Five Ways for Trump to Put Tehran on Notice
As the bipartisan opponents of President Obama’s Iran nuclear agreement prepare to address its many shortcomings, they should beware of unwittingly repeating some of his mistakes.
Instead of relying on more sanctions to dismantle or renegotiate the deal, the most urgent need is restoring U.S. credibility and resolve in opposing Iranian aggression and reshaping the Middle East.
Two fundamental misjudgments led to the disastrous nuclear agreement. First, Mr. Obama eschewed credible military threats and relied on congressionally generated economic sanctions to pressure Iran to negotiate. Second, he focused only on Iran’s nuclear program, ignoring its malignant regional misconduct. Free of pressure and scrutiny, Tehran shaped the agreement’s terms and expanded its aggression and influence.
The current policy debate has ignored these mistakes. Instead, it is focused on using sanctions to enforce and improve the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran. This narrow approach is counterproductive. The agreement front-loaded Iran’s economic benefits. But it only mothballed elements of its nuclear program; it did not eradicate it.
The U.S. will need years to rebuild a robust international sanctions regime; Iran requires mere weeks to rebuild its nuclear program. Even if Iran remains within the agreement’s framework, it might respond to sanctions by escalating its regional aggression, exerting its own more immediate and dangerous form of leverage.
A proven necessary ingredient in dealing with Iran is a credible military threat. Two examples: Tehran suspended elements of its nuclear program in 2003-04 following the U.S. overthrow of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, and it never crossed Israel’s 2012 red line over its nuclear stockpile.
As the Trump administration considers Iran policy, including whether and how to enforce, renegotiate or cancel the nuclear agreement with Tehran, here are five policies it can implement to put Iran on notice and regain the strategic advantage:
First, instruct the Pentagon to update contingency plans for the use of force against Iran, including its nuclear facilities, especially in the event of a significant violation of, or withdrawal from, the nuclear agreement. This will communicate a new robust posture and prepare for what might be necessary.
Second, change the rules of engagement for U.S. naval vessels in the Persian Gulf. Provocative Iranian forces should no longer be tolerated but instead, as Mr. Trump stated in his first debate with Hillary Clinton, “shot out of the water.” The U.S. cannot hesitate to do this when the first such situation arises, as it certainly will. This will demonstrate credible resolve to Iran and other global powers, and it should contribute to improved Iranian behavior regionally as well as toward the agreement.
Third, boost the anti-Iran regional coalition. Instead of alienating traditional regional allies as Mr. Obama has done, we must embrace them and collaborate closely. This includes unapologetically supporting the Saudi-led coalition fighting the Iranian-backed Houthi insurgency in Yemen; increasing aid for Jordan; supporting Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi; and improving relations with Azerbaijan. It also includes bolstering support for Israel through raising U.S. military aid above the recent agreement, backing it strongly against Iran-supported Hamas and Hezbollah, and mitigating negative consequences of the recent U.N. Security Council resolution that Mr. Obama enabled, including by moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem.
Fourth, announce plans to establish a regional missile-defense system—to include Israel and U.S. allies in the Persian Gulf and Eastern Europe, building on the ample infrastructure already in place. To neutralize Iran’s ballistic missile threat, which the nuclear agreement has effectively legalized, Mr. Trump should order that this antimissile shield shoot down any Iranian missiles, test-fired or otherwise.
Fifth, and more challenging, undercut the Iranian crescent forming from Tehran to Beirut. Iran dominates the capitals of Iraq and Syria, both failed artificial, multiethnic states created from the Ottoman Empire after World War I. The U.S. should double down on the post-World War I focus on self-determination and support new political entities that are emerging. In Iraq, that starts with an independent Kurdish state and stationing a U.S. military base there. In Syria, work toward creating Sunni, Alawite and Kurdish entities that could check each other perhaps as part of a confederation.
Sanctions without military credibility have little meaning. Alone they cannot stop Iran from flouting the nuclear deal or inflaming the region. But sanctions coupled with a focused strategy can change Tehran’s calculus. This could enable an eventual renegotiation of the disastrous agreement, or, should diplomacy fail, better position the U.S. and its allies to prevent a nuclear-weapons-capable Iran by other means. It could also transform the region in America’s favor.
Originally appeared in The Wall Street Journal on January 3, 2017