The escalating enmity between the U.S. and Iran saw a brief reprieve at the outset of the coronavirus pandemic, when the Middle Eastern nation became one of the earliest- and hardest-hit countries after COVID-19 moved out of China.
In some ways a forced cooling off period, however brief, couldn’t have been better timed.
In January, President Trump ordered a drone strike that took out elite Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani inside Iraq. The controversial move saw Iran retaliate by sending missiles toward U.S. bases. Tensions have been high ever since.
The problem, from one career ambassador’s perspective, is that the Trump administration has seemed bent on squandering any chance at resetting the bilateral relationship, said Thomas R. Pickering, who served as U.S. ambassador to Israel, the Russia, India, El Salvador, Nigeria, Jordan and the United Nations during a nearly five-decade career.
“How we could use this present at least pseudo-pause to produce things useful does not yet seem to be anywhere near fruition,” Mr. Pickering said on a call with the World Affairs Council of Atlanta, noting that the president seems to be relying on the Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to run a hard-nosed policy on Iran.
“It looks like we are seeking in every conceivable way to further up the ante. It looks like we believe, a little bit perhaps like the child-like belief in the tooth fairy, that this will produce the result that we want.”
Iran hasn’t yet proven willing to roll over. In April, vessels controlled by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps encircled U.S. ships in the Strait of Hormuz for about an hour. As of January, Iran said it would no longer abide by limitations on its nuclear program under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the multi-party nuclear deal reached in 2015.
Mr. Trump in 2018 withdrew the U.S. from the JCPOA, favoring a go-it-alone strategy of “maximum pressure” that uses heightened sanctions in a bid to get Iran back to the negotiating table.
Mr. Trump has vowed to improve upon the deal former President Obama initiated, which Mr. Trump and other critics argue simply delayed the timetable for Iran’s nuclear program without enough assurances of enforcement.
The reinstatement of sanctions have squeezed Iranian revenues, but Mr. Pickering said no progress toward a better deal has materialized. (Of course, have questioned the former ambassador’s impartiality, arguing that he failed to disclose commercial ties with Boeing Co. while testifying before Congress and penning op-eds in favor of a deal that would have meant $25 billion in business for the aerospace giant if Mr. Trump hadn’t reinstated sanctions.)
This shift in approach also has another major downside, Mr. Pickering said: driving a wedge between the U.S. and its European allies, who would rather keep the deal but find themselves having to choose between business with the U.S. and engaging economically with Iran. Listen to a Global Atlanta interview with a former EU ambassador on the Iran deal
“It is from their perspective an attack on their role as sovereign countries who should have capacity to trade where and with whom they like and not be subject to other rules other than those to which they agreed through United Nations or through agreements with the United States,” said Mr. Pickering who is part of The Iran Project, a group of transatlantic national security leaders who signed an April 6 statement calling for measures to ease humanitarian shipments to Iran to deal with COVID-19.
During the conversation with World Affairs Council President Charles Shapiro, Mr. Pickering said he was troubled by the deterioration of the U.S.-Iran relationship, which he believes only raises the risk of “accidental miscalculation” that could lead to military confrontation.
“Once it begins, it’s pretty hard to see how it can necessarily be controlled,” Mr. Pickering said.
Iran, which fights the U.S. and its Middle Eastern allies through its proxies in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and elsewhere, may present few easy options for the U.S., the former ambassador said. But he remembered a word of advice from the late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin before his assassination in 1993, who told Mr. Pickering the only thing worse than talking with Iran is cutting off communication.
Now, trust has eroded so significantly that even if Mr. Trump may be open to talking with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in the same personal format as nuclear negotiations with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, the door may not be open.
“I have a very cloudy crystal ball. This one has taken on all of the aspects of a thunderstorm still on the horizon.”
Indeed, skepticism about the U.S. sincerity in carrying out its word may be “primary barrier” to restarting any good-faith efforts, and Iranians have intimated that they would rather see step-by-step progress on existing commitments than any new pronouncements, Mr. Pickering said.
Events since Mr. Pickering’s talk may not have helped matters. As expected, Mr. Trump this week vetoed a congressional resolution that would have limited his war powers with regard to Iran, as Democrats in the Senate failed to muster the two-thirds majority needed to overturn it.
The U.S. is pushing for extension of an arms embargo on Iran that is set to expire in October as part of the 2015 nuclear deal. Mr. Pompeo says the U.S. has the right to seek to extend the embargo as a participant state in the U.N. resolution on the JCPOA, even if it’s no longer party to the deal itself.
To Mr. Pickering, though, this is another way the U.S. has been inconsistent in its policies.
“It is most unusual that we should be in a situation where we are trying to both be out of the nuclear agreement and claim it is of no use while now seeking to find a way, perhaps through the UN, to force Iran to extend commitments it made on that agreement,” he said.
On May 8, the two-year anniversary of the U.S. withdrawal from the deal, Mr. Rouhani, the Iranian president, ruled out a U.S. return to the deal without meeting specific conditions set by Tehran. An extension of the arms embargo would effectively kill the JCPOA, the president added as he threatened dire consequences.
Speaking April 29, Mr. Pickering did say that the longer COVID-19 and the associated oil rout besieges Iran, the more likely it might be for unrest to bubble up against the Islamic Republic’s regime and its supreme leader Ali Khamenei.
But that shouldn’t be the basis for any strategy, especially given the lessons of 2009, when mass demonstrations in the wake of widely condemned elections failed to produce regime change.
“A certain amount of unhappiness with the government continues to be part of the picture, but the notion that they are ready to revolt and bring in a new government and a new regime, something that a significant number of American policy makers hold out hope for, does not seem to be in the cards.”
Mr. Pickering also said he is not sure the world has seen the last of Iran’s retaliation for Gen. Suleimani’s killing.
“I have a very cloudy crystal ball. This one has taken on all of the aspects of a thunderstorm still on the horizon. The Iranians have long memories and have been known to harbor deep feelings for a significant period of time. I think it would now be foolish to believe that that’s totally behind us and we should expect nothing else to happen.”
Mr. Pickering is no stranger to Atlanta audiences or the council, having spoken here for its “Beyond Oil” program in November.
Listen to/watch Mr. Pickering’s Zoom interview with Mr. Shapiro here.
Learn more about World Affairs Council of Atlanta programs at www.wacatlanta.org.