Trump’s Quick Fix Approach to Iran Nuclear Deal Creates Untenable Policy Dilemma
President Trump’s latest quick-fix approach to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) on Iran’s nuclear program creates an untenable policy dilemma. Because the deal sacrificed significant U.S. leverage upfront, right now there is currently little Congress can accomplish singlehandedly in trying to strengthen it, and much the administration would place at risk in abruptly leaving it. To truly fix the JCPOA, the United States should stay in it for the time being, so Congress and the administration can focus on rebuilding pressure on Iran to negotiate a better agreement.
This is not to minimize the deal’s severe shortcomings or suggest proposed changes by the president and Congress are misguided. On the contrary, stronger inspections, permanent limits on breakout time and prohibitions on ballistic missiles – as proposed by the Iran Freedom Policy and Sanctions Act introduced in the House – would do far more than the current arrangement to actually thwart a nuclear Iran.
Yet expecting Congress unilaterally to reconfigure the deal is unrealistic. The administration’s commendable rhetoric in its major Iran policy announcements hints at the underlying problem. By removing crippling sanctions at the outset, and making it exceedingly difficult to reimpose them, the JCPOA seriously complicated efforts to deter or punish Iran within or beyond the bounds of the agreement.
Combined with the JCPOA’s narrow focus on enrichment, this means the deal also gave Tehran the resources and green light to build its own leverage against the United States and our allies, in the form of ballistic missiles, weapons proliferation and other support for sectarian terrorist proxies across the Middle East.
These flaws make the president’s alternative of leaving the JCPOA equally problematic. Unilaterally reinstating sanctions – as Trump has threatened if Congress cannot enact his desired changes – would blow up the deal, absent a clear material breach by Iran. The United States would be isolated from its allies and Tehran freed to sprint to a bomb far more quickly than any effective sanctions regime could be restored.
As a result, the United States simply lacks leverage to demand new terms from Tehran at this time. JINSA’s Iran Task Force, which we co-chair, laid out a comprehensive strategy that prioritizes rebuilding U.S. positions of strength before trying to fix the deal – starting where costs can be imposed most effectively and credibly on Iran’s malign behaviors. In pushing back on Tehran’s threatening activities, the United States would also develop bargaining leverage to eventually renegotiate the JCPOA along the lines envisioned by the president and Congress.
Iran is most vulnerable to counterpressure in Syria, where its proxy network has become overextended and worn down in its all-out military push to consolidate a land bridge linking Tehran to Hezbollah and the Mediterranean. Statements by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis that the United States intends to maintain a force presence in Syria are a necessary first step.
Going forward, U.S. forces will likely need to bolster their own presence and assistance mission to Syrian Democratic Forces holding strategic territory liberated from ISIS. This will help prevent Tehran simply dictating Syria’s postwar fate, and will interpose physical hindrances to its land bridge.
The United States should also exploit military leverage over Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons capability. Demands for more robust inspections, and threats to reimpose sanctions if breakout time falls below one year, will have much more force if the administration announces the Pentagon is updating contingency plans to neutralize Iran’s nuclear facilities.
Likewise, any effort to impose limits on nuclear delivery vehicles requires the Pentagon to first develop credible capabilities in preparation for a possible shoot-down of future Iranian tests of nuclear-capable missiles. Congress should consider having the Pentagon forward-deploy Aegis-equipped missile defense ships to the region, as we already do against North Korea in East Asia. U.S. policymakers must also work with our Middle East allies on robust multi-layered theater missile defenses.
Recent protests also demonstrate the Iranian regime’s vulnerability to its own people. For all the regime’s bluster and criticisms of America, it still worries about being removed from power the same way it seized it.
To turn the screws on those inside Iran with the most equities in the nuclear program – the Supreme Leader, Revolutionary Guard and even President Rouhani – Congress and the administration should expand sanctions against Iran’s human right violations, support for terrorism and ballistic missile activities. A more coherent strategic communications campaign can also hold a mirror up to the regime’s hypocritical, purely rhetorical support for anti-corruption, human rights and the economic betterment of its people.
These measures offer some chance to improve the JCPOA. Until these pressures take hold, the United States will likely be unable to compel Tehran to agree to a new deal, and unprepared to risk the precipitous termination of the flawed deal currently in place.
Originally appeared in The Hill on February 21, 2018.