How Trump Should Maximize Pressure on Iran
As President Trump visits London for a meeting of NATO leaders this week, he could well come under pressure to start new talks with Iran. But he should resist the temptation and instead stand by the Iranian people and declare a goal of “regime collapse.” With demonstrations against the Tehran regime roiling Iran and regional countries it dominates, this is the time to raise the pressure, not offer a lifeline.
European leaders, worried that time is running out for a diplomatic solution, are likely to use the London meeting to press Trump to negotiate with Iran. Iran is steadily undoing the reversible restrictions imposed on its nuclear program by the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), including most recently and dangerously, restarting enrichment at the fortified, underground Fordow plant. At the same time, Iran has also been steadily escalating its aggression against U.S. allies and vital energy infrastructure. As this pressure builds, so does fear in European capitals of a U.S.-Iranian military confrontation.
Diplomacy, and restoration of the JCPOA, which Trump withdrew from last year, is seen in Europe as necessary to prevent, at any cost, such a clash. Indeed, French President Emmanuel Macron already tried to broker a meeting of Trump and Iran’s president on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in September. Trump accepted then—only Iranian intransigence forestalled negotiations—and he might be tempted to again. That would be a colossal strategic blunder.
The Europeans are correct that time is running out, but they are wrong about for whom the bell tolls. It is the Iranian regime that is living on borrowed time.
In September, after a summer of ever bolder Iranian attacks and ever more glaring American inaction, Tehran might have seemed to have the leverage to convince the United States and Europe to negotiate a settlement. Since then, however, many in Iran, and in Iran-dominated Lebanon and Iraq, have begun demanding freedom and prosperity.
The Islamic Republic is collapsing under the weight of its own oppression, misogyny, misgovernance, corruption, and foreign aggression. But the time between collapsing and collapse is unknowable; it can happen tomorrow or in 10 years. The Tehran regime has demonstrated no qualms about killing demonstrators, and could reestablish order in time. Nor, is it clear what would replace the current regime, were protestors to topple it.
The United States, therefore, cannot count on a change in government to resolve the immediate and urgent challenges presented by Iranian nuclear violations or regional aggression. But it should not ignore, or worse undermine, the political dynamics unleashed by these protests.
Seeking a deal now will only, like the JCPOA, delay the day of reckoning for the thugs of Tehran. It will demoralize the demonstrators, reduce the pressure on the regime, inject fresh money into its coffers with which to buy quiescence, and reward its regional and nuclear provocations. It will also setback peace. After JCPOA, an emboldened Tehran redoubled its aggression. A new deal realistically acceptable to Iran would similarly encourage the regime to reassert its assault on the regional order.
To thread this needle, Trump should use his trip to London to make clear that America’s goal in Iran is “regime collapse.” Not regime change, directed by military force, but regime collapse abetted by more comprehensive U.S.-driven pressure. As part of this policy the administration should pursue concrete steps to support the protestors while further constraining the Iranian regime.
The United States should work with its European allies to devise methods to provide Internet access to Iranian protestors, as U.S. Ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell has suggested. They should also coordinate to ensure that all Western broadcasting into Iran is transmitting strong messages in support of freedom. And Washington should aggressively sanction any Iranian officials involved in perpetrating or ordering violence against the protestors.
Beyond the protests, the United States to intensify military pressure. The Trump administration should seize on any new Iranian provocation to hit Iran hard—or hit them belatedly for their September attacks on Saudi oil facilities.
The United States should also strengthen Israel’s deterrence and capabilities to confront and defeat Iranian aggression by concluding a mutual defense pact with Jerusalem and accelerating delivery of military weaponry under the bilateral 10-year military assistance agreement. These steps would send a powerful signal to Iran of American determination.
This direct and indirect military pressure would not only help contain Iranian aggression and disincentivize the regime from expanding its nuclear program, but raise the costs of such activity, weaken the regime and possibly further undercut its legitimacy.
Nearly four decades ago, speaking in London, Ronald Reagan warned an evil empire that “a small ruling elite either mistakenly attempts to ease domestic unrest through greater repression and foreign adventure, or it chooses a wiser course.” Trump should forcefully confront the Iranian regime with the same choice.
Michael Makovsky, a former Pentagon official in the George W. Bush administration, is president and CEO of the Jewish Institute for National Security of America (JINSA).
Originally published in New York Daily News.