Although US and Iranian diplomatic strategy compartmentalized the Iran nuclear negotiations in order to reduce the risk of failure on this priority issue, these governments’ regional disputes were inevitably going to return to the fore and threaten the sustainability of the nuclear agreement. President Trump’s reported intention to find Iran in non-compliance of the nuclear agreement—setting conclusions ahead of facts in a manner reminiscent of the Bush administration’s disastrous Iraq policy—is one indicator of this. An effort by his senior national security advisors to obtain his authorization for a more assertive strategy to counter Iran’s military activities throughout the region is another.
Substantive negotiations on regional issues, however challenging, are now clearly inescapable if both sides wish to avoid direct military confrontation. The ceasefire in southwestern Syria negotiated between the US and Russia on July 8 will almost certainly break down in the coming months absent such progress. Understanding that it is merely a respite from conflict even as Iran uses it to strengthen its military presence in Syria, Israel has refused to accept the terms of the ceasefire. Accordingly, on September 7 Israeli aircraft reportedly bombed a Syrian military facility linked to the production of chemical weapons and precision missiles. Israel has conducted around 100 strikes targeting weapons shipments to Iranian proxy Hezbollah since 2012.
Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has officially precluded further negotiations with the US on regional issues, arguing one-sidedly that the US has given foreign investors cause to question its commitment to the nuclear agreement, thereby demonstrating that it cannot be trusted on other matters.
In reality it is his foreign policies—including his unconditional support for Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad and unrelenting threats against Israel—that have provoked a political backlash in the US and consequently caused investor confidence to waver on Iran.
Khamenei is nevertheless capable of moderating his positions, as demonstrated by his eleventh-hour compromise on his nuclear agreement red lines.
However, as the nuclear and Syria negotiations have demonstrated, he will not compromise without the right combination of incentives and coercive measures.
Influencing Iran’s Israel Policy
Incentives for moderation of Iran’s foreign policy toward Israel should include offering to lift US sanctions on Iran dating back to 1996 as well as partnership on renewable energy and water desalination projects in Iran. Such steps would be an effective counter to Khamenei’s narrative that the US is an implacable enemy intent on hindering Iran’s technological and economic progress.
Coercive measures will also unfortunately be necessary if Iran’s past behavior is any indication. These should include resumed recruitment, training, and military aid to moderate forces along Syria’s southern front as well as intelligence support for Israeli targeting of Hezbollah and Iranian military forces that are preparing a new military front against Israel. One can be certain that unless Iran demonstrates a serious intent to return to the negotiating table, attracted by US diplomatic proposals, the ceasefire will not stop Iran from continuing these activities. It would be foolish to adopt a passive security posture in response.
Khamenei must be persuaded that the two-state framework for Israel and Palestine—the latter already having diplomatic recognition from 137 of the 195 sovereign states in the world—is the most realistic and morally defensible solution to this problem and that his pursuit of a one-state alternative will be costly.
This must be balanced with accountability for Israel’s West Bank settlement expansions and abandonment of the two-state framework.
US policymakers’ statements discouraging this are obviously insufficient to get Israel back on a constructive diplomatic track. What’s necessary is a credible warning from Congress that if Israel continues to indulge in policies that are detrimental to US interests, the billions in American taxpayer subsidies the US provides annually to Israel will be steadily reduced until it demonstrably reverses course. There is no justification for these unconditional subsidies, particularly considering that the US is $20 trillion in debt and Israel is not even required to recycle these funds back into the US economy, as other recipients of foreign military financing are required to do.
Republican and Democratic policymakers alike have been indulging the settler movement by propagating the line that the US cannot impose peace on Israelis and Palestinians, cynically implying that the US has no leverage. Christian Zionist influence in the White House doesn’t help matters.
One may wince wryly that the Israeli settler lobby is too powerful for US policymakers to stand up to it. The risk of a direct US-Iran conflict and all of the consequences that might follow—including perhaps covert Russian or Chinese military support for an Iranian insurgency, in the time-honored tradition of treachery in international relations—should give them reason to redouble their efforts to a reach a compromise with Iran on acceptable terms. (Americans should not allow themselves to be manipulated again into believing that regime change in Iran could be achieved and maintained at a low cost. If the US could have overthrown Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein from power through airstrikes or covert action, it would have done so (it tried). The Iranian government is far more stable.) If the human and financial consequences of US military engagements over the last two decades have not taught us to look carefully before we leap, our future will be a self-destructive one.
Although there isn’t much precedent for optimism that Iran might moderate its Israel policy, diplomacy is about exploring opportunities for compromise and there is some historical basis for it. In May 2003, Iran initiated a secret diplomatic overture to the US—unfortunately dismissed by the Bush Administration, then riding high on prematurely declared victories in Afghanistan and Iraq—that declared the supreme leader’s potential willingness to moderate his position on Israel in exchange for reciprocal US concessions.
While this initiative should be considered within the context of the US’s swift toppling of Saddam Hussein several weeks earlier and Iranian leaders’ fears that they could be next, it indicates some potential for compromise.
Even if Khamenei continues to scorn negotiations with the US on regional issues, the ailing seventy-eight-year-old leader, who has been treated for prostate cancer, may soon follow his late revolutionary companion Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who died in January at eighty-two. This eventuality could open up new diplomatic opportunities, however improbable they appear at present. In the meantime, Americans should give Khamenei’s national security council some basis for challenging his assumptions about what compromise can potentially achieve for the benefit of all sides.