Former U.S. diplomat Eric S. Edelman and retired Air Force Gen. Charles Wald both opposed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action for Iran’s nuclear program but they, nevertheless, cautioned against unilaterally pulling out of the agreement. They have now co-authored a report for the post-pullout world. They deliver some tough advice to makers of flabby policy — warning them against unrealistic expectations and half-measures.
They begin with a premise many in the Trump administration may not want to hear: Sanctions are not enough to deter Iran. They argue “it would be a mistake to expect even robust sanctions, on their own, to deter or deny Iran’s nuclear weapons progress, arrest its aspirations for Middle East dominance, and convince the regime its very survival could be at stake if its aggression persists. Instead, such economic measures should be supplemented by other forms of pressure that will maximize the coercive impact of U.S. policy against Tehran, including credible options for use of force.”
If sanctions alone won’t work, what will? The report’s recommendations begin with stepping up support for regional allies. “This includes providing them both the tools to defend themselves, and explicit U.S. backing for their efforts to diminish Iran’s destabilizing regional footprint,” the report reads. “By strengthening and supporting Israel and other Middle Eastern allies, American policymakers can improve their chances of reducing Iranian aggression and avoiding major regional conflict.”
It also means dropping the administration’s on-again-off-again commitment to Syria, which merely encourages Bashar al-Assad’s Iranian (and Russian) patrons. Edelman and Wald recommend:
To address threats from both Iran and ISIS — whose persistence only increases Iran’s leverage and influence in these countries — the United States must make clear it will maintain a limited force presence in Syria and Iraq, primarily special operations forces. It also should bolster military support for its Syrian and Iraqi partners, first and foremost the multi-ethnic, Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), and update rules of engagement to appropriately defend its forces, the SDF and other partners on the ground. In tandem with a more concerted policy of blocking land routes via Iraq and Syria, these measures will constrain Iran’s entrenchment in the heart of the region.
That advice is at odds with President Trump’s bent to retrench and retreat from the region but, as the authors argue, the region — if left to its own devices — is not going to deter Iran or prevent a wider Middle East war.
In addition, the administration’s decision to go it alone in rejecting the nuclear agreement has created an unacceptable rift with allies whose support we dearly need. Edelman and Wald say a “consistent, coherent public diplomacy can address potential diplomatic fallout from leaving the nuclear deal and counter Tehran’s self-depiction as the aggrieved party.” That would include joint efforts to check Iran’s non-nuclear activities (which, frankly, could have been done with the JCPOA intact), including focus on Iran’s missile programs, working to prevent the Islamic State’s reemergence in the region, intelligence cooperation, maritime security and “targeting Tehran’s continuing support for terrorism, including in Europe.”
The problem here is that America’s allies understandably don’t trust Trump and are nervous about sharing intelligence, given his proclivity to declassify material, as well as his past sharing of highly sensitive intelligence with Russian officials in the Oval Office.
The authors also recommend we step up political warfare. They write, “Such a campaign would target and exploit Tehran’s growing domestic vulnerabilities through information operations, cyber, sanctions and support for dissidents, among other measures. Secretary [of State Mike] Pompeo’s speech at the Reagan Library on July 22 detailing the corruption and misdeeds of senior Iranian leaders is an excellent first step in this regard.”
The problem here, once again, is Trump. Any other president could effectively exploit the Iranian regime’s corruption and efforts to squelch opposition press. This president, however, is a poor role model. Trump finger-wagging against Iranian regime’s crackdown on the press or its misuse of public funds would be, quite simply, laughable.
Finally, Edelman and Wald contend that “a comprehensive strategy of pressure must include credible U.S. military options against the Iranian regime’s most critical assets, including its nuclear and ballistic missile programs. Preparing for such contingencies, and communicating U.S. military readiness, will strengthen American policymakers’ hands as they pursue a coercive approach against Iran more broadly.”
It is also worth noting that, nearly two years after taking office, the Trump administration has not affected Iranian behavior in any measurable way. To the contrary, Iran is entrenched in Syria, continues its domestic repression, maintains its regional aggression (e.g., in Yemen) and builds up its military capability thanks to its relationship with Trump’s pal, Russian President Vladimir Putin, who pays absolutely no penalty for Russia’s support for Tehran.
The authors’ suggestions are logical, measured and attainable — with any other president. Unfortunately, the one we have regularly trashes allies, and vacillates between an immediate pullout from the region and threats of destruction. He has frittered away the United States’ credibility on human rights. That said, work can be done on these policy suggestions, which in turn may be useful should we one day get a competent, stable commander in chief.