- By David WadeDavid Wade was chief of staff at the U.S. Department of State from 2013 to 2015 and is founder of GreenLight Strategies, a global consulting firm. He is also an advisor to Diplomacy Works.
The United States on Wednesday woke to the news that the Islamic State had targeted the people of Iran, with assailants striking the parliament building and the mausoleum of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who inspired the country’s revolution in 1979. The attack claimed 12 lives and injured 42 innocent bystanders.
The United States is right to have assigned Iran to a place of ignominy on the list of state sponsors of terror. Even where we’ve found common ground with Iran, for example on the nuclear agreement, we’ve never once made light of our significant differences and disagreements. And we shouldn’t.
But on the day that terror strikes at the heart of any country, the right thing to do — the diplomatic and decent thing to do — is to condemn the terror and express sympathy for the victims. On a day when an adversary like Iran is struck by our common enemy, the Islamic State, it also wouldn’t be hard to argue that the strategic thing to do would be for the United States to condemn the act. Period. End of story. And maybe, just maybe, an unintended silver lining of tragedy might be greater cooperation with Iran against the Islamic State.
Apparently, this kind of nuance or dignity isn’t in President Donald Trump’s diplomatic playbook.
The statement by the president on the terrorist attacks in Iran was at best a missed opportunity — and at worst reflected a missing chip in his foreign policy hardwiring.
It was also a strangely shortsighted dismissal of history for a president who still counts himself a New Yorker. Perhaps he has forgotten how Iran reacted when it was America suffering a tremendous loss. On September 11, 2001, the Iranian president and even the anti-American supreme leader both expressed their condolences to the United States, and thousands of Iranians amassed in spontaneous candlelight vigils to mourn with us. To some extent, was Iran’s position in 2001 due in part to a political and diplomatic bet that our attackers were Sunni extremists — Iran’s archenemy in a broader sectarian divide that has cost the region an untold number of lives? Probably. But it was still a moment of opportunity to explore for potential geopolitical gain, and it was certainly an appropriate response from one country to another, since terrorism anywhere should be rejected in the strongest terms.
It is hard to know what to make of the president’s foreign policy. But as we saw this week with his tweets on Qatar, he never seems to miss an opportunity to reduce geopolitics to self-defeating and self-contradicting soundbites.
Trump, of course, wasn’t alone in misreading the moment. In the same news cycle as the largest terrorist attack inside Iran in a decade, just weeks after Iran’s more pro-engagement president was reelected with a mandate to deepen ties with the West, the U.S. Senate voted for cloture on the Countering Iran’s Destabilizing Activities Act of 2017. It was odd timing — regardless of what you think about the bill. (Imagine if Congress passed the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act the same day extremists detonated suicide vests in Riyadh.) While this bill was amended in committee to avoid some of the more blatant provisions that could undermine the Iran nuclear deal, many experts believe it still poses a threat to the agreement — while most of them agree it doesn’t give the United States any new leverage to counter Iranian misdeeds. But, regardless of whether you believe this bill should ultimately be approved or not, when the one thing Congress can control is its own voting calendar, it should have waited to sanction Iran — thereby guaranteeing that as the country mourned, it would not also wake up to headlines about new tension with the United States. Why do that, especially when Iranian public opinion already casts the United States as woefully misinformed and applying a double standard to Sunni as opposed to Shia extremism — a problem this president’s statements and warm interactions with Saudi Arabia have only exacerbated.
The attacks in Iran were carried out by a group we’ve been battling for almost three years — extremists who have beheaded innocent Americans. With Trump’s stepped up rhetoric about defeating the Islamic State, why not instead reach out to Iran about greater cooperation against our shared enemy? Testing Iran this way would either result in progress, or expose Iran as a country unwilling to do the hard things needed to defeat these extremists.
Instead, the administration has contributed to an ever-increasing perception in the region: that we have chosen sides in a sectarian divide to which the United States has never been a party.
The hard truth is that counterterrorism efforts are rarely zero-sum — especially in a region of the world filled with longstanding sectarian feuds and complicated, ever-shifting allegiances. Don’t forget, U.S. soldiers actively depend upon the efforts of Iranian-supported troops in the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq (even while we actively counter Iran in Syria, where it is allied with the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.
Were Trump engaged in advancing America’s long-term, strategic goals, he would see the value of diplomacy in times of crisis, especially with those nations with which we disagree — sometimes most vehemently — and he would make it a point to publicly recognize the humanity of people everywhere who are affected by terrorism.
Yesterday’s attacks would have been an appropriate juncture for the Trump administration to start a dialogue through which we might eventually solve some of the issues with Iran that anger and animate us. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has indicated that he is open to negotiating with the West on these issues, but Trump missed a window to begin testing that very proposition.
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