To win on Iran, Trump should take a page from Reagan’s diplomatic playbook

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A perilous impasse exists between the Trump administration’s strident policy of “maximum pressure” and Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s no less strident policy of “no negotiation” with the United States. One way out of this fraught situation is a policy that appears to be a lose-lose for both sides but, in reality, is a win-win for all sides.

The Trump administration must take a page from the diplomatic playbook of the Reagan-Shultz team in the waning days of the Cold War. There is much that connects Iran’s current regime with the then-moribund Soviet empire. Like the Soviets, Iran is an economically weak, ideologically sclerotic regime run by septuagenarian men, punching above its weight internationally and given to bullying its own people and the international community, averse to accepting even the most obvious defeat unless it can sell it as an ideological victory at home and to its proxies. 

The genius of the Shultz-Reagan strategy was the recognition of these realities and the fashioning of a policy that never involved bragging about a U.S. success, or humiliating the “Evil Empire” even if that empire accepted a serious rollback on an issue. 

The historic context of this policy was the containment strategy that had guided U.S. policy toward the Soviet Union since the end of World War II. According to that policy, the Soviet Union would die of its own incompetence and inertia, and the U.S. must contain and confront the regime’s inexorable expansionism but also adopt strategic patience to allow for the regime to inevitably wither away under the weight of its own incompetence. All the while, the U.S. never lost sight of the regime’s human rights abuses. 

The successful end of the Cold War was due in no small measure to the result of this strategic wisdom and patience. The Reagan-Shultz policy allowed the Soviets to quixotically announce victories at home as they made serious concessions in key areas. 

So far, with the exception of President Trump’s announcement of his willingness to negotiate unconditionally with Iran, his administration often seems to be following a policy of not just maximum pressure but maximum humiliation. The policy is sure to fail.

Maximum pressure applied unwisely can beget maximum disaster.

The shooting down of a drone that came dangerously close to a U.S. vessel (the U.S. said it was Iranian, but Tehrān denied ownership) is only the most recent manifestation of the perils of the situation.  

The U.S. has declared the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp (IRGC) a terrorist organization, which prompted Iranian regime to declare U.S. forces in the region and commanded by Central Command (CENTCOM) to be terrorists. Yet, there has been no major military confrontation because Trump does not want a war and Khamenei can’t afford one.

Iran clearly wants to negotiate, but only if allowed to sell that to its dwindling base at home, and to its proxies regionally, as a victory for the supreme leader’s “wise” policy of “resistance” and “no negotiation.” 

When Iran accepted the nuclear deal, or JCPOA, it was, according to most experts, a serious rollback of Iran’s nuclear program. Khamenei reluctantly signed on, always keeping enough distance to maintain plausible deniability. He tapped into Islamic hagiography to legitimize his decision, calling his retreat “heroic flexibility.” (Soviet leaders, too, used Leninist hagiography to legitimize their compromises or defeats.) But then Khamenei’s virulent anti-Americanism kicked in. He announced that, in spite of JCPOA, he forbade further direct negotiations with the U.S.  

The U.S., too, did not make it easy for American companies to engage in Iran. Some sanctions continued to exist and companies were wary of being in breach of American law; European firms became rightfully concerned that, without the U.S., not only the future of the nuclear deal but the stability of Iran’s markets were dubious. The reality of these obstacles, and the unfulfilled hopes resulting from them, helped pave the way for Trump’s unwise unilateral withdrawal from JCPOA.

America has its hawks, nursing unrealistic optimism about their ability to make limited surgical strikes on Iran; they think these strikes, along with a policy of “maximum pressure” on the economy, will bring about regime change, allowing them to even anoint the regime’s successors. 

In the Islamic Republic, too, there are radicals deluded into thinking that Trump’s unwillingness to engage Iran militarily is because of his “fear” of Iran’s military might; they boast about, maybe even believe in, Allah’s help in such a war. They believe the regime’s ability to engage in an asymmetric war of attrition – a war they believe will be expanded with the help of Iran’s regional proxies – is the only shield Iran has against a possible U.S. (or U.S.-Israeli) military invasion. The vision of Iranian radicals is as foolish as those of America’s hawks.

To avoid disaster, both sides must walk away from dangerous rhetoric of “obliteration” or “victory” and allow for a negotiated solution. Instead of a zero-sum, win-lose game, they must both accept a policy that appears to be lose-lose.

Just as with the Reagan-Shultz policy, Iran must be allowed to make concessions without being humiliated. Any such “victory” for the regime will be just as illusory as those claimed by the Soviet Union. Illusory because like the Soviet regime before the, the Islamic Republic doesn’t have credible answers to its society’s structural challenges and demands. 

The U.S., too, must reconsider its demand that Iran cease all enrichment activities.

In the case of the Cold War, the end came only after prudent policies allowed containment to take its inexorable path and bring about the Soviets’ end. A hot war with Iran will only consolidate its most radical elements and delay the possibility of an end to the mini-cold war that has raged between the U.S. and the Islamic regime for much of the last four decades. The only realistic path to the end of this cold war is a more democratic Iran, made by the people of Iran. 

The large, successful Iranian diaspora can and should play an important role in the desired transition to democracy. Only in a more democratic Iran can Iranians engage in a much-needed debate about whether it is in Iran’s interest to pursue a policy of nuclear enrichment at all.

As nuclear scientist Siegfried Hecker and I have argued elsewhere about a “nuclear energy program that benefits the Iranian people,” it is in Iran’s strategic interest to opt for a policy akin to South Korea’s—one that tries to master nuclear technology rather than enriching uranium. In the frenzied fear of war, and of economic anxieties resulting from crippling sanctions, no such rational discussion can even begin.

Abbas Milani is the director of Iranian Studies at Stanford University and a research fellow at Hoover Institution.


Tags Ayatollah Ali Khamenei Containment Donald Trump Hassan Rouhani Iran Iran Iran Nuclear Deal Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action Politics of Iran Ronald Reagan Soviet Union

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