Stephen Gottlieb: Iran, The Nuclear Agreement And Donald Trump

May 8, 2018

America sees itself as altruistic and believes we should be trusted because we proved it in World War II. But, in 1953, Americans in the Embassy in Tehran helped engineer a coup d’état against the democratically selected Prime Minister of Iran. Persians admired us for our power but hated what we had done.

Americans did not understand that history when, during the Iranian Revolution of 1979, Persians stormed the Embassy and made hostages of the staff. That breached international law and was very hurtful for those involved but it was brought on by the memory that the earlier coup was managed from the Embassy. Now we both had reason to hate each other.

But the subsequent history is more interesting than the popular stereotypes. Diplomatic relations and even cooperation between Iran and Israel as well as major trade ( including Iran supplying oil in exchange for Israeli weapons and ballistic missile technology) lasted long after the Islamic Revolution and persisted despite Ahmadinejad’s hateful rhetoric. America and Iran continued cooperating about many Middle Eastern issues despite the effort of a succession of American presidents to isolate Iran.

Isolation threatened Iran. The religious division of the Middle East between the Shia, principally in Iran, and the Sunni, dominant everywhere else, provide opportunities for politicians to whip up animosities when it suits their purposes – much as Trump has whipped up animosities over racial differences and guns to dangerous levels. To stay on good terms with most of its neighbors, Iran supported Sunni positions on Palestine.

America stood back while Iran and Iraq fought a brutal war in the 1980s but then defeated Iraq under Presidents George H.W. and George W. Bush. Since Iraq had been Iran’s major antagonist, its defeat at the hands of the U.S. was a great gift to Iran and destabilized the power relations in the Middle East. Meanwhile Iran continued seeking rapprochement with the U.S. and offered to be helpful to the U.S. in our conflicts in the area, but no president was willing to talk until Obama. Obama had larger goals, to get Middle Eastern disputes out of the way while addressing problems in Asia.

Trump’s current effort to scuttle the multi-power agreement with Iran plays out stereotypes while sending terrible signals with ominous consequences:

  • Since US intelligence and military leaders and every involved head of state except the current U.S. President thinks Iran obeyed the terms of the agreement, what could count as obedience?
  • If obedience to the terms of the agreement doesn’t count, why should any country reach agreements with the U.S.?
  • If the U.S. terminates agreements at will, what is the value of diplomacy?
  • If the U.S. rides roughshod over non-nuclear countries, then nations need a nuclear capacity to hold us off.
  • And if diplomacy with the U.S. is a sterile enterprise, is war better? The origin of the Joint Agreement was European concern over the possibility of yet another war in the Middle East. Are we back to that?

Iran has become an American boogey-man, and too many think we look weak if we even talk with them. Israel’s concern has been to avoid letting any other country play a significant role in American thinking about the Middle East. That’s a recipe for trouble. It substitutes pure power for diplomacy and respectful negotiation. In fact, Iran has been anything but a loose cannon and has shown both the capacity and the willingness to resolve conflicts among us, provided that Iran be consulted and treated respectfully regarding Middle Eastern events. Only in a respectful climate can Iran play the constructive role we claim to want.

But Donald Trump wants an enemy for the political benefits. Risking the lives and safety of American and other men, women and children so Trump can look tough is a cynical abuse of his office. And if it misfires, we’ll be counting more body bags and amputees.

Steve Gottlieb’s latest book is Unfit for Democracy: The Roberts Court and The Breakdown of American Politics. He is the Jay and Ruth Caplan Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Albany Law School, served on the New York Civil Liberties Union board, on the New York Advisory Committee to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, and as a US Peace Corps Volunteer in Iran. 

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