President Donald Trump found few takers for his position on the Iran nuclear agreement at the United Nations this week. But he may be right that Iran will soon return to the negotiating table to address his concerns about the deal’s shortcomings.
Instead of agreeing with Mr. Trump on strong economic sanctions, allies and other nations turned their backs on the United States and created a work-around. The leaders of Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China agreed Wednesday to create a “Special Purpose Vehicle” for exchanging goods, such as Iranian oil and German machinery, without using the international banking system that will be subject to U.S. sanctions in November. In doing so, they chose to ignore the purpose of the sanctions: getting Iran to stop developing ballistic missiles and fomenting wars and instability in the Middle East, and to accept permanent restrictions on its nuclear industry.
Congress could easily include such barter deals in legislation authorizing the sanctions, so the proposal may prove to be little more than a gesture to Iran’s leaders that these nations want to remain on good terms with them. It is clear Mr. Trump does not. In his Tuesday address to the United Nations General Assembly he indicted the “corrupt” leadership of Iran, saying, “Iran’s leaders sow chaos, death and destruction. They do not respect their neighbors or borders, or the sovereign rights of nations. Instead, Iran’s leaders plunder the nation’s resources to enrich themselves and to spread mayhem across the Middle East and far beyond. The Iranian people are rightly outraged.”
He went on to say he sided with the Iranian people, not their leaders. Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani told the U.N. that Mr. Trump wants to overthrow his regime.
But in a replay of his approach to North Korea, Mr. Trump says he is ready for a deal if the Iranian regime is ready.
There are reasons to think Iran may agree to renegotiate the nuclear deal. Mr. Rouhani says Iran can weather two years of sanctions. But The Economist magazine suggests that “suffering Iranians may prove a bigger threat to the regime” than Mr. Trump.
The Iranian economy has cratered even in advance of the major sanctions scheduled to take place later this year. Arabs in Iran’s major oil province complain that they are impoverished by the regime’s exploitation of their land, and a group claiming to represent them has taken credit for a recent deadly attack on the Iranian military. This violence is the latest manifestation of profound distress with the regime and the soaring prices of basic commodities. There have been street protests in all major Iranian cities this year against Mr. Rouhani and his government.
Perhaps sensing that his hand is growing stronger, Mr. Trump has recently added a new condition to his demands on Iran: get out of Syria. On Monday, National Security Adviser John Bolton declared, “We’re not going to leave [Syria] as long as Iranian troops are outside Iranian borders, and that includes Iranian proxies and militias.” Mr. Bolton’s statement also appeared to include Iranian forces and proxy militias in Iraq.
That is a bold demand, one that Europe and even Russia could get behind. Iran has invested heavily in Syria’s Assad regime precisely because it wants to use Syria as its base of operations against Israel, as it has successfully but clandestinely done for the past dozen years or more. It will not give up that position without a struggle. But its strategy has gradually been forced into the open, exposing its aggressive intentions. Europe, Russia and China may be intent on keeping the door open to cooperation with Iran. But none of them wants to see the continued turmoil in the Middle East that will occur if Iran stays in Syria.