Since November, when Donald Trump was elected president, U.S.-Iranian relations have gone into a tailspin. In response to the administration’s triumphalist tenor and former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn’s pledge to “put Iran on notice,” Iran has partially escalated but also shown a modicum of restraint. Flynn’s replacement by Army Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster offers the Trump administration an opportunity to rethink its approach.
The goal should be to guard against any further escalation of hostilities. After all, unless the administration is willing to wage war with Iran, this confrontation won't achieve anything useful for the United States. What it will do is further strengthen the hardliners in Tehran, a process that is already underway, and undermine moderates such as President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif less than three months before Iran’s presidential election.
That the United States is in this position is particularly disappointing given that, despite some missteps, the Obama policy team had made considerable progress with Iran through the negotiation of the nuclear deal and Iran’s evident adherence to it. To be sure, the deal was imperfect, but it had been working. Except for a few minor violations, Iran had fully lived up to the accord. And when the International Atomic Energy Agency pointed out the violations, Tehran quickly corrected course.
Beyond heading off a conflict with Iran—which would have been costly for both sides—the deal halted the Iranian pursuit of nuclear weapons in the near term and allowed Iran to achieve sanctions relief in exchange. To be sure, the deal was circumscribed and did not press for regime reform, which is something Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and his cohorts never would have entertained.
At the time, some of the deal’s proponents, such as Benjamin Rhodes, deputy national security adviser for strategic communications for President Barack Obama, and other top former administration officials, held out hope that the deal would encourage Iran to