Since former national security adviser Michael T. Flynn warned Iran that it was “on notice” for an illegal missile test and the administration issued exceptionally narrow sanctions, we have heard little — if anything — from the administration about the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), Iranian aggression in the region, Iran’s human rights atrocities or much of anything else concerning the world’s largest state sponsor of terrorism. (The White House spokesman did issue one of the sort of empty platitudes — that it is “unwavering” in its determination to bring home American Robert Levinson, believed to be held in Iran for 10 years — that conservatives ridiculed during the Obama administration.)
Obviously unconcerned about being on “notice,” Iran this week yet again conducted a ballistic missile test. The Times of Israel reports: “Iran’s semi-official Fars news agency reported Thursday that the country’s Revolutionary Guard successfully tested another ballistic missile, while boasting that Iran’s efforts to build a ‘better’ home-made version of the Russian S-300 missile defense system were well on their way.” This follows Russia’s latest delivery of anti-missile equipment to Iran. (“Last week, Iran announced that the advanced S-300 air defense system, delivered by Russia following the July 2015 nuclear deal after years of delay, was now operational.”)
If the administration has an Iran policy different from that under President Barack Obama, it’s not evident what it might be. Michael Singh of the Washington Institute has some ideas. He recommends that we first define three policy objectives:
- Prevent Iran from acquiring or developing nuclear weapons—or significantly advancing its ability to do so—and from proliferating nuclear weapons technology.
- Counter Iran’s efforts to challenge U.S. interests and undermine U.S. allies in the region, whether through proxy militias, support for terrorist groups, or challenges to navigation of regional waterways.
- Prevent Iran from mounting or supporting terrorist attacks or cyberattacks globally.
Ripping up the JCPOA is not an end unto itself, nor does he think it’s a wise move at this point. “Rather than abandoning the JCPOA or unconditionally committing to it, the United States should secure the commitment of allies to better enforce the deal and address its flaws,” he recommends. As a critic of the JCPOA, he has reached the conclusion that we do more harm walking away from it now than in enforcing it:
The JCPOA is a flawed agreement—it permits Iran too much nuclear activity, does not address Iran’s past weaponization activities or missile development, and has insufficient provisions for guarding against clandestine Iranian nuclear work. Moreover, its provisions begin to expire within a decade. Nevertheless, it is part of the reality that confronts the new administration, and Iran and U.S. allies alike would resist its renegotiation. In walking away from the deal, Washington would face the difficult task of devising a new strategy to contain Iran’s nuclear program and rallying allied support for such a strategy in the face of intense international skepticism.
That means we do no more than is strictly required under the deal. Unlike the Obama administration, we should not offer ways to help Iran get the “benefit” of the deal, but rather insist that we reject “any demand to exceed those obligations unless Iran is willing to add to its own obligations.”
Because the JCPOA has gaping holes, including the failure to address missile testing, Singh recommends “(1) stricter enforcement of existing sanctions targeting Iran’s missile activities and the adoption of new ones as needed; (2) a commitment to intercept or otherwise respond to any Iranian missile test that endangers the territory or forces of the United States and its allies; (3) stepped-up efforts to interdict missile-related shipments to and from Iran, as well as to gather and share the intelligence required to engage in such interdictions; and (4) strengthened and better-integrated missile defense in the Middle East and Europe to negate any advantages Iran seeks to gain by improving its missile capabilities.”
Next, on the regional front, Singh recommends that we engage on “Syria, Iraq, and Yemen, and on countering Iran-backed proxy networks in the Middle East and beyond.” The administration should be, for example, undertaking efforts in Yemen “to interdict arms, funding, and other forms of support for the Houthis; Washington should likewise increase regional intelligence sharing toward that end.” In Syria, it requires a number of steps, including:
Sanctions on the Assad regime and any Iranian or Iran-backed individuals and entities supporting it should be strictly enforced and, if necessary, enhanced; further, Iran should be sanctioned for the provision of arms and other military support to Syria—and to militias elsewhere in the region—in violation of UNSC Resolution 2231 and other measures.
Extend the international coalition’s mission in Iraq by at least two years, in order to demonstrate our ongoing (albeit limited) commitment to Baghdad.
Extend funding to continue building and training the Iraqi Counter Terrorism Service and Iraqi security forces.
Push Baghdad to resist undue Iranian influence (e.g., the institutionalization of Iran-backed militias) and to abide by UN resolutions on Iran (e.g., against arms transfers from the Islamic Republic) and assist it in doing so.
Finally, he urges specific steps to strengthen regional alliances. “This assistance should be not only bilateral but also aimed at forging a more coherent and functional multilateral alliance by resuscitating the George W. Bush-era Gulf Security Dialogue with the members of the Gulf Cooperation Council, and adding to it Jordan, Egypt, and Morocco,” he says. “The United States should also reinvigorate its strategic coordination with Israel, and seek to foster deeper Arab-Israeli cooperation on Iran, terrorism, and other issues. Engagement with Iran should continue as needed, but should be done together with regional partners where possible and supplemented by increased outreach.” The Trump administration should, among other things, step up intelligence-sharing, invest in regional missile defense and “bilateral dialogue with each U.S. ally in the region to determine its key vulnerabilities, shortfalls in effectiveness, and equipment needs, drawing upon lessons from recent conflicts such as Yemen.”
Does the administration agree with these sorts of steps? Is it conferring with allies about the numerous options available to us? If it is, we see little — if any — sign of it. As Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson becomes less relevant and the State Department faces steep budget cuts and operates without filling key political slots, the administration will find putting into place any sort of coherent policy exceptionally difficult. While the administration is adrift, our allies and Congress (which is eager to move on sanctions) are looking for an alternative to the policy of neglect, appeasement and accommodation that has frightened allies and emboldened Tehran. If Trump cannot get his act together, he might well miss the best opportunity we will have going forward to contain and defang Iran short of war.