(Persia Digest) - A university professor in the US believes: Although it is understandable for Iranian leaders to have major doubts about the trustworthiness of this U.S. administration, negotiation is still the only way out of the current impasse.

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.

Persia Digest (PD) has conducted an interview on this topic with Paul Pillar, 28-year veteran of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), serving from 1977 to 2005, including as Executive Assistant to the Director.

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).

In the United States Trump is generally seen—correctly—as not seeking a new war in the Middle East, and he undoubtedly does fear that such a war would hurt his re-election chances. But most informed US observers also perceive that Trump’s policy toward Iran has substantially increased the risk of a war. An armed conflict could result from accident or miscalculation. It might also result because Trump has in effect allowed himself to be manipulated by those who would welcome war with Iran—especially his national security advisor, John Bolton.

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)?

Politeness is not one of Donald Trump’s tools. He is more often rude rather than polite even to close U.S. allies. He also has an instinctive faith in his ability to bully or intimidate others into submission; this was his standard approach during his business career. But confidence in getting other nations to submit to U.S. pressure is not unique to Trump. It is part of a nationalist way of thinking that prevails in many political and policy circles in the United States.

It is not yet clear how talks with North Korea will unfold. It has also become rather difficult to trust Trump with regard to his approach to other international agreements. As such, why must Iran accept to talk with Trump?

Iranian leaders naturally look at how the U.S. administration behaves in negotiations with other countries and draw appropriate conclusions about what this means for U.S.-Iranian relations. Most pertinent for Iran is, of course, Trump’s complete reneging on U.S. obligations under the JCPOA. But Iranian leaders probably also have noticed that Trump was willing to undermine his own North American trade agreement by threatening to impose new tariffs on Mexico to achieve a non-trade-related purpose. Although it is understandable for Iranian leaders to have major doubts about the trustworthiness of this U.S. administration, negotiation is still the only way out of the current impasse.

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?

It would be a mistake for Iran to leave the JCPOA. Such a move would push European governments in particular into favoring the re-imposition of international sanctions on Iran. The JCPOA, or something very much like it, still represents Iran’s best chance not to be an international pariah in perpetuity. If Iran violates the JCPOA, then—as Vladimir Putin has warned Iran—many people will forget that it was the United States that first violated the agreement.

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?

Trust is not the right way to think about the current situation. The JCPOA itself was built on distrust, as reflected in its extensive inspection arrangements. My advice to Iranian leaders would be to rely on Donald Trump’s desire for an agreement, his yearning to be seen as a deal-maker, and his proven tendency—as in the case of the North American trade agreement—to claim as a big accomplishment something that was really only a minor modification of what came before. This may mean that Trump would be willing to settle for a new agreement with Iran that would represent only minor changes from the JCPOA.

Paul R Pillar is an academic and 28-year veteran of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), serving from 1977 to 2005, including as Executive Assistant to the Director. He is now a non-resident senior fellow at Georgetown University's Center for Security Studies, as well as a nonresident senior fellow in the Brookings Institution's Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence. He was a visiting professor at Georgetown University from 2005 to 2012. He is a contributor to The National Interest.

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