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Opinion Trump’s Iran policy gets even less coherent. Now what?

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. (The Post)
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The Post reports:

The Trump administration on Monday moved to reimpose the first round of Iranian trade sanctions that had been suspended under the 2015 nuclear agreement, distancing itself from every other country that signed the agreement and putting the accord’s future in jeopardy.
U.S. officials said the sanctions that have been waived for the past two and a half years will be snapped back officially on Tuesday morning at one minute past midnight.
From that moment on, Iran will be prohibited from using U.S. dollars, the primary currency for international financial transactions and oil purchases. Trade in metals and sales of Iranian-made cars will be banned. Permits allowing the import of Iranian carpets and food, such as pistachios, will be revoked. So will licenses that have allowed Tehran to buy U.S. and European aircraft and parts — a restriction that comes just days after Iran completed the acquisition of five new commercial planes from Europe.

We are now in a battle — with our allies. (“The European Union and U.S. allies Britain, France and Germany announced what they called a ‘blocking statute’ to take effect Tuesday that would attempt to nullify U.S. legal action against European firms doing business with Iran.”) In other words, as we predicted when President Trump set out on his harebrained, unilateral scheme, the United States has isolated itself by reneging on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), while Iran can claim to be in good standing under international law.

The administration has never revealed a coherent strategy for getting from the Iran deal to something better. Former Middle East negotiator Aaron David Miller points out that once again, as was the case with the withdrawal from the Paris climate accord and the Trans-Pacific Partnership and with opening an embassy in Jerusalem, “the Administration has come up with solution to a problem it never had.” He asks: “What is the end game on withdrawal from the JCPOA and snapped-back sanctions: weaken Iran; change the regime or alter its behavior with the goal of renegotiating a new nuke deal, including ending its regional activities?” He concludes: “The first is possible; the second a fantasy and the third would cost more than either Trump or Tehran are willing to pay.” He observes that, like the fictional character Jay Gatsby, “Trump believes in some elusive green light on Iran he’ll never find.”

Moreover, all the problems we do have — namely, Iran’s regional aggression, its poor record on human rights, its support for terrorist groups — could have been addressed (since they were excluded from the JCPOA). But Trump never did address them. Why not actually create a policy that does this and get our allies to go along? Oh, that’s right — we acted unilaterally and now are threatening their businesses.

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International sanctions worked to bring Iran to the table because the United States and its European allies, China and Russia were all on board with sanctions. “The Europeans will stand firm politically because they fear the consequences of Iran pulling out of the JCPOA,” Dennis Ross, former Middle East negotiator says. “Recall that the E.U. went along with the sanctions in 2012, including the boycott on buying Iranian oil, because its members feared that the alternative was Israel (and maybe the U.S.) going to war to stop the Iran nuclear program.” That has changed now, Ross points out. “Now they fear that if Iran pulls out of the deal, it will mean the resumption of its program and the likelihood of war. So the governments will hold firm. But the governments don’t determine what private companies will do.” He predicts that even with the blocking statute, European companies “are reluctant to lose the ability to operate in the American market or banking system. The real issue with Europe will become starker in November when they can be subject to secondary sanctions for buying Iranian oil.” Even if European countries stop buying oil, China won’t and, Ross predicts, neither will India. “Because governments won’t be joining us, won’t be vigilant in terms of sanctions implementation, Iran will have room to evade sanctions.” Whatever pressure is applied will be less than that which prompted the JCPOA talks.

And that has been the flaw in the cockeyed Trump policy all along. Even if Europe goes along, it’s an illogical leap to say that Iran will then start negotiating a new deal. “I don’t see Iran leaving the JCPOA any time soon because they want the Chinese, Russians, and Europeans to withstand as much of the U.S. push on sanctions as possible,” Ross notes. Nor is there any indication that Iran is easing up on its regional aggression (having won in Syria). To the contrary, Ross anticipates that “the Iranians do more in the region to raise the costs to our friends and to us.” He mentions, “The Houthi firing of anti-ship missiles provided by the Iranians against Saudi oil tankers in the Bab el Mandeb is a case in point; much safer and deniable than trying to do something [with] the Strait of Hormuz and yet something that could also drive oil prices up.”

Once more, we see Trump doing much to hurt international cooperation and order — and very little to improve American security or prosperity. His aides keep predicting that victory is around the corner; they’d do best to present a workable strategy first.