Power Line

Did killing Soleimani increase the likelihood of renegotiating the nuclear deal?

Among the very first things I read after the U.S. military took out Gen. Soleimani was that President Trump’s effort to initiate diplomacy with Iran is dead. See this piece, for example. Now, more sober analysts are saying something close to the opposite — that the attack makes it more likely such diplomacy will occur.

Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, makes that argument here. Satloff says:

With tensions high and emotions raw, the immediate aftermath of Soleimani’s killing may seem an odd moment to propose diplomatic engagement. But the very brazenness of the act may have so unnerved Iran’s leadership that negotiating with the Great Satan, an option Tehran seemed to reject as it sought to extend its influence from Yemen to Baghdad, might become an attractive alternative to the possibility of direct confrontation.

An episode from an earlier chapter of the U.S.-Iran contest may be instructive: the downing by the USS Vincennes of an Iranian civilian airliner in 1988, killing 290. Though it was an accident, the tragedy convinced the revolutionary founder of the Islamic republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, that America was about to throw its weight fully in support of Saddam Hussein in the Iran-Iraq War. Fearful of facing the full might of the United States, Khomeini swallowed hard and accepted a U.N.-brokered ceasefire, an act so painful he likened it to drinking “a chalice of poison.”

Logic suggests that if Tehran blinked when confronted with an accidental use of American power, chances are even greater that it will blink when the use is purposeful, as was clearly the case with Soleimani’s assassination. . . .

In that respect, Soleimani’s killing puts another potential carrot on the bargaining table beside the eventual lifting of economic sanctions — namely, a commitment from the United States not to use military force to threaten other top leaders or the regime’s survival itself.

Steven Hadley, national security adviser under President George W. Bush, is less than enthusiastic about the killing of Soleimani. However, he agrees that it “could. . .open the door to diplomacy.”

This view is more sensible than the knee-jerk reaction that killing Soleimani has ended any hope of engaging in diplomacy with Iran. But that’s not to say that the successful attack on the terrorist actually will lead to a renegotiation of the Iran nuclear deal.

If Iran renegotiates the nuclear deal it reached with the Obama administration, it will be for the same reason it reached that deal in the first place — because the regime is in a box from which it sees no escape.

Iran was already in a box before we took out Soleimani. But it hoped to escape following the 2020 election in which, perhaps, President Trump will be defeated.

The regime was doing more than just hoping. To help bring about Trump’s defeat, the mullahs were escalating tensions in the Middle East and trying to make Trump look weak and ineffectual.

After taking out Soleimani, Trump doesn’t look weak and ineffectual. However, the situation in the Middle East has, if anything, become more tense.

Iran’s best move now, it seems to me, is to keep things tense, while avoiding war, and continue to hope for the defeat of Trump in November. It would be foolish to negotiate with Trump before November because if Trump loses, it can expect sanctions to be lifted with no alteration to the Obama deal. Indeed, negotiating with Trump would be doubly foolish because it would improve his prospects for reelection.

But if Trump wins in November, the calculus changes. Assuming Trump has demonstrated that the killing of Soleimani wasn’t “a one-off muscle-flexing exercise” (to borrow Satloff’s phrase), one can imagine Iran renegotiating the Obama deal.

Is it likely to do so in this scenario? I don’t think I would go that far. However, it’s clear to me that the killing of Soleimani hasn’t ended the prospects for diplomacy between Trump and the mullahs. If anything, it has probably made such diplomacy more likely.

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