“There is at least one thing worse than fighting with allies – and that is to fight without them.” Winston Churchill with that statement summed up a basic truth of international politics and war.
Churchill’s words bear directly on the current debate over the nuclear agreement with Iran. United States leaders seem to be preoccupied with talking to themselves, while ignoring partners in the agreement, including our most vital durable allies.
President Donald Trump has dramatically “decertified” Iran, arguing they are not abiding by the international agreement to deter developing nuclear weapons. This means Congress can now decide whether to re-impose economic sanctions. In fact, the Tehran government has carefully remained within the limits of the accord, while pressing at the margins.
The actual agreement does not involve only the U.S. and Iran. The P5+1 group that negotiated with Iran consists along with the U.S. of Britain, China, France, Russia – the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council – plus Germany. Secretary of State John Kerry in the Obama administration demonstrated phenomenal energy, dedication and effectiveness in brokering the complex accord.
In 1979, revolutionaries overthrew the pro-U.S. Iran regime and established Islamic fundamentalism. This abruptly ended Iran’s previous posture as a close and distinctively influential American ally. Over the intervening decades, hostility has continued.
After revolutionaries ousted autocratic Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, Islamic militants seized the American embassy, took hostages and held them for months. The lengthy crisis poisoned Tehran-Washington relations and helped Ronald Reagan defeat President Jimmy Carter’s bid for reelection to the White House in 1980.
A failed military mission to rescue the hostages, directed in detail by the Carter White House, fostered an image of presidential weakness. During the Reagan administration, the U.S. supported Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in a lengthy eight-year war with Iran.
Yet beneath the broad tapestry of religious fundamentalism, signs of moderation on the part of the Iran’s leaders have appeared. President Hassan Rouhani, re-elected in a landslide earlier this year, emphasizes strengthening the economy, improving relations with the West and modernizing legal procedures. In February, he signed a Citizens’ Charter on Human Rights. Before the nuclear agreement, UN sanctions on Iran devastated the economy.
Yet President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Rouhani’s predecessor, directed inflammatory rhetoric toward Israel and the U.S. in particular. Extremist Iran factions continue to support terrorist groups, and the nation remains a destabilizing force in much of the Mideast.
Trump’s unilateral announcement is just that. The earlier sanctions on Iran worked because they involved a comprehensive coalition. Today, the U.S. increasingly is isolated internationally.
As usual, history provides important insights as well as background. During the early 1990s, after the Soviet Union collapsed, former President Richard Nixon wrote in his book “Beyond Peace” that while both Iran and Iraq were enemies of the U.S., Israel and Mideast stability, Iran was the greater threat by far.
This is because of the potentially broad appeal of extremism couched in Islam. Iran could exploit that strategy, while secular Iraq could not do so. Nearly a decade before the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Nixon pointed out that a stronger Iran was one inevitable dangerous result.
History confirms Nixon’s insight, and his approach should inform policy. That approach involves disciplined analysis of all the factors bearing on our nation’s decisions, including potential negative consequences.
This point should be self-evident, but unfortunately seems alien to the approach of current U.S. presidential leadership – or lack thereof.
Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of “After the Cold War” (Macmillan and NYU Press).