The Trump administration and Congress, as well as some outspoken critics of the Iran deal, have fixated on pulling out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, as the deal is called, or at least threatening to pull out. Perhaps there is something better than an empty threat or a move that would drive a wedge between the U.S. and our allies.
In July the Jewish Institute for National Security of America’s Iran task force, which was highly critical of the JCPOA, put out a well-reasoned alternative. The JINSA task force argued that the JCPOA is a bad deal:
Under the agreement Iran accrues great financial, military and geopolitical benefits while having to make only the smallest of concessions on its nuclear program — mothballing some installations and limiting some of its activities, but only for a decade and a half at most. Allowing the JCPOA to run its course means acquiescing to the emergence of a nuclear and hegemonic Iran. …
[The JCPOA] does not impose a vigorous and robust verification and monitoring regime on Iran, making it hard to detect potential cheating. It blesses Tehran’s self-proclaimed “right” to enrich, allowing Iran to portray itself as a responsible member of the global nonproliferation regime. It has already legalized Iran’s ballistic missile program, and eventually permits Iran to resume its conventional weapons and missile proliferation efforts.
They noted that since the deal was struck, Iran has exploited international inertia in pursuing its ballistic missile program and in increasing aggression in the region, including support for Syria and Hezbollah.
All of that takes place with the JCPOA in place, and that is the new reality that policymakers must address. The JINSA task force recommended a holistic approach to Iran than does not entail the United States pulling out of the deal:
Despite its many flaws, the JCPOA must be enforced with all the diplomatic, economic, military and informational tools at our disposal. This will not block Iran’s eventual pathways to a bomb, but it will send a clear signal that Iran’s days of flouting its obligations are over. At the same time, the United States must rebuild and develop new credible unilateral and multilateral military options against Iran’s nuclear program and regional aggression, and must apply pressure on the regime at home.
Those alternative means of pressure would include developing (and advertising) a credible military threat in case Iran does choose to break out of the deal. (“American officials should now prepare, and make clear they are preparing, contingency plans to defend the United States and its allies from further Iranian tests of nuclear-capable missiles — including unequivocal threats to shoot down these tests if necessary. “)
Alternative means would also include treating the recent Memorandum of Understanding on defense assistance to Israel “as the floor for cooperation, rather than the ceiling envisioned by the Obama Administration”; strengthening “collective defense with Gulf Arab allies who also bear the brunt of Iran’s rising regional aggression”; and “development of a robust, multi-layered theater missile defense architecture.”
Beyond a credible military threat, the administration can squeeze the Iranian regime through diplomatic and economic means:
Strategic communications can help combat the benefits of sanctions relief to the regime, by amplifying international investors’ wariness of the Iranian market, complexities of sanctions compliance and threats from Iranian security services. … To further impact the regime and security services directly, Congress and the administration should further leverage existing “non-nuclear” U.S. sanctions’ authorities, and enact new ones, targeting its long and growing list of human rights violations, support for terrorism and ballistic missile activities.
Iran may claim non-nuclear sanction violate the JCPOA, but since these issues were excluded from the negotiations the U.S. would be on a strong footing to argue our means to address those issues cannot be restricted by the JCPOA.
Hard-line hawks eager to undo every Obama administration action will be disappointed at not pulling the plug. Some (not all) backers of the deal will resist the notion that it is insufficient and fear that military preparation makes war more likely. (The reverse is true, for only with hard power as a backup can coercive diplomacy succeed.) But for those who recognize that this president is entirely ill-equipped to handle Iran without the JCPOA and without the backing of our allies, this approach offers a realistic, bipartisan path forward. It would be a shame if the Trump administration threw away a legitimate opportunity to do Obama one better with an improved JCPOA.