President Trump came into office committed to withdrawing from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). It was a flawed deal, to be certain, but it was never clear -- and Trump did not care -- what would be accomplished by unilaterally exiting the deal. The notion that we could push Iran back to the table to renegotiate a deal that the Europeans still supported was fanciful, especially since Russia and China would continue doing business with Iran.
“In Trump’s vision, sanctions are a quasi-magical, multi-purpose tool: They would force Iran back to the table to accept an improved nuclear deal, include restrictions on Tehran’s ballistic missiles program, and give inspectors unlimited access,” write Philip Gordon and Robert Malley. "They would compel Iran to end its support for regional groups hostile to the United States. And they might even lead the Iranian people, facing a collapsing economy, to rise up and sweep aside the Islamic regime.”
That has always been fantasyland thinking. “Far from incentivizing better Iranian behavior, let alone producing a new Iranian regime, the administration’s approach is likely to make that behavior worse," Gordon and Malley continue. "By imposing comprehensive sanctions that will only be lifted if Iran does everything the United States wants, the administration is likely ensuring that Iran will do nothing it wants.”
The results of the administration’s withdrawal from the JCPOA have been predictable: The United States stands isolated from our allies, and Iran shows absolutely no indication that it will revisit the JCPOA.
Moreover, in the arena of nonnuclear issues -- missile testing, human rights, regional aggression -- that we could have addressed while remaining in the JCPOA, we have seen nothing approaching a coherent policy.
Michael Makovsky, chief executive of the Jewish Institute of National Security of America (JINSA), writes:
In May, [Secretary of State Mike] Pompeo made twelve demands of Iran that boil down to three noes — no nuclear program, no regional aggression, no domestic oppression — but stated no U.S. objectives. Pompeo offered in August that U.S. policy is “to change the Iranian regime’s behavior,” and in October, speaking to JINSA, for Iran to “behave like a normal nation.”
Equally vague has been how the U.S. would achieve this goal. In May, Trump planned to "block" Iran's "menacing activity across the Middle East," and Pompeo aimed "to deter Iranian aggression." At the United Nations, in September, Trump asked world leaders to "isolate Iran's regime."
All these words — “block,” “deter,” “isolate” — accept the status quo of Iranian influence, but resist its further expansion. Obama administration officials used similar language to signal a policy of containment.
Even that is perhaps too generous. The decision to pull out of the JCPOA has in fact made progress on the nonnuclear issues more difficult. Without the assistance of allies or clear direction from the president, we drift along. (“The Trump administration has repeatedly — most recently Saturday — condemned Iranian test-firing of ballistic missiles but has done nothing beyond ineffective sanctions to stop them. It has twice retaliated against Iran-backed Assad’s use of chemical weapons in Syria, for example, but with little impact on Assad’s position.”) We have no Syria policy to speak of, which leaves Iran (and Russia) in the driver’s seat.
We now have the worst of all worlds — hot rhetoric not backed up by action, which conveys fecklessness. “To prevent a nuclear Iran, an aggressive Iran, an oppressive Iran, we need a comprehensive approach to roll Iranian forces and its proxies back to their borders,” Makovsky writes. But frankly, we don’t even have a plan to contain Iran, let alone reverse its regional gains.
To make matters worse, in place of a coherent Iran policy, the president and Pompeo have placed all their eggs in the Saudi basket with the vain hope that the Saudis will act as our surrogate in deterring Iran. A rogue state, a pariah in the West (outside the United States), cannot fill that role. To the contrary, its disastrous role in Yemen has become another Middle East crisis, not a solution to the Iran problem. Ending the Yemen war now has become a greater priority than fueling this proxy war against Iran.
We need to return to basics. The first priority must be a campaign to reestablish U.S. credibility and staying power in the Middle East. Trump’s on-again-off-again rhetoric on Syria merely encourages Iran.
Michael Eisenstadt recommends that we begin by “pushing back on Iranian naval harassment in the Persian Gulf; interdicting Iranian arms shipments to its proxies and partners; supporting action by regional allies against Iranian weapons factories being built in Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen; committing to a long-term security-assistance relationship with Iraq that will ensure the security primacy of the [Iraq Security Forces]; supporting remaining non-Salafi rebel forces in Syria in order to deny pro-regime forces a clear-cut victory and deter new regime offensives; and using all the instruments of national power to impose political, economic, and military costs on Tehran.” The latter should include a robust information campaign to publicize Iran’s human rights violations, Tehran’s support for regional terrorism, and the costs of its support for Syria’s Bashar al-Assad.
In lieu of grand pronouncements about regime change, the Trump administration and Congress should pursue these incremental steps to check Iranian influence, continue to chip away at the regime’s legitimacy, bolster support for groups resisting Iran (e.g. Kurds), and expand sanctions on entities and individuals engaged in human rights violations. In short, "do no (more) harm” is the best we can hope for until a new president with the intellectual capacity, judgment and will to devise a coherent, united front against Iran is elected.
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