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Rejoining the Iran nuclear deal would save lives of US troops, diplomats

Rejoining the Iran nuclear deal would save lives of US troops, diplomats
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President Trump pursued an aggressive policy of “maximum pressure” on Iran. But with the Islamic Republic reportedly only weeks away from amassing enough fissile material for a nuclear bomb, the failure of Trump’s maximalist approach is obvious.

Even so, a growing chorus of neoconservatives is refusing to relent. In their telling, a string of deadly attacks targeting American troops and diplomats in Iraq is exactly why the United States can't restart negotiations with Iran over its resurgent nuclear program.

But what these “forever waraficionados conveniently neglect to mention is that for seven years, from 2011 to 2018, there were no attacks directed by Iran against American interests in Iraq. Attacks surged after President Trump’s 2018 withdrawal from the landmark Iran nuclear agreement, ultimately leading the Biden administration to launch a strike against Iran-linked proxies along the Iraq-Syria border. 

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But the takeaway is simple: Attacks by Iran-backed militia groups against Americans serving in Iraq will stop, or significantly diminish, if the United States rejoins the Iran nuclear deal.

This would be a welcome change for thousands of American troops and diplomats. For one, an end to deadly rocket and mortar attacks would allow U.S. service members and Foreign Service officers to expend fewer resources on force protection measures and more time focusing on their mission.

Indeed, even without the specter of attacks by Iran-linked proxy groups looming over them, U.S. troops have their hands full assisting the Iraqi forces finishing off the remnants of the Islamic State. The same goes for American diplomats, who are doing more with less in an exceptionally challenging environment.

Yet opponents of a swift return to the Iran nuclear deal seem to have no qualms about putting American troops and diplomats in unnecessary danger. Even after the Trump administration’s failed approach, this small but exceptionally vocal cohort still believes that the United States can secure maximalist concessions from Iran.

But what the Iran hawks are demanding – an end to Iran’s support for militant groups and restrictions on its missile program – is a complete nonstarter at this point. Indeed, if the neocons had their way, Americans serving in Iraq would be in harm’s way indefinitely.

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To be sure, reining in Tehran’s missile program and ending its support for armed groups are worthy objectives. But the Trump-induced ascent of Iran’s most anti-American hardliners means that no amount of diplomatic or economic pressure will coerce Iran into ending such “malign activities.”

Put simply: Trump’s belligerent approach backfired. It demonstrated to Iran’s leadership – and to the Iranian public – exactly why Tehran should not give up its missiles or curtail its support for armed militant groups.

More broadly, Iran’s weak conventional military, coupled with a long, catastrophic history of foreign meddling, years of devastating invasions and the Islamic Republic’s encirclement by well-armed, ideologically hostile adversaries, leaves Iranian leaders little incentive to weaken Iran’s asymmetric deterrents against attack. Trump’s combative approach simply reduced the likelihood of extracting Iranian concessions on missiles and armed proxy groups from slim to zero.

Short of war, which some neocons have openly advocated, the only way to curtail Iran’s “malign behavior” is by reducing the regional and bilateral tensions inflamed by Trump’s disastrous policies. The best, and likely only, way to accomplish this is through a rapid U.S. return to the nuclear agreement.

Perhaps this is why so many prominent Israeli military and intelligence veterans supported the deal and are now calling for the United States’s swift return to the agreement. Unsurprisingly, Israel’s leading nuclear experts also support the deal.

At the same time, the most respected voices in the U.S. national security establishment – from former Defense Sec. James Mattis to dozens of retired general and flag officers – are in favor of the agreement.

Moreover, America’s closest allies and the vast majority of nuclear nonproliferation experts – the scientists and wonks who study the intricacies of uranium enrichment, centrifuge efficiencies and “breakout” times – are fierce advocates of the deal.

In stark contrast, a small cohort of exceptionally vocal neoconservatives is steadfastly opposed to diplomatic engagement with Iran, preferring to stay the course with a failed strategy.

That these ideologues would put the lives of American troops and diplomats at risk in a futile bid to secure maximalist objectives is indefensible.

Marik von Rennenkampff served as an analyst with the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation, as well as an Obama administration appointee at the U.S. Department of Defense. Follow him on Twitter @MvonRen.