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Can a U.S.-Iran Showdown Be Avoided?

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Daniel DePetris

Nearly a year after Iranian General Qassem Soleimani was killed by a U.S. drone strike on the outskirts of Baghdad International Airport, Iranians woke up to the news that one of their top nuclear scientists, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, was ambushed and assassinated outside Tehran. Israel is widely believed to be responsible for the operation—a not unreasonable assumption to make given the Mossad’s prior operations against Tehran’s nuclear program over the last decade.

But ultimately, whoever planned and carried out the operation against Fakhrizadeh’s convoy is far less important than the fact that the temperature with Iran is once again reaching a boiling point. When this last occurred in January, the Trump administration was able to deescalate the situation without a single U.S. fatality (although more than 100 U.S. troops were diagnosed with traumatic brain injury due to Iran’s retaliatory ballistic missile strike on U.S. forces in Iraq). It will take the joint effort of the outgoing Trump administration and Joe Biden, the incoming commander-in-chief, to ensure Washington doesn’t find itself caught up in another pointless war in the Middle East.

To no one’s surprise, the Iranian government is seething with rage since the killing. If there is one thing that brings hardliners, conservatives, pragmatists, and reformers in the Iranian system together, it is an attack by a foreign power against Iranian interests. This is particularly the case when the target is a high-profile, popular Iranian like Soleimani or Fakhrizadeh. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has vowed “definitive punishment” against the perpetrators of Fakhrizadeh’s assassination. On December 2, the Iranian parliament passed a new law that orders Iran’s atomic energy agency to stop cooperating with nuclear inspectors and raise the level of enrichment if the U.S. doesn’t lift sanctions within two months.

Yet there remains a significant portion of the Iranian elite who aren’t interested in doing anything reckless. The Rouhani administration is looking at the calendar and holding out hope of a mini-detente with Washington. Joe Biden will be President of the United States in less than two months, which means that the years long campaign of maximum pressure against Tehran’s economy could soon be a thing of the past. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif have both publicly called on the incoming Biden administration to re-enter the JCPOA, also known as the Iran nuclear deal. Zarif reiterated that stance in comments to an Iranian news outlet: while Washington and Tehran have “fundamental differences,” he said. both can at least make strides to improve the relationship as a whole. These words are not lost in the Beltway; during a recent talk, U.S. national security adviser-designate Jake Sullivan stated the President-elect’s willingness to return the U.S. to the JCPOA if Tehran reverses its previous violations.

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The ground is being set for what one hopes will be a painstaking but desperately needed de-escalation between two countries that have viewed one another as adversaries for the last four decades. Neither the U.S. nor Iran have an interest in going down the same road that nearly took them to the precipice of a full-blown conflict in January.

The question: how to avert a potential conflict between them? Resurrecting the Iran nuclear deal, where the U.S. lifts economic sanctions in exchange for Iran returning to its nuclear obligations, is one option President-elect Biden is certainly considering. But given the distrust that has accumulated between Washington and Tehran since the Trump administration’s maximum pressure strategy was put into force, bringing the JCPOA back from the dead is not as straight-forward as it seems. The Iranians may insist on compensation for lost revenue, as Iranian officials have hinted at over the last several months. The Iranians will also be resistant to return to compliance first, particularly since Tehran views the U.S. as the one who caused the current showdown in the first place.

JCPOA or no JCPOA, the next U.S. administration will need to demonstrate to a skeptical Iranian government that the days of maximum pressure are over and that a new era of pragmatic diplomacy and cool-headed deescalation is on the horizon. This is not a favor to Tehran as so many hawks in Washington habitually argue, but rather a necessary corrective to a U.S. policy that has proven to be a complete and utter failure on every metric. Advocates of the U.S. maximum pressure campaign blithely predicted that a desperate Iran would eventually return to the table and beg for relief—even if it came at the cost of more Iranian concessions. The reality, however, couldn’t be any more different: pragmatists in Iran who favor diplomacy are marginalized; hardliners are ascendant; and Iranian foreign policy is moving in the wrong direction.

The last thing Washington needs is to create a scenario where stumbling into a conflict in the Middle East is increasingly likely. Mohsen Fakhrizadeh’s killing is not only a stark illustration of how quickly events in this region can spiral out of control—it’s also a reminder of why U.S. foreign policy is in sore need of some common sense.

Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a columnist for Newsweek.