Opinion writer

Secretary of State John F. Kerry talks with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in Vienna in 2014.(Ronald Zak/Associated Press, Pool Photo)

Whatever one thinks of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, it is hard to argue that Iran’s behavior hasn’t gotten worse since it was signed. At a Foreign Policy Initiative conference last week, there was this interesting exchange betweeen Brookings Institution scholar Michael O’Hanlon and Army General Joseph L. Votel, Commander of U.S. Central Command:

VOTEL: The bigger concern for me is that the JCPOA has not really changed Iranian behavior. And it certainly hasn’t changed the regime behavior in terms of things that they are doing. So the other concerns that we have with the broader Iranian threat problem remain. Whether it’s their cyber activities, whether it’s their use of surrogates, whether it’s their facilitation of lethal aid, whether it’s their buildup of missile capability and other anti-access capabilities in the region, or whether it’s their unprofessional and aggressive activities in the Persian Gulf. I think these are all things that remain very, very concerning to me. Again, as we — one of the principal interests we have in this area is chokepoints, you know, the criticality of those. Certainly we’ve been — the straits of Hormuz are an area that are under, certainly, the close watch of Iran. My concern is that spreads to other areas like Bab-el-Mandeb and what that might mean to us in the future. So I am concerned about the continued malign activities of Iran across the region.

O’HANLON: Would you describe that level of malign activity as relatively steady since the signing and initial implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action? Or have you seen any uptick — sounds like you haven’t seen a downtick — have you seen any uptick as Iran gets more resources and is able, potentially, to sow more mischief?

VOTEL: We’ve certainly seen them intervene in Yemen, in the country of Iraq, we look at 100,000- plus Shia militia group members that are there that I think Iran has had some role in raising and developing. I would probably say there’s a little bit of an uptick.

There is an argument that it is not the JCPOA but the Obama administration’s implementation — and fear of losing its “historic” deal — that gave Iran a free pass to increase “malign activity” beyond the nuclear realm. Others argue that the deal itself curtails our ability to check Iran’s ambitions because Iran threatens that imposition of any sanctions would relieve it from compliance with the JCPOA.

The Trump administration can pursue several tactics without “ripping up” the Iran deal and setting off a potential military confrontation with Iran.

First, it can end Secretary of State John F. Kerry’s practice of trying to give Iran the “benefit” of the sanctions relief. Politico reported recently:

“We’re not in Iran’s corner fighting for them. What we’re fighting for is a good deal that gives us what we need in terms of verification and transparency,” said one State Department official who spoke on condition he not be named. The U.S. isn’t going to drum up any business for Iran, he insisted, but “a ‘deal’ means both sides get something … We have to make sure all sanctions relief elements we promised have come into effect, and that we’re not standing in the way” of legal deals.

It was in this vein that the State Department floated the idea of opening up dollar-based transactions for Iran and that Kerry seemed to be talking up the prospects for doing business with Iran. The new administration can stop offering such help and instead stick to the letter of the agreement. (That means strict enforcement of the deal on Iran, which has been cited as exceeding the heavy water limits in the deal and seeking prohibited materials.)

Second, the new administration can advise U.S. businesses and banks of the risks inherent in doing business with Iran:

Former Undersecretary of Treasury Stuart Levey, a driving force behind the increase in U.S. sanctions on Iran between 2006-2011, penned an outraged op-ed in the Wall Street Journal . . . . criticizing Kerry for supposedly encouraging non-U.S. banks to do business with Iran. “No one has claimed that Iran has ceased to engage in much of the same conduct for which it was sanctioned, including actively supporting terrorism and building and testing ballistic missiles. But now Washington is pushing non-U.S. banks to do what it is still illegal for American banks to do,” wrote Levey, now chief legal officer of London-based HSBC Holdings. “HSBC has no intention of doing any new business involving Iran. Governments can lift sanctions, but the private sector is still responsible for managing its own risk.” . . . Rampant corruption, scant transparency or judicial recourse, and major sectors of the economy under the control of the sanctioned Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, make Iran a legal and compliance nightmare, several current and former Treasury officials said.

And third, in response to Iran’s illegal missile tests, detention of more Americans, support for the genocidal regime in Syria, regional aggression and state sponsorship of terror, the Trump administration can impose nonnuclear-related sanctions (as Hillary Clinton recommended for its illegal missile tests). Iran would certainly think twice about retaliating by walking away from the JCPOA, which has been a financial boon. (“In the six months since the deal was implemented, Iran has restored its crude oil production and exports to levels it enjoyed before the U.S. and European Union slapped on oil sanctions in 2012. It has opened more than 300 new bank accounts with foreign banks, negotiated billions of dollars of new lines of credit, and has seen planned foreign direct investment increase by more than $3 billion, the Treasury Department says. Iran’s GDP may grow by 4 percent this year, according to Patrick Clawson, director of research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, though low global oil prices mean its export revenue is likely to be just a quarter of what it was in 2011.”)

Iran expert Ray Takeyh suggests:

The Trump administration would be wise to craft an actual Iran policy and not just a series of arms control proposals like those that obsessed its two predecessors. The essence of such a policy would be to weaken Iran as opposed to seeking ways of empowering its so-called moderate factions. In today’s Islamic Republic, there are no pragmatists waiting to mend fences with Washington. Rather, the centerpiece of this policy would be to stress Iran’s economy while isolating it in the region. The United States should once more impose crippling sanctions on Iran and isolate it from the global economy. In the meantime, by working with Arab allies and Israel, Washington can push back on Iran in the Middle East.

Given its hawkish posture, the Trump team can credibly invoke the threat of force to coerce concessions out of Iran. Despite the chorus warning the new administration that it cannot possibly revise any aspect of the arms control agreement signed by Obama, Trump has a real chance of scaring the mullahs back to the negotiating table and getting a deal that dispenses with problematic aspects of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action such as its sunset clauses and lenient research and development provisions.

In sum, Iran has used the JCPOA as a shield to deflect any U.S. opposition to its “malign activity.” The new administration should be deal sticklers: We give no more than what is expressly in the deal, and we demand Iran comply with the letter of the deal. Beyond that we should demand Iran change its nonnuclear behavior or face new economic or even the threat of military force. The administration has a chance to recover leverage — and U.S. credibility — so long as it deploys a coherent strategy in concert with allies and with Congress.