Wednesday, June 26, 2019

William O. Beeman answers to Questions on U.S.-Iranian Relations posed by Persia Digest

William O. Beeman (WB) answers to Questions posed by Persia Digest
Persia Digest: Tensions between the US and Iran have been on the rise in recent weeks. Although President Trump says he does not want war, he has threatened Iran with “complete obliteration”. In return, Iran has shown its readiness to defend itself by downing a US drone in its airspace. It will also begin the second phase of scaling back its commitments under the 2015 JCPOA nuclear deal on 7 July. The EU has warned Iran against abrogating the JCPOA. Under these circumstances. We posed these questions to William O. Beeman, internationally known expert on Iran-U.S. relations. 
1. Iranian politicians, and especially its military commanders, believe the chances of a military strike on Iran by Trump are minimal. As Trump’s presidential campaign has been formally launched, does such an interpretation also exist in the US (officials, the media, public opinion).

WB: American commentators are of two minds. Some believe that Trump will not risk a war with Iran because it will damage his re-election chances. He promised not to involve Americans in any further Middle East conflicts when he campaigned for the last election, so keeping the U.S. out of war would be fulfilling his campaign promise.
On the other hand, many commentators note that for a presidential re-election, a war is a good thing, because it fires up patriotism in the country, and people will often say that they “don’t want to change horses mid-stream” meaning they don’t want to change leaders in the middle of a conflict.
But what both positions are really stating is that for Trump, the decision as to whether to engage Iran in conflict is not a military or a security decision. It is purely a political decision. This is consistent with everything Trump does. He seems to care nothing for American security or the welfare of the United States (or the world). He only cares about himself and his political needs. He has accurately been described as a narcissist and an egomaniac.
It is a great shame that so many people must suffer for the sake of one selfish person, but that is unfortunately the situation with Donald J. Trump.
2. Iranian officials, including President Rouhani and Foreign Minister Zarif, have repeatedly said that Iran will not negotiate under pressure, but it will respond to politeness with politeness. Why is President Trump not willing to travel down this path instead of applying maximum pressure to reach its goal (negotiations for a deal with Iran)?
WB: Trump advertises himself as a “tough negotiator.” He has done this all his life. In his career as a real-estate investor he regularly cheated people, not paying them for work they did. When they complained, he sued them. He believes that the way to negotiate is to never apologize, never let up pressure, and never concede anything. Unfortunately, his advisors, National Security Advisor, John Bolton, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also believe that the only way to negotiate with Iran is to show force, never concede anything, and to be as tough as possible. They truly believe that maximum pressure and no diplomacy is the way to force Iran to negotiate, and they believe that they will get 100% of what they want and Iran will get nothing. President Theodore Roosevelt a century ago said that in diplomacy you need to “speak softly but carry a big stick.” Some commentators in the U.S. point out that Trump’s philosophy is “all stick.”
I have written extensively on ta’arof in Iran. Trump will never understand ta’arof, and this creates a great divide in negotiating styles. It might be wise for Iranian leaders to understand that Trump is 72 years old and is never going to change his negotiating style. For this reason, Iranian leaders must find another way. By the way, one aspect of ta’arof is something that Trump responds to, and that is flattery. Leaders like Putin and Kim Jong Il have extracted a lot of concessions from Trump by flattering him extensively. This is probably not what Iranian leaders are prepared to do, but it does work with Trump.
3. Despite compliance with the JCPOA (as confirmed by the IAEA), Iran has faced a severe sanctions regime over the past year. If Iran leaves the JCPOA, it will face even further sanctions. So, what policy should Iran adopt?
WB: At this point, Iran has been sanctioned to the max, so leaving the JCPOA is not likely to make much difference in terms of sanctions. However, staying within the JCPOA provides Iran with a moral high ground. I need to point out that aside from the JCPOA, Iran is a signatory to the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT). Leaving the JCPOA places Iran in potential violation of the NPT. In fact the entire negotiation leading to the JCPOA was to ensure that Iran would be in compliance with the NPT. Iran argued, correctly in my opinion, that the NPT allowed for enrichment of uranium for peaceful purposes. The Bush administration took the position that uranium enrichment was not “automatically” allowed under the NPT. Leaving the JCPOA will raise this question once again, and if Iran decides to leave the JCPOA it should be prepared to once again face the United Nations over the NPT question.
4. Many international analysts believe that maximum pressure to change Iran’s approach has failed, or it will not lead anywhere. What will Trump do if he reaches the same conclusion? Would his Plan B be a war?
WB: It is impossible to tell what Trump will do when he realizes that his plan of maximum pressure has not worked. There is no question that there are other actors here. Netanyahu in Israel, MBS in Saudi Arabia and some of the princes in the UAE are urging the United States to attack Iran. Of course, they want the United States to fight a war for them. Trump has been flattered by these leaders, and may be enticed into conflict with Iran. John Bolton, Mike Pompeo and others are clearly trying to engineer a situation where Iran will launch a “first strike” against the United States. They want Iran to start the war so that they can claim that the United States is innocent. I urge Iranian leaders to resist this “baiting” at all costs. Iran has never launched a first strike against any nation for the past 300 years. It should not start now.
5. After years of talks with the West, Iran finally reached a clear agreement on its nuclear program. But Trump effectively put an end to it. Would you still trust the West and the US to negotiate with if you were in place of the Iranian leaders?
WB: I trust “the West.” I do not trust Trump. He withdrew from the JCPOA largely because it was negotiated by President Obama. Trump has tried to destroy everything that Obama did. He didn’t understand the JCPOA, and I doubt that he has even read it. He seemed to think that it was some kind of transaction, like a real-estate transaction, where the United States gave Iran $150 billion, and didn’t get anything in return. He either ignored or failed to understand that the money was Iran’s money which was owed by the United States.
European allies and signatories to the JCPOA understood the agreement very well, and they have been trying to find a way to stay in the deal and bypass American sanctions. The difficulty is that so much of the world’s commerce involves the United States dollar, and United States banking and financial institutions that there is no way for Europeans or others to deal with Iran and to avoid violating the prohibitions placed by the United States in dealing with Iran using dollars and U,S. institutions. The Europeans have been trying to find another financial arrangement that bypasses the United States, but it has been extremely difficult.
By the way, there is no prohibition on Iran to sell oil or petroleum products. The only prohibition levied by the United States is against people buying Iranian petroleum products using dollars or U.S. institutions.
At least one analyst claims that Trump’s decision to exit the JCPOA and to levy sanctions was due to Iran’s attempt to get petroleum sales denominated in Euros rather than dollars in 2003 []. but pressed again in 2017. This is an intriguing theory, and it may be true. But it attributes too much intelligence to Trump, who I don’t believe knows anything at all about international trade. 
William O. Beeman is Professor and Chair of Anthropology at the University of Minnesota. A linguistic anthropologist best known as a Middle East Specialist for more than 40 years, he has also worked in Central Asia, the Caucasus, Japan, China and South Asia. Recognized for special expertise in Iranian culture and linguistics, he is the author or editor of more than 100 scholarly articles, 500 opinion pieces and 14 books, including Language, Status and Power in Iran, and The "Great Satan" vs. the "Mad Mullahs": How the United States and Iran Demonize Each Other. He has been a consultant to the Department of State, the Department of Defense, the United Nations and the European Union on Middle Eastern affairs. 

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