Why Iran may have no incentive to negotiate with the US

Iran may decide it’s not going to bother and instead wait until “regime change” in the United States after the next presidential election, said Michael Pregent, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute.
Sunday 02/06/2019
White House national security adviser John Bolton arrives to address reporters during a news briefing at the White House in Washington, last January. (Reuters)
Clouds on the horizon. White House national security adviser John Bolton arrives to address reporters during a news briefing at the White House in Washington, last January. (Reuters)

WASHINGTON - As US President Donald Trump signalled he doesn’t want war with Iran, experts in Washington said that outcome could be inevitable if the United States doesn’t give Iran a way out that allows the country to “save face” and the United States’ “12 points,” which were set by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo last year for Iran to meet to withdraw sanctions, don’t do that.

“If they adhere to them, they collapse,” said Michael Pregent, senior fellow at the Hudson Institute. “I don’t see Iran doing that.”

Pregent said stronger pressure on Iran allows the United States to return to the negotiating table for a nuclear deal from a position of strength but Iran, suffering from the sanctions as well as internal economic issues, worrying about Trump administration officials promoting regime change and feeling the United States broke its promises by pulling out of the nuclear deal, needs a reason to negotiate.

“We have given the Iranians 12 demands,” said Iraq analyst Omar al-Nidawi. “We’re basically asking them to disarm and then come to the table. So what is left?”

Many saw Pompeo’s list as demanding leadership change in Tehran and near impossible for Iran to meet.

Late in May, the United States granted a third 90-day sanctions waiver to Iraq, the Trump administration bypassed the US Congress to authorise $8 billion in arms sales to Saudi Arabia in response to what it called the “fundamental threat” of Iran, the US military accused Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps of being directly responsible for attacks on tankers in the United Arab Emirates, the United States decided, the Associated Press reported, to send an additional 1,500 troops to join an aircraft carrier in the Middle East and saw conflicts between Trump and White House national security adviser John Bolton over whether the United States would like regime change in Iran.

“We aren’t looking for regime change,” Trump said at a news conference in Japan. “We are looking for no nuclear weapons. I really believe that Iran would like to make a deal, and I think that’s very smart of them, and I think that’s a possibility to happen.”

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif on Twitter accused the United States of causing problems and hurting the Iranian people and said Iran is not working towards nuclear weapons.

The Trump administration appears to be trying to roll back any escalation, with both the United States and Iran issuing fighting words over the past month, Pregent said.

There are two issues on which Iran is unlikely to change position, Pregent said. First, Tehran won’t disclose all information about its nuclear programme and, second, it won’t dismantle it.

Geneive Abdo, resident scholar at the Arabia Foundation, said it’s essentially too late to change course on relations with Iran.

“I think that we need to not assume that a confrontation with Iran is under way,” she said. “In some respects, we’re already at war with Iran but a direct military confrontation doesn’t necessarily have to happen.”

It’s important not to give the Iranians the idea that war is inevitable, she said, but that’s hard to do when Bolton, even over the protests of Trump, advocates regime change “as a private citizen.”

The 12 steps are a non-starter, she said.

“We shouldn’t generalise and say any government could agree to this,” she said, referring to Bolton’s repeated statements that any normal country could easily work within the confines of the US State Department’s demands. “If we’re talking about diplomacy, we’re not giving the Iranians a reason — an invitation — to step back to the table.”

Iran may decide it’s not going to bother and instead wait until “regime change” in the United States after the next presidential election, Pregent said.

From the Iranian point of view, Tehran held up its end of the Iran nuclear deal but got none of what it was promised, said Abbas Kadhim, director and resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Iraq Initiative.

“Everybody said they were complying and then we go back and pull out because it was a bad deal,” Kadhim said.

Pregent argued that pulling out of the deal was the right thing to do, saying there would still be a nuclear agreement if there hadn’t been a ballistic missile deal that violated rules of the UN Security Council.

“The solution for that is to negotiate another deal,” Kadhim said, “not to pull out of the deal that we already concluded. That has made us in a weak position. For the world, we look as if we don’t abide by our word.”

Though she agreed that the deal was a mistake — it was too narrowly focused — Abdo said pressuring Iran to the point of a military confrontation is not a better option.

“That message has to be the message to the Iranians,” she said. “We don’t want war. We want to go back to the negotiating table.”

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