When it comes to Iran, former US ambassador to the EU Stuart Eizenstat believes he has history on his side. Experience tells him that the US can’t be a lone cowboy and solely bring Iran to the table. It will need the European Union to help diffuse the situation and jump-start new talks.
Eizenstat is no stranger to sanctions and Iran. As the chief domestic adviser to former US president Jimmy Carter, Eizenstat was responsible for sanctioning Tehran after the 1979 Iranian Revolution when Muslim students captured 52 American hostages. His front row Washington seat to the US-Iranian conflict also spanned the Clinton and Obama administrations.
He describes the lessons he learned in a book published last year, President Carter: The White House Years, which is due out in Hebrew in 2020.
“I was responsible for putting sanctions on Iran to release the hostages,” Eizenstat told The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday, as the US and Tehran continued to ratchet up the tension between the two countries.
Sanctions were not effective during the hostage crisis, because other allies, such as the European countries, failed to join the US, he said.
Had the Europeans joined in enforcing the sanctions, “It would have had a major effect on getting the hostages home earlier,” Eizenstat said.
Similarly, he noted, it was the joint efforts of the six world powers, not the US alone, which swayed Iran to accept the 2015 nuclear deal, or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Iran would not have come to the table if international sanctions had not been imposed upon it or if the JCPOA was only with the US, Eizenstat said.The JCPOA was designed to curb Iran’s nuclear powers in exchange for the lifting of international sanctions. Israel and the US argued that the agreement was a bad deal. The US exited the agreement last year and has since imposed hefty sanctions on Iran, particularly with regard to oil exports, with an eye toward forcing Iran to renegotiate the deal.
The Trump administration thinks that by choking Iran it will bring Tehran to the negotiating table, but Iranian pride is likely to ensure that such efforts are unsuccessful, Eizenstat said.
A strong supporter of Israel who visited the country last week, Eizenstat said that he disagrees with the Israeli government’s stance on Iran. His opinion is that the JCPOA was necessary to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power and that it was keeping a “lid” on Iran’s nuclear-weapons program.
“It was, in my opinion a massive mistake for the US to have pulled out of the JCPOA. If we had stayed in, we would not have been in this mess today,” he added.
Iran has a civilian nuclear power program that goes back decades and cannot be undone, Eizenstat said. The more Iran feels like it is being driven out of the JCPOA, the more likely it is to go underground. There would be little the US could do to stop Iran’s nuclear ambitions short of war, he added.
Having left the agreement, Eizenstat urges the US to return to the table, cautioning that it can’t create a deal that encompasses everything such as Hezbollah, terrorism and missiles.
The most significant danger remains a nuclear Iran, he said, adding “You can’t bite off more than you can chew.”
The Iranian’s amassing of enriched uranium and its plan to enrich uranium beyond the fissile purity of 3.67% were tactics to pressure Europe, Eizenstat said. Iran, he feels, wants Europe to find a way for offset the economic losses the country is suffering as a result of the US sanctions. Secondarily, Iran exceeded its amount of stockpiled low enriched uranium due to US restrictions which do not allow any country to take Tehran’s uranium.
Europe wants to help Iran, but has been unable to find the mechanism to do so, Eizenstat said. The blocking legislation it passed to allow European companies to do business with Iran has not been effective, he added.
“But,” Eizenstat warned, “Iran is playing a dangerous game, because if it goes too far [with nuclear action], it will lose the EU.” Iran already warned this week that it plans to enrich uranium beyond the level set in the agreement.
The question is: Where does this situation go from here? Eizenstat said.
“What I suggest is a series of what I would call de-escalation steps on both sides.” He suggested a multinational naval force that includes the Europeans to protect shipping in the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz, a move that would decrease the likelihood of an Iranian attack.
Europe should step up to the plate and act as a broker to get Iran back to the table, given that it has a relationship with both the US and Iran, he said.
As a concession to Iran, the Europeans could suggest that Tehran be allowed to export their spent low enriched uranium fuel, Eizenstat suggested.
To sway Iran to return to the negotiating table, the US could promise partial sanctions relief and reinstate the waivers on oil export, he said. In addition, the EU governments, could agree to create a strategic stockpile of oil on the European continent, similar to what the US has on its continent.
The US could agree to put a hold on plans to send additional forces into the Gulf. In return, Iran would agree not to target US its ships or drones.
The Europeans need to make it clear that none of this will happen if Iran exceed the JCPOA limits, the former ambassador said.
The Trump administration appears divided on Iran with Trump not appearing to want war, particularly in an election cycle, and National Security Advisor John Bolton is “itching for a fight,” Eizenstat said.
It appears as if neither Iranian President Hassan Rouhani nor Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, with whom Eizenstat has met three times, want war, he said.
The problem is that given the tension, there is a chance of hair trigger action by the Iranian revolutionary guard that would require a response. “That is why it is urgent to de-escalate the situation,” Eizenstat added.