How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
A year ago, U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal on the grounds that he wanted a bigger, better agreement. Criticizing the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) for its limited scope and scale, Trump has called for a deal that would impose longer-lasting, more stringent restrictions on Iran’s nuclear work, while limiting Tehran’s ballistic missile program and stemming its interference in neighboring countries. To get to such a grand bargain, the Trump administration has pledged to enlist the support of regional players as well as Congress.
How viable is Trump’s ambitious plan? Together with colleagues at Chatham House, I took this question, among others, to 75 analysts and policymakers in ten countries: the United States, Iran, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Israel, Russia, China, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia. Respondents assessed the possibility that the United States could yet broker a grand bargain with Iran. They also answered questions relating to the nuclear, regional, and ballistic missile issues that have been under negotiation.
From this survey, we can determine how those most in the know—and likeliest to participate in future talks—evaluate Trump’s Iran policy and its prospects of success. The respondents were overwhelmingly skeptical, and many pointed to the same deficits. The U.S. administration has called for something—a deal—that requires diplomacy but then consistently reached only for the bluntest of coercive instruments. Washington has further undercut its prospects by failing to nurture its European alliances or to create favorable conditions for Tehran to engage in talks. Yesterday’s announcement that Iran will limit compliance with parts of the nuclear agreement is proof positive that the Trump approach is not working.
Most people we interviewed felt that Washington’s policy of “maximum pressure” on Iran was not meeting its stated objective of bringing Iran back to the negotiating table. Less than 20 percent of our respondents thought a grand bargain with Iran was achievable. The remaining respondents were divided. Some thought an improved JCPOA lay within the realm of the possible, while others saw more potential in separate negotiations addressing discrete issues, and still others could envisage no deal at all.
When asked why the Trump administration’s policy had not been more successful to date, about half of the interviewees pointed to divisions and competition within the administration over Iran policy. While President Trump has clearly stated his desire for a deal with Iran, other members of the administration have sent contradictory messages, respondents noted. In particular, National Security Adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have communicated ideological motives and destabilizing objectives that run counter to the president’s transactional approach. A number of interviewees, including Americans from both sides of the aisle, voiced concern that Bolton and Pompeo would try to undermine the success of any discussion with Iran. The Iranians we interviewed expressed reluctance to negotiate with an administration they perceive as divided and disorganized.
The administration has further boxed itself in by taking what many respondents perceive as a zero-sum approach toward Iran. Speaking to the Heritage Foundation last May, Pompeo listed 12 demands (he added a 13th, on human rights, later) for inclusion in any new deal with Iran. A number of our interviewees identified this list as the starting U.S. negotiating position, although it has never been publicly articulated as such. The demands include ceasing all uranium enrichment, ending the proliferation of ballistic missiles, releasing dual nationals held in Iranian prisons, and cutting off support for Iranian proxy groups throughout the Middle East.
Our respondents tended to agree that these issues deserved attention. But listing them as demands and repeatedly and publicly hammering Iran, they told us, has provided no opening for new negotiations. The United States has reimposed sanctions, which have restricted Iran’s economic growth and inflicted pain on its government and population; but sanctions have not changed Tehran’s behavior in the region or impelled it to concede to any of the demands. If the United States assumed that Tehran would capitulate under pressure, our respondents noted, it seriously underestimated the Islamic Republic’s stability and misinterpreted its security assessment and worldview. If Iran is to begin a new negotiation with the United States, the experts noted, it will need to save face—something that a policy of maximum pressure without enticements or sweeteners makes impossible.
The Trump administration, our respondents noted, has so far failed to take into account the likely demands of the Iranians, were they to agree to new talks. Sanctions relief is an obvious ask, but the Iranians could further call for security guarantees, a regional nuclear entente, concessions on regional ballistic missile programs, and even a further drawdown of U.S. forces in the Middle East. Instead of considering Iran’s likely requests and redlines, the diplomats we spoke with speculated, the Trump administration assumes that Tehran seeks the restoration of full diplomatic ties with Washington. But the Iranian leadership is almost certainly not interested in such an outcome, most experts told us, because the Islamic Republic perceives the United States as fundamentally hostile to its form of government.
The Trump administration’s overreliance on the coercive power of sanctions underscores its failure to understand Tehran’s decision-making.
The Trump administration’s overreliance on the coercive power of sanctions underscores its failure to understand Tehran’s decision-making. The sanctions policy may be predicated on the belief that Iran entered negotiations with the Obama administration in 2012 because of the economic pain the oil embargo and financial restrictions had caused. But even at the time, analysts across the globe pointed to the shift in the U.S. position on enrichment as the real fulcrum. Between the years of 2003 and 2013, the United States moved from demanding that Iran enrich no uranium at all—the Trump administration’s current position—to acknowledging that as a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, Iran had a right to limited enrichment. The JCPOA allowed enrichment up to 3.67 percent for 15 years. Many analysts believe that the Trump administration cannot restart negotiations without similarly acknowledging Iran’s rights—this time, by recognizing Tehran’s regional security concerns.
That the Trump administration has apparently given so little thought to preparing the terrain for negotiation gives many experts pause. They say that Washington has not consulted former U.S. nuclear negotiators or transatlantic partners. Almost a year has passed since the United States withdrew from the JCPOA, and Washington has done little to assuage the anger festering in European capitals. The fraying of these ties might not seem significant in the short run, as Europe struggles to shoulder the burden of keeping the JCPOA alive. But European cooperation will be critical for any new negotiation to bear fruit.
Among our interviewees, there were a few who thought a grand bargain was still possible. Without exception, these respondents were either American or Iranian (notably, the Americans we interviewed who had been involved with the JCPOA did not share this perspective). Those who could envision reaching a new deal pointed out that the issues the JCPOA had left unresolved really could be settled only with an agreement between Tehran and Washington. Only the United States could provide Iran with the security guarantees and comprehensive sanctions relief necessary for a larger compromise deal, these respondents argued. Moreover, only the United States could placate the anxieties of Israel and the Arab Gulf. These interviewees saw Europe, caught in the middle, as not particularly relevant to the dialogue.
And yet the overwhelming majority of experts across the globe were very skeptical that the Trump administration could facilitate a grand bargain. Many argued that third parties such as Russia, China, Israel, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia were exploiting the Iran standoff for their own political purposes. Most interviewees from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates could not even begin to countenance renewed U.S. talks with Iran, and Russian and Chinese experts assessed that their countries were not willing to extend themselves beyond the limited efforts they’d already made to preserve the JCPOA.
If the U.S. president truly seeks that bigger, better deal, his administration must reevaluate its Iran strategy. Rather than simply doubling down on unilateral sanctions that have yet to yield any meaningful result, the administration should build bridges back to Europe and prepare the sorts of openings and sweeteners that have effectively brought Iran to the negotiating table in the past.