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Opinion On Iran, Trump must do more than talk

The Associated Press reported:

The White House issued a cryptic warning Wednesday that the U.S. will act against Iran unless it stops testing ballistic missiles and supporting Houthi rebels in Yemen, but declined to say what retaliatory actions the U.S. would pursue.
Michael Flynn, President Donald Trump’s national security adviser, forcefully denounced Iran’s behavior in his first public remarks since Trump took office. He accused Iran of threatening U.S. allies and spreading instability throughout the Middle East while faulting the Obama administration for doing too little to stop the Islamic Republic.
“As of today, we are officially putting Iran on notice,” Flynn said from the White House podium.

That sounds a tad like “double-secret probation,” but it does mark a tonal difference from the Obama administration. An administration that follows one that refused to enforce the “red line” could not be more clear: No one believes the U.S. government when it talks tough.

Most critics of former president Barack Obama’s Iran policy were pleased to hear the harder line. “The fact is that Iran is testing the new administration to see how they will react to its activities,” Iran expert Ray Takeyh told me. “The fact that they have been referred to U.N. and issued a stern warning suggests that business as usual is over. The U.S. has many options to deal with Iranian provocations, ranging from new sanctions to beefing up its presence in the Gulf. This was the first positive news on the Iran front in a while, a long while.” Likewise, Mark Dubowitz, who has advocated for tougher sanctions, also saw a positive signal. “Can you imagine Susan Rice getting up at the White House briefing room and putting Iran on notice? I anticipate there will be more to come,” he said.

We certainly hope that Trump and newly confirmed Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson have plotted out an effective policy to back up the tough talk. Senate Republicans assumed that this meant new sanctions would be enacted, but Flynn gave no hint about what future action would be taken. New sanctions would require negotiation with allies. Russia, Iran’s strongest ally, would surely object, so will Trump then crumble? As we saw with the travel ban, the Trump administration has not demonstrated an ability to look two steps ahead or to consider the ramifications of its actions.

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The administration might follow the counsel of Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska), who writes, “President Trump would be within his rights and authority to undo the deal through executive action, particularly as Iran continued to show that it has no intention of abiding by the deal by launching yet another ballistic missile on Sunday. But there is a potentially better alternative than unilaterally disavowing the deal: Let it fail on its own by vigorously enforcing it.” He cites Iran’s violation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action’s limit on heavy water; allowing Iran’s Quds Force commander, Qasem Soleimani, to visit Russia and Syria in violation of restrictions on his travel; and Iran’s failure (so far) to obtain United Nations approval for an impending Russian $10 billion sale of conventional weapons to Iran. Sullivan urges that we begin by “stating that the United States will abide by the terms of the deal, while also making clear that those terms are already being systematically violated.” He recommends that we give Iran 60 days to come into compliance. He explains:

If they fail to do so, [Trump] should take the next step, pursuant to the agreement: reapply sanctions against Iran.
The conventional wisdom, as spun by the Obama administration officials who negotiated this ill-advised deal, is that only a re-imposition of sanctions by the entire “international community” would be effective against Iran. But, as so often was the case in 2016, the conventional wisdom is wrong. Even unilateral U.S. sanctions could be significantly destabilizing to the Iranian regime and its economy. . . . Our power over the international financial system remains, and with regard to energy, U.S. leverage has increased dramatically. The United States is once again the world’s energy superpower. As such, we could give countries and companies a choice: Invest in Iran’s oil and gas sector or invest in America’s. I believe that most companies would choose the United States.

Several caveats should be kept in mind. Before we do this, we will need to undertake considerable work with our allies to assure them that we are serious and that the risk of remaining under the deal outweighs its benefits. In addition, we have to be prepared to demonstrate to the world that Iran is in violation of the deal or suffer the accusation that we are the ones refusing to honor the deal. Moreover, if businesses in France, Germany, the United Kingdom, China and Russia do not comply, we must be prepared to sanction them — a dicey proposition.

Trump and Tillerson have other options. They can impose, in concert with Congress, new sanctions for Iran’s non-nuclear activities, including its regional aggression. Iran may object that this violates the terms of the deal; however, the burden would then be on Iran to back out of the deal.

Additionally, the United States can shoot down the next missile test or respond militarily when Iran decides to buzz our ships. Dennis Ross, Obama’s senior adviser on Iran, and Jeb Bush recommend:

The new administration must also establish unmistakable red lines for continued Iranian harassment of U.S. Navy ships in the Persian Gulf, arms shipments to Yemen and other nefarious activity. According to the U.S. military, Iran has stepped up its harassment of U.S. Navy ships in the Persian Gulf. Earlier this month, the USS Mahan was forced to fire warning shots after IRGC vessels came within 900 yards of the Navy destroyer and did not respond to requests to slow down. According to the Pentagon, a total of 35 interactions with Iranian naval forces were deemed “unsafe and unprofessional” in 2016 — in the first half of 2016, the number of clashes were roughly double the number that occurred during the same period in 2015. Providing new and more robust authority to the U.S. Navy to respond to Iranian provocations would be a significant first step.

In short, we have plenty of options, but the administration better have a strategy in mind that it is prepared to act upon. Allowing our rhetoric and our actions to diverge would simply repeat the errors of the Obama administration. The slipshod, shoot-from-the-hip implementation of a travel ban without full consultation with our allies and Congress suggests that this administration does not yet appreciate the need for detailed preparation. It better have learned from its error, or it will face a much more humiliating and dangerous foreign-policy flop.