President Donald Trump’s non-certification of Iranian compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal has shaken the diplomatic firmament, infuriated the deal’s supporters, and delighted its opponents. Although the president has been clear that he opposes the deal despite the public endorsement by members of his cabinet, Iran’s reckless regional adventurism, belligerent rhetoric, and expansion of its vast missile program certainly made non-certification easier. Tehran’s behavior justifies the need for a fresh approach to Iran policy, but we should retain the JCPOA and develop our new policy in concert with our friends in Europe and the Middle East.
It may be useful to briefly review how we arrived at this point. President Harry S. Truman once called for a one-armed economist out of frustration that every time he asked for a learned opinion, the response was a cloud of “on one hand … but on the other hand …” An observer of this debate could make a similar assertion. Unfortunately, the complex and charged history of the Iran problem and the profound consequences of any policy decision will make consensus difficult, particularly if the debate continues in the toxic public forum.
President Trump and other opponents of JCPOA have never concealed their disdain for the deal. JCPOA, they contend, provided Iran with too many of its frozen assets which Tehran then used for aggression, left its missile program unconstrained, and undid a sanctions architecture which at least had hampered Iran’s regional adventurism. Some of the deal’s key restrictions will expire in too few years, leaving Iran positioned to threaten our partners and strategic U.S. interests. In addition to the nuclear problem, the deal allows restrictions on Iran’s conventional weapons to unravel as soon as October 2020 and the constraints on its missile program will follow three short years later. Worst of all, they claim, overall U.S. policy against Iran was made hostage to sustaining the agreement.
JCPOA’s equally-ardent supporters respond by reminding us the deal was only meant to address the threat of Iran’s nuclear weapon capability, not the entirety of the Iran problem. Remaining sanctions and different tools still exist to constrain Iran’s other mischief. They point to multiple IAEA reports and comments by serving senior US officials that Iran continues to execute its JCPOA obligations. They pile on a list of the deal’s key benefits: Iran’s dangerous plutonium reactor at Arak has been irrevocably dismantled; Iran’s stockpile of low-enriched uranium is a tiny fraction of the amount needed to build a weapon; and the IAEA has yet to complain that it lacks access necessary to do its job. The deal has done what it intended: halt Iran’s capacity to develop a nuclear weapon. The expansion of its civilian nuclear program, which continued even under international sanctions, has stopped. Finally, the IAEA has wide-ranging access to Iran’s nuclear sites.
If you peel away the rhetoric, however, both sides base their ultimate posture on similar goals: Iran cannot be allowed to develop a nuclear weapon and Iran’s nuclear program must remain under long-term and intrusive international inspections. Neither side trusts Iran, and each will point to Iran’s history of covert weapons programs and violations of UN security council resolutions. They also agree that Iran’s malign adventurism and support for terrorism must be confronted, and we should not stand by while Iran’s missile program dangerously expands. Finally, they agree we must engage Iran’s leadership, if only to try to gain the release of American detainees and determine the fate of Robert Levinson, the retired FBI agent who the FBI says went missing in Iran in 2007.
Differences on the direction of Iran policy erupt when the discussion turns to whether the post-deal atmosphere has caused Iran to become a more responsible player in its region. In the two years since the deal was adopted and on the issues that directly touch our most important interests, regrettably it has not and near term prospects for improvement are dim.
Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei remains Iran’s ultimate decision maker on every matter of consequence. He is implacably hostile to the West and his routine rhetoric echoes the darkest principles of the 1979 revolution. President Hassan Rouhani’s re-election in May and his public challenges of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) are certainly encouraging and reinforce hopes that Iran’s political system may one day moderate. I certainly hope so. But such hopes should not cause us to ignore that after four years of the Rouhani as president, Iranian threats to U.S. interests are increasing. Many within Iran may seek moderation, but it just may be too soon for Iran to decide that it is country and not a revolution. In any case, the near-term prospects for further Rouhani action against hardliners are not rosy, as the non-certification decision will compel Iran’s collective polity to circle wagons.
And so with this background in mind and the President’s decision behind us, we need to look forward. The Trump administration and Congress should consider the following precepts as they develop their new policy:
A bipartisan response is essential and the debate to develop this position should not be fought in the media. Iran’s Supreme Leader and other hardliners will relish a messy U.S. and international debate over JCPOA. The IRGC will interpret such cacophony as an absence of collective resolve and a license to act more aggressively. Likewise, any response that displays unity will cause Iran’s leadership to reconsider the consequences of their actions.
Recognize that as strong as we are, we will only be stronger if we partner with Europe and seek United Nations authorities. European cooperation has yet to be defined, but pressure on Iran will be most effective with a blend of UN Security Council support, European financial sanctions and multilateral diplomatic pressure. At the same time, Europe and others need to understand that we will measure progress in action and not words. European ambassadors are vocal about the need to protect their business interests in Iran, but offer only thin generalities when asked what steps their countries will undertake to confront Iran’s regional interventionism and proliferation of advanced missile technology. We should be clear that we will not tolerate toothless negotiations.
Maintain and rigorously enforce JCPOA, but if Iran’s leadership remains aggressive, extend its provisions. The deal’s important accomplishments should not be discarded without a better plan in hand. A collapse of the agreement will fracture relations with Europe and complicate our efforts against North Korea. At the same time, we should remain adamantine as to Iran’s prompt execution of its obligations. Given Iran’s belligerent actions against its neighbors and our interests, it is not unwise to begin to consider which provisions should be extended to assure the world that Iran cannot shorten the timeline to develop a nuclear weapon or erode international oversight of its nuclear enterprise.
Focus on the IRGC’s logistics pipelines, front companies, and financial channels. The most effective strategy to begin to roll-back Iran’s regional activities involves unrelenting international pressure on Iran’s ability to move people, money, and weapons. The activities of its airlines, regional embassies and the businesses and financial institutions that support them must be the subject of significant international scrutiny
The international community should take immediate steps to confront Iran on its dangerous deployment (and employment) of missile technology in the region. Iran’s almost unchallenged export of missile technology to Syria and Yemen allows it to use proxies to conduct missile wars and erode the region’s fragile stability. Likewise, Tehran’s proliferation of missile technology makes it imperative to maintain international restrictions on Iran’s conventional weapons and missile programs.
We need to engage Iran. Direct diplomatic and public engagement with Iran by the U.S. and its allies is the only way to ensure that Iran understands our message. The UN and JCPOA offer excellent fora for diplomatic discussions, in part because the impact is magnified when we stand with partners upon whom Iran relies to sustain its economy. Publicly, we should reaffirm to the Iranian people that only they can choose their government and we will respect that decision. However, they need to equally understand that Iran’s failure to be a responsible member of the international community brings consequences that impact everyone in Iran.
In the end, it is up to Tehran to decide whether regional interventions and its missile program are worth the risk of sanctions and isolation. Iran’s hardliners will oppose change and will respond initially with their defiant statements to test our resolve and international cohesion. The IRGC will also attempt to use any delay in the execution of a pressure campaign to build facts on the ground. By maintaining JCPOA and initiating this campaign immediately, we should be able to build the multinational partnership needed to thwart Iran’s regional interventions, contribute to the stability of its neighbors, and avoid military conflict.