There has always been a fair and symmetrical formula for the United States and Iran to resolve the full range of their differences: full normalization for full normalization. Donald Trump, who may — but probably doesn’t — want a war with the Islamic republic, should propose it, publicly and in detail, and see what happens.
It will be clarifying for everyone.
What is normalization? From the U.S. side, it would mean the immediate suspension of every economic and diplomatic sanction imposed by this or previous administrations. It would mean a U.S. Embassy in Tehran and an Iranian one in Washington. It would mean direct flights between Iranian and American cities. It would mean two-way trade, direct investment, and the end of secondary sanctions that punish non-U. S. companies for doing business in Iran. It would mean tens of thousands of Iranian students once again enrolled in U.S. universities, and tens of thousands of American tourists once again exploring the grand bazaars of Iranian cities.
Iran’s people could surely use that deal. Since Trump reimposed U.S. sanctions last year, Iran’s oil exports have fallen by more than half, inflation has spiked to close to 40 percent and the rial has lost about 60 percent of its value against the dollar. Iran’s economy is expected to contract by 6 percent this year. By some estimates, a third of all Iranians live in absolute, not relative, poverty, unable to afford the most basic staples of life.
As for the Iranian side, normalization would mean behaving like a normal country.
A normal country, with the world’s fourth-largest proven oil reserves, is one that wouldn’t need to embark on multiple underground programs to enrich uranium and produce plutonium. It wouldn’t have engaged in extensive experimental work to figure out how to detonate a fissile nuclear core. It wouldn’t have retained an illicit network to circumvent Western restrictions on the sale of dual-use technologies for its missile programs.
A normal country is one that would not perpetrate terrorist massacres in Argentina. It wouldn’t seek to murder (via a Mexican drug cartel) the Saudi ambassador at a Washington, D.C., restaurant. It wouldn’t attempt an assassination plot in Denmark, or a bombing attack in France.
A normal country would not furnish military, financial and logistical support for Syria’s Bashar Assad, who seems to have resumed using chemical weapons against his enemies. It wouldn’t supply the Taliban with weapons, training and new recruits. It wouldn’t provide its proxies in Yemen with ballistic missiles, especially now that those proxies are firing missiles at Mecca. It wouldn’t be a principal sponsor for militias and terrorist groups throughout the Middle East. It wouldn’t constantly avow and seek, at considerable cost to itself, the destruction of another state with which it has neither a historical nor territorial conflict.
A normal country wouldn’t hang gay people. It wouldn’t imprison women in their own clothes. It wouldn’t constantly arrest foreign nationals, including American journalists, on trumped-up charges as a means of gaining diplomatic or financial leverage.
In short, under the terms of a normalization-for-normalization deal, Iran could relieve itself of all U.S. pressure by permanently abandoning its nuclear ambitions, its human-rights outrages and its reckless international behavior. That’s not a big ask.
Or at least it shouldn’t be, which is why Trump ought to deliver it in a carefully written speech — the kind that normal presidents make about vital international and domestic topics. Mike Pompeo laid out roughly similar terms in his own speech on Iran a year ago, but his tone was more bellicose than beguiling. Trump prefers the combination of brash moves with simple messages. This would be it.
It would also be unlikely to win over Iran’s leaders. Death to America — and to Israel — aren’t propagandistic slogans for the regime. They are its reason for being and its motive for action. The regime’s objections to the United States don’t date to 1953 and U.S. connivance in the ouster of Mohammad Mosaddegh as prime minister of Iran (a coup the clerics supported at the time). They date to 1776 and the birth of political liberalism, the enemy of all theocratic and virtue-centric politics.
A U.S. bombing campaign in Iran could hurt the regime. Complete and genuine normalization would, over time, be fatal to it. It would mean, as Trump put it the other day, Iran’s “official end” — not as a nation, but as the regime that has tyrannized that nation for 40 years.
Last week’s saber-rattling is unlikely to lead to a confrontation neither side wants. Trump thinks that avoiding war is crucial to his reelection. Tehran thinks Trump is more likely to be a one-termer if it can wait him out without a war. These are incompatible analyses, but they should induce mutual caution.
All the more reason for Trump to seize the initiative. Normalization for normalization is a concept this and future U.S. administrations could embrace. It’s one ordinary Americans and Iranians alike could understand. And it’s one Iran’s leaders would fear. Let them be the ones to explain why Iranian children should go hungry so Hamas can aim its fire at Jews.
Bret Stephens is a New York Times opinion columnist.