a shield to cover its other dangerous activities – supporting genocide in Syria and terrorism elsewhere, along with the development of ballistic missiles – and more money with which to conduct them. The Iranians did just that, stepping up assistance to Bashar al-Assad in Damascus, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and the Houthis in Yemen.
At the same time, the JCPOA allowed Iran to maintain a stockpile of enriched uranium, and the possibility of resuming its pursuit of nuclear weapons in 10 or 15 years.
After Trump pulled the U.S. out of the deal last year, the State Department signaled that any future negotiations would encompass all of Iran’s malign behavior, not just its nuclear program. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issued a list of 12 demands the regime would have to fulfil before a new deal could be struck: These included the ending of support for groups like Hezbollah and the termination of the ballistic-missile program.
But in his eagerness to “make a deal” with Khamenei – and perhaps imagining a photo-op akin to his little walkabout with Kim Jong Un in North Korea – Trump seems be losing sight of the non-nuclear threat represented by Tehran. In his NBC interview, the President made only a fleeting reference to Iran’s ballistic missile program, but it was clear where his priorities lay: “Here’s what I want: anything that gets you to the result.”
Then he repeated that Iran could not have nuclear weapons.
It is a position Obama would have approved. And, if he had any sense, so would Khamenei.
Bobby Ghosh is a Bloomberg columnist and editorial board member. He writes on foreign affairs, with a special focus on the Middle East and the wider Islamic world.