With a new administration about to take office, a veteran diplomat and a national security expert told a Charlotte audience Wednesday that it would be a mistake to abandon the nuclear deal with Iran.
“Better to keep it and improve on it,” veteran ambassador Thomas Pickering told a World Affairs Council luncheon.
Pickering has been involved in diplomacy since the Nixon administration, when he served as a special assistant to Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. He’s been ambassador to Russia and several other countries and served as America’s envoy to the United Nations.
On Wednesday he and MIT security expert Jim Walsh covered a handful of thorny Middle East issues, including Iran.
President-elect Donald Trump, who takes office Friday, has called the nuclear agreement a “really, really bad deal” and suggested he might renegotiate it. But his pick for Defense secretary, retired Marine Gen. James Mattis, said during his confirmation hearing that the administration should respect the agreement.
“This is an imperfect arms control agreement – it’s not a friendship treaty,” he said. “But when America gives her word, we have to live up to it and work with our allies.”
On Wednesday, Pickering said the nuclear deal – signed by several other nations as well – provides a framework for ongoing communication between two mutually suspicious countries. He said U.S. withdrawal wouldn’t necessarily push Iran to do the same but could marginalize U.S. influence in the region.
Pickering and Walsh made the same case last weekend in an op-ed column for the Observer. “At a time when new international dangers seem to emerge with each passing day, we should be thankful that Iran’s nuclear program is one less worry in what promises to be a very busy year,” they wrote.
The two also discussed other hot spots Wednesday.
▪ Syria. Both decried a situation that has resulted in more than half a million dead and thousands more displaced. Pickering said he believes no military solution is possible and any cease-fire should be followed by a government of engineers and professionals who can re-establish basic services.
“In the end, military intervention helps but diplomacy has to find the door to open to go through,” he said.
▪ Israel. Walsh said the region’s sectarian struggles, failing states and civil wars may have moved the Israeli-Palestinian conflict out of the headlines but they haven’t diminished its importance.
Pickering said a “two-state solution” still appears the best way forward. And he said compromise is essential, though seemingly getting harder to reach. “Israel cannot live in a perpetual limbo where it must be ready to retaliate on five minutes notice,” he said, adding that Palestinians cannot live with continued uncertainty.
He said moving the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, as Trump proposed, “won’t help.”
▪ Turkey. The NATO member has found itself on the front lines of expanding Middle Eastern turmoil, with a spate of bombings, crackdowns on the media and an attempt to consolidate presidential power.
“I worry about creeping authoritarianism in Turkey,” Walsh said.
▪ Tearing up treaties. The diplomats said some international agreements could be updated. But throwing them out wholesale isn’t a good idea.
“I don’t think we should adopt a generic policy of we’re going to set the house on fire,” Walsh said.
Or, as Pickering described it, “Burning your house down and living in a tent while you build a new one.”