Opinion | National Security

A Trumpian mega-deal with Iran

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President Trump really likes selling high-tech weapons to oil-rich Middle Eastern countries. Not only that, he has proven himself a pretty darned good salesman. At the same time, Trump has threatened Iran with "obliteration" and repeatedly demanded that Iran "behave like a normal nation." The rub, however, is that Iran behaves the way that it does for one very simple reason: survival. Iran's "malign" behavior amounts to a deterrent against attack by a host of extremely well-armed, fiercely hostile rival states. In short, the Iranians will not simply alter their behavior without securing another way of defending themselves.

Considering Iran's particularly weak conventional military, the administration's tough demands raise an interesting - and potentially lucrative - business opportunity. Enter Trump and his fondness for selling American weapons systems to Middle Eastern buyers.

While it may seem absurdly far-fetched in the current climate of confrontation and hostility, a grandiose, distinctly Trumpian deal could see Iran completely and verifiably: (1) ending its support for armed "proxy" groups, (2) scaling back its ballistic missile program, and (3) dismantling the most sensitive aspects of its nuclear program in exchange for U.S. weapons sales and security guarantees. In this scenario, Trump achieves the lofty objectives that his administration has set for Iran while simultaneously securing a windfall for U.S. defense contractors and fostering more stability in the Middle East. Quite the "win-win-win."

Of course, such an ambitious deal would face tremendous obstacles. For one, the hardliners (in both countries) itching for conflict would need to be sidelined - or swallow their pride - for such an agreement to have even a remote chance of succeeding. That is admittedly a tall order, but one which President Trump appears to have already navigated with some success.

Ditto for the moderate government currently in power in Iran. Moreover, in order for Iran to fund U.S. weapons purchases, the Trump administration's sanctions on Iran's oil sector would have to be lifted, Western investment in Iran greatly expanded, and discounts extended to Tehran. Ultimately, however, an American- (or Western-) armed Iran would greatly improve upon the status quo.

For one, Iran's aggressive response to the Trump administration's "maximum pressure" campaign demonstrates just how little influence the United States truly has over Iran's destabilizing behavior. A U.S.-armed Iran, though, would give the United States leverage over the Iranian military.

Most advanced weapons systems require long-term maintenancemodernization, and support contracts to operate effectively. Before 1979, for example, oil-rich Iran purchased vast amounts of hi-tech U.S. weapons. But the support contracts that kept many of those weapons systems fully operational came to an abrupt halt following the Iranian Revolution. A string of deadly crashes involving American-made Iranian aircraft - all operating without adequate maintenance procedures and access to spare parts - illustrates the critical importance of long-term U.S. support contracts.

In the event that Iran chooses not to uphold its end of the bargain, control over such service contracts could serve as an important "kill switch" for American-made weapons systems. Similarly, without U.S.-supplied bombs, missiles and munitions, Iran's American-made weapons platforms would amount to nothing more than expensive paperweights.

A purely conventional Iranian military would also lead to more stability in the Middle East. Many of the armed groups that Iran currently supports are not directly controlled by Tehran, making them inherently destabilizing. A complete and verifiable end to Iranian support for such groups - as the Trump administration has demanded - in exchange for U.S. weapons could eventually make Iran-backed organizations like Hezbollah fade into irrelevance. Moreover, while Iran does not present an "existential threat" to Israel (as confirmed by a former Israeli defense minister and prime minister) Tehran will be even less of a threat to Israel without a latent nuclear weapons capability under such a deal.

Iran has also long objected to massive U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia, a country which, arguably, has exerted far more "malign" influence in the Middle East (and around the world) than Iran. Supplying Iran with U.S.-made arms would reduce Iran's need to rely on armed militant groups to counter deep-seated, Saudi-led ideological hostility toward Iran's Shi'a Muslims, as well as Saudi attempts to topple Iran's only true ally in the Middle East.

With an ailing Iranian supreme leader, the single greatest obstacle to the kind of sweeping, Trumpian deal outlined here is the conservative, hardline political faction in Iran. Fiercely anti-American due to a range of complex historical factors, Iran's conservatives must be sidelined in order for any overarching deal to have even a remote chance of success. In the current environment of heightened tensions, which has greatly benefitted Iranian hardliners, the most practical first step to undermining their pervasive anti-American message is to rejoin the landmark 2015 nuclear deal.

Returning to the nuclear agreement - which is strongly supported by the United States' closest allies, hundreds of experts and key players in the U.S. and Israeli security establishments - will demonstrate to the (largely pro-American) Iranian people that the United States can be trusted to live up to its word.

And trust, built up over time, serves as the foundation for far more ambitious (and lucrative) deals.

Marik von Rennenkampff served as an analyst with the Department of State's Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation as well as an Obama administration appointee at the Department of Defense.

 

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