President-elect Donald Trump ran on the promise of ripping up the Iran deal — but then again, he also ran on repealing all of Obamacare. Neither seems possible, but the opportunity to correct course on Iran now exists, provided that Trump’s infatuation with Russian President Vladimir Putin and the general lack of expertise among Trump’s inner circle do not hinder the effort to put the mullahs back on their heels.
For starters, the new administration had better find someone who knows the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) inside and out, has a solid grasp of Iranian motives and understands the dynamic between Iran and Russia. The latter is about to become a whole lot more problematic, as Newsweek reports:
Russia and Iran are in talks to seal a $10 billion arms deal that would see Moscow send tanks, artillery, aircraft and helicopters to Tehran, a senior Russian senator said Monday.
“These negotiations are being carried out, the road has been paved,” Viktor Ozerov, head of the defense and security committee in the Russian upper house of parliament, told reporters on a visit to Iran, state news agency TASS reported.
“The order book, discussed today, [reflects] the needs of Tehran and amounts to some $10 billion,” he added.
Trump is about to discover that Russia’s interests and ours are at odds.
There is reason to be concerned that Iran may already be cutting corners, seeking to acquire illicit materials:
U.S. intelligence agencies and their international partners are seeing a flurry of inquiries by Iran about importing potentially sensitive technologies controlled by last year’s nuclear deal – but outside of channels specifically set up to vet these goods, according to officials and experts. …
The volume is rising on intel chatter about Tehran’s nuclear-related technology inquiries in Europe and China.
Interpretations of the new intelligence vary. Those who oppose the July 2015 agreement are quick to label ambiguous trade activity as evidence that Iran has not relinquished its long-term nuclear arms ambitions.
Simply walking away from the deal is a good campaign pitch but in reality would be highly problematic. Ending the deal and re-activating U.S. sanctions without allied cooperation is a nonstarter. “Sanctions don’t work unless everybody is sanctioning the country. If big trading partners of Iran continue to trade with Iran when we don’t, then the impact of our imposing sanctions is limited,” David Rothkopf recently explained in a radio interview. “Trump’s statements on tearing up treaties, walking away from things and doing them unilaterally are drawn from his experience building hotels and saying, you know, he’s not going to pay the painter, you know, and the painter’s sort of stuck and has got to sue him.”
So what can be done? The JINSA Iran task force in July sketched out some ideas. The authors argued:
Iran’s repeated ballistic missile tests are the most glaring evidence of the JCPOA’s shortcomings. They allow Iran to flout the deal, advance its nuclear weapons program, intimidate U.S. allies and undercut U.S. deterrence. The Administration’s tepid responses reinforce these problems. Therefore if Iran’s dangerous ballistic missile tests continue, the next U.S. administration, in concert with other parties to the JCPOA, must consider serious steps to deal with this unacceptable behavior. The United States and its international partners have a range of options, including but not limited to: tougher sanctions against Iranian missile proliferation networks than those enacted in January, and potentially unilateral military steps – including threats to shoot down future ballistic missile tests if necessary.
In addition to heightening anti-missile defense cooperation with regional allies, the authors also recommend that we cease compliance with “any informal or secret pledges made to Iran during JCPOA negotiations or implementation.” The report warns that the new administration must not “entertain Iran’s reinterpretations of the deal whenever adverse circumstances arise — for instance, demanding the United States encourage investment in Iran by blaming the country’s horrible business climate on sanctions’ ‘psychological remnants.’ ” For example, “the Obama Administration’s gratuitous efforts to co-opt Iran, including buying heavy water and trying to drum up business deals, can just as easily be reversed, and must be halted.” The authors also recommend that the so-called Procurement Working Group of the P5+1 charged with determining the end use of materials going to Iran be beefed up, precisely to investigate the suspicious activities outlined above.
The biggest challenges — improving inspection requirements and ending the sunset provisions — will require that we use all available levers of power. In this Congress and the White House can and should finally get on the same page. The administration can leverage the threat of congressional action, and Congress can press the administration on making public its findings on potential violations. Sanctions on Iran’s non-nuclear behavior (which Hillary Clinton said she favored) can be passed and promptly signed.
Trump has little understanding and zero expertise regarding any of this. Congress can insist that his nominations for key posts have both, reject the patently unqualified and then help advise the White House on the path forward.