On Monday, President Donald Trump imposed new sanctions on Iran that targeted the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and related entities. It’s just the latest punitive measure aimed at Tehran in the long history of tense relations between the United States and the Islamic republic.
But the sanctions come at a moment when Trump says he’s also eager to negotiate with the Iranian regime. He signaled as much in recent days.
“We’re not going to have Iran have a nuclear weapon. . . . When they agree to that, they’re going to have a wealthy country,” Trump told reporters outside the White House last Friday. “They’re going to be so happy, and I’m going to be their best friend. I hope that happens.”
Those comments, which followed Trump’s decision last week to cancel a retaliatory strike against Iran for shooting down a U.S. drone, have reopened the possibility of negotiations between Washington and Tehran. But this window to talk with Tehran is unlikely to remain open for long.
Now is the moment, if ever there was one, for Trump to use what he touts as his creative deal-making skills to support the Iranian people while still applying pressure on the regime and its elites. There are options available to him if he truly wants, as he said last week, to “make Iran great again.”
The 2015 deal designed to curb Iran’s nuclear activity addressed what the United States and other world powers identified as the biggest challenge Iran posed to security and peace. Iran was unwilling to engage on other issues such as its missile program, human rights and support for proxies.
By assigning such disproportionate urgency to a nuclear program that our own intelligence agencies believed was not moving toward weaponization, we squandered much of the leverage to address other critical issues. Leaving that deal last year made engagement on any matter even more difficult.
Now that Trump — inadvertently or by design — has created an opportunity for fresh talks, he should look for other issues beyond the nuclear program to kick-start new dialogue. Tehran, however, says it’s unwilling to engage in the face of pressure and disrespect. The new measures against Khamenei are likely to harden that position even further, something the architects of the current Iran policy know well.
So maybe it’s time for Trump to start making offers Iran can’t refuse. The most effective way to do this would be to begin making public overtures that everyday Iranians would see as genuinely intended to improve their lives.
Easing banking restrictions on average citizens to facilitate the vast Iranian diaspora’s ability to send remittances to loved ones in Iran; lifting the travel ban on Iranians to the United States; and making technology available to help combat Iran’s environmental crises are tools we have available to negotiate with Iran that would help people without bolstering the regime.
In exchange, Trump could ask for the immediate release of U.S. citizens being held by the Iranian regime and demand a permanent end to the opaque and arbitrary detention of Americans.
Supporting and empowering the Iranian people, who continue to be the primary victims of the Trump administration’s Iran policy, must be an imperative. Applying more U.S. sanctions on Iran would only further degrade the fragile Iranian economy and exacerbate the suffering of ordinary Iranians, many of them pro-American. That is why a growing number of civil society activists inside Iran — the same people we claim to support through sanctions on the regime — are calling for a deescalation of tensions and fewer sanctions.
Making technology available to Iran to combat the country’s epic water shortages, choking pollution and woeful earthquake preparedness would also demonstrate U.S. goodwill. Coupling these incentives to directly help Iranians with the release of U.S. hostages would give the administration the opportunity to do two things it has publicly committed to yet failed to deliver on: bring Americans home and support the aspirations of Iranians. And helping the country brace for potential humanitarian crises would create a nonpolitical channel of cooperation but also highlight the U.S. commitment to improving the conditions of people, regardless of where they live in the world.