Op-Ed: Taking a hard line on Iran doesn’t have to mean war

President Trump in Washington last month.
(Jim Lo Scalzo / EPA-Shutterstock)

Where Iran is concerned, there are hard-liners and hard hard-liners. Everyone, in both camps, wants to ensure that Iran doesn’t have a nuclear weapon, and everyone wants to stop Iran’s malign behavior in the Middle East and elsewhere, ensuring peace and stability. The critical difference is how that set of objectives is reached.

The hard-liners, and I am one of them, believe in the nuclear deal struck during the Obama administration and in taking the path of further negotiations and non-nuclear sanctions to address Iran’s behavior. The hard hard-liners, on the other hand, successfully pushed for withdrawing from the deal and now favor an escalatory cycle that seems to be putting us on a path to war.

The hard-liners, led by the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council (the United States, France, the United Kingdom, China, Russia), Germany and the European Union, negotiated the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action to ensure Iran wouldn’t obtain a nuclear weapon. They kept in place multiple sanctions and an array of other tools that allowed the coalition to effectively push back against Iran’s nefarious actions in the Middle East.


The ascendancy of the hard hard-liners in the United States has strengthened the hand of the hard hard-liners in Iran.

In the absence of a formal diplomatic relationship, the nuclear deal also established a channel of communication between the United States and Iran that could be activated as issues arose. As undersecretary of State for political affairs, I led the U.S. team that negotiated the deal, and I saw firsthand what it accomplished. When U.S. sailors were detained by the Iranians, for example, phone communication between then-Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif resulted in the sailors’ freedom within 24 hours. The deal was also used as leverage to negotiate a release of other Americans held by Iran. The number of Americans being detained in Iran has risen since Trump withdrew from the deal.

President Obama never promised a normal relationship with Iran. Negotiations helped to build mutual respect and understanding, but by no means was there trust. Obama knew, however, that Iran getting a nuclear weapon would fundamentally alter the balance of power in the Middle East and threaten our allies. He hoped, without any certainty, of course, that a Western presence in Iran would encourage more normal behavior by Iran and help the Iranian people, who have been subjected to human rights abuses. Iran has its own struggle between hard-liners and hard hard-liners, and keeping a communication line open with the West has the potential to help the country’s hard-liners stand up to its hard hard-liners, led by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp.

Unfortunately, it seems that the hard hard-liners of the world are winning out. The hard hard-liners of Iran never wanted the nuclear deal. The Revolutionary Guard owned the black market when sanctions were in full force and had no interest in opening up Iran to foreign influence or business interests. The Guard and its elite unit, the Quds Force, led by Qassem Soleimani, were not and are not supporters of President Hassan Rouhani, who, although a conservative cleric, is a hard-liner, not a hard hard-liner. Soleimani argued before the deal was signed that the United States was a Trojan horse and could not be trusted to keep any agreement.

In the early days of the Trump administration, H.R. McMaster, then national security advisor; James Mattis, then secretary of Defense; and John Kelly, then chief of staff, all hard-liners, held President Trump back from completely withdrawing from the nuclear deal. They hoped to press Iran and world leaders to build on it, addressing outstanding issues. When they all left the administration, the president followed through on his campaign promise to withdraw from the agreement, reimposing sanctions, and embarking on the dangerous escalatory path we are on today.

In the United States, the hard hard-liners are led by national security advisor John Bolton, and he has found an ally in Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, also a hard hard-liner, sees his electoral fortunes tied to his stance in the face of Iranian threat. The objective of all of them seems to be regime change.


The ascendancy of the hard hardliners in the United States and elsewhere has only strengthened the hand of the hard hard-liners in Iran, creating a kind of symbiotic relationship that fuels an escalatory approach.

The hard hard-liners in Iran are now attempting to reassert control, and despite withering economic sanctions, Iran has increased its malign behavior in the region.

Enter the Fray: First takes on the news of the minute »

At a time when the United States has very challenging relationships with Turkey, Iraq and Afghanistan, the Trump administration’s approach serves to strengthen these countries’ relationships with Iran, Russia and China, to our disadvantage. And the administration’s break with Europe on the nuclear deal has weakened our historic and consequential alliances there.

The administration is now dominated by hard hard-liners, including Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. This is particularly dangerous as the president contemplates a response to both the tanker attacks at the opening of the Strait of Hormuz and to Iran’s recent declaration that, later this month, it will break through the enrichment limit imposed by the nuclear deal.

Pompeo has signaled that all options are on the table with regard to Iran, a military strike among them. Polling has found that Americans have little appetite for war, but the hard hard-liners of the Trump administration — and Iran in reaction to their policies — may just take us there.

Ambassador Wendy R. Sherman is director of the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard’s Kennedy School and author of “Not for the Faint of Heart: Lessons in Courage, Power and Persistence.” As undersecretary of State for political affairs, she led the U.S. team negotiating the Iran nuclear deal.