Dennis Ross, a distinguished fellow at the Washington Institute, served in senior national security positions in the Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Clinton and Obama administrations.
I was not a fan of the Iran nuclear deal. While it imposed restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program, it also legitimized a large Iranian nuclear infrastructure by imposing no real limits on its size or character after 2030. Rather than ending Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons, it deferred it. True, the Iranians committed to not acquire or develop nuclear weapons, but they also claimed they had never attempted to do so — despite clear evidence to the contrary.
So the danger in 12 years when some of the deal’s provisions end is real, but that does not mean President Trump should walk away from the deal in May. If he withdraws, he withdraws alone. The Europeans will not join him, especially after having been willing to negotiate with the administration and accept a number of concessions: sanctions on Iran’s ballistic missile testing, a joint statement on limiting what Iran should be able to do after 2030 and a readiness to raise the costs to the Iranians of their destabilizing actions in the region. Even if the British, French and Germans are not prepared to go as far as the administration might like, they have acknowledged the Trump administration’s concerns about the deal and been willing to address them at least in part.
Walking away will end that. It will isolate the United States, not the Iranians. Pressure on the Iranians has always been most effective when the United States was joined by others. In fact, it was only when the European Union decided to impose a boycott on Iranian oil that Iran truly felt squeezed, beginning to negotiate after declaring it would never do so as long as it was under sanctions.
Unfortunately, the Europeans won’t simply stick with the deal; they will go to great lengths to keep the Iranians in — and the Iranians know how to play on European fears. Already Tehran is declaring that it could move swiftly to install new and far more effective centrifuges, and not limit their output. That will surely stoke European fears about an increasing risk of war and lead them to offer incentives to the Iranians to stay in the deal.
For those who say the administration can pressure Europe by threatening to impose sanctions on European companies that do business with the Iranians, don’t bet on it. The Europeans have always resisted such secondary sanctions, and given Trump’s unpopularity with European publics, few leaders there will want to appear to give in to American threats.
Of course, some European banks and companies will be chary of potential U.S. sanctions, with a chilling effect on their willingness to invest in Iran. But that fear exists even without our withdrawing from the agreement. Our sanctions on Iran for its support for terrorism and human rights violations remain — a reality that helps to explain why Iran continues to complain that it has not reaped the economic benefits it expected from the deal.
But my concerns about an American walkaway go deeper. It would create the illusion of toughness on Iran without the effect. The danger that Iran poses is its expansion in the region. It is using Shiite militia proxies to gain a stranglehold over governments. It is embedding itself militarily in Syria, even trying to change the demographic balance by importing Shiite militias (and Shiite civilians ) to populate Sunni areas — something designed to prevent refugees from returning to their homes but also something likely to ensure an ongoing insurgency in Syria. Worse, Iran seems increasingly less risk-averse in Syria. It acted out of character when it chose to challenge Israel directly, and not through one of its proxies, when it flew a drone into Israeli airspace.
Israel has made clear that it cannot live with an expanding Iranian military presence in Syria, which the Israelis believe includes plans to fabricate advanced guidance systems in Syria and Lebanon for the more than 120,000 rockets Hezbollah possesses. Israel’s size and relatively small number of critical military and civilian infrastructure targets mean that it does not have the luxury of waiting if Iran makes this move. It is easy to see how a war between the Israelis and Iran/Hezbollah starts but not how it ends.
Containing the spread of the Iranians, their proxies and the development of their military capability in Syria should be the Trump administration’s focal point. But it is not, with Trump making clear that he wants to “let the other people take care of it now.”
Our priority should be to blunt the real Iranian threat there, and that requires mobilizing support for that purpose, not saying it is up to others.
Trump may believe that walking away from the deal makes him look tough on Tehran. It doesn’t. It ignores the real threat and gives the Iranians a win. They will know we are alone and that there will be no meaningful pressure to stop what they are doing in the region. The great irony is that one way to deal with the vulnerabilities created by the agreement and bolster our deterrence is to demonstrate to the Iranians that we will react whenever their behaviors cross the line, starting in the region. The Iran deal bought time on the nuclear issue, and now is surely not the moment to throw it away.
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