Forget China and underwater drones, forget Russian hacks and leaks, because it’s all a sideshow: America’s big-ticket foreign-policy issue is still the Iran deal. Donald Trump has promised to rip it up on day one of his presidency, but that’s not going to happen because it means the freshly minted commander-in-chief may have America poised for conflict with the leading state sponsor of terror before the band even starts to warm up for the inaugural ball next month at the newly opened Trump International Hotel.
Prospective policymakers and analysts are busy proposing options for the new president. Recently, a debate has started to unfold with one side pushing to enforce the provisions of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action and impose sanctions. Others argue the best way forward is to renegotiate a bad deal. Richard Nephew, the lead sanctions expert for the Obama administration team that negotiated the deal with Iran, argues that renegotiating the JCPOA is nearly impossible because you can’t create the same conditions that got the Iranians to the table in the first place. Others see “enforcement” as a way to re-create the leverage that America lost when it signed the deal.
Emily Landau, an Israeli nuclear-arms expert and a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, said the Trump administration should understand that from Iran’s point of view, the struggle between them continues. “Now is not the time, nor is there any reason, to engage Iran in dialogue over the deal. The U.S. is bending over backward to play down Iran’s aggressive behavior and violations,” she told me from Tel Aviv. “The major thing that needs to be done now is to change the American approach. When Iran tests missiles, like it did last fall, Washington shouldn’t wait three months to react and then only impose minimal sanctions.”
The two-track strategy—combining “enforcement” with a new round of negotiations with Iran—has a number of high-profile supporters among those who opposed the Iran deal, like former Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, who, along with former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Mark Wallace, recently argued that Trump should “first try to aggressively enforce and then renegotiate the deal beyond the confines of the nuclear issue.” That means, write Lieberman and Wallace, a Trump renegotiating team should secure “an agreement with Iran to verifiably curb its regional aggression, state sponsorship of terrorism and domestic repression of human rights. In exchange, Iran could be given broad-based sanctions relief and even normalization of relations.”
Lieberman and Wallace purport to be optimistic that renegotiations might lead to, among other things, Iran ending its support for Hezbollah. Yet, at the same time, the authors understand very well that such Iranian concessions are a fantasy. If a decade of harsh sanctions proved anything, it is that there are no circumstances under which Iran would be willing to trade away its support for the Lebanese militia. This is even truer now that Iran is flush with post-sanctions cash, the U.S. has withdrawn nearly all its forces from Iraq, and Hezbollah is engaged in a full-scale war in Syria on behalf of the Assad regime.
Lieberman and Wallace aren’t stupid; they surely believe that renegotiation, too, would show the clerical regime, not the United States, to be intransigent. The problem with what its authors may think of as a clever PR strategy that incorporates Trump’s own fondness for deal-making is that the two strategies (enforcement/sanctions and renegotiation) cannot work on parallel tracks. Renegotiation preempts sanctions, while sanctions discourage negotiations. To keep Iran from walking away from the table, America needs to keep Iran happy.
The problem with the Iran deal was never that President Barack Obama was stupid or that his team were such terrible negotiators—even if someone else might have done better. Obama believed there was no way to get the Iranians to negotiate unless he de-escalated. He gave them $700 million a month just to sit through negotiations, and has continued to pay the Iranians to stick with the deal—like the $1.7 billion ransom paid in cash to release Americans that the Iranians were holding hostage. Obama keeps blocking nonnuclear sanctions for the same reason.
Obama was willing to pay Iran to sit at the table because the Iran deal was simply the hinge for a larger geopolitical maneuver: The JCPOA was the instrument by which the Obama administration effected a regional realignment intended to extricate America from the Middle East in part by turning the keys to the car over to Tehran. Obama’s White House re-prioritized its regional interests—traditional American allies, especially Israel and Saudi Arabia, were downgraded and Tehran was upgraded.
While the “realignment thesis” has few doubters on the ground in the Middle East, where its deadly effects are visible from Aleppo to Mosul to Yemen, Americans have been slow to catch up to the reality of what Obama intended and did, in large part because of the deceptive way in which the Iran Deal was sold to the American public. As a result, many deal opponents are still chasing the mechanical rabbits that the Obama administration created for them to chase—as if the point of the Iran deal was simply to limit Iran’s ability to spin X amount of uranium instead of Y amount at facility Z.
The idea that the Iran deal can be “renegotiated” begins with the president-elect’s own campaign rhetoric, of course. In a USA Today op-ed last year, candidate Trump called for sanctions and promised to renegotiate the deal. “A Trump presidency,” he wrote, “will force the Iranians back to the bargaining table to make a much better deal.”
While the temptation to use the president-elect’s own language to lead him down a more confrontational path with Iran must be tempting to those with significant experience and expertise, it carries with it the danger of missing the forest for the trees—and of creating a new lobby for renewed and practically endless negotiations with Iran, this time on the Republican side of the aisle. Still, there are many in the expert community who favor this strategy. “I think the right strategy is parallel paths,” said Mark Dubowitz, executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a leading expert on the JCPOA who helped lead the fight against what he believes was a weak agreement. “The first track,” said Dubowitz, “is to enforce the provisions of the existing deal and show zero tolerance for violations.”
Dubowitz agrees with Landau that the Obama administration habitually excused Iranian violations. “The Iranians don’t cheat egregiously,” he told me over the phone. “But the sum total of their incremental cheating is egregious. If we tolerate it, Iran will keep pushing the envelope, and in anywhere from 6 months to a year we’ll see how far they’ve pushed.”
Enforcing the deal, according to Dubowitz, also includes hitting Iran with non-nuclear-related sanctions, which the Obama administration has been blocking to keep the Iranians from walking away from the deal. These sanctions might include issues like human rights, ballistic missiles, support for Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
“The centerpiece of the sanctions campaign should be the IRGC,” Dubowitz said of the Iranian institution that not only manages the nuclear file but is at the center of Iranian industry. “Right now there are 25 IRGC-related companies, and that list should be increased by the hundreds, if not thousands. FDD has a list 575 IRGC companies that should be designated.”
It’s not hard to discern that the intent behind the enforce-and-sanction strategy that Dubowitz described—to make it so difficult for Iran to continue to pursue a nuclear weapon that it either has to give up its program or, much more likely, walk away from the deal. The purpose of renegotiation, then, is to underline the fact that it’s the Iranians who are the bad guys, not the new president. Politically speaking, the question is how to do that without making house and senate Democrats feel like they’ve sold out Obama’s signature foreign-policy initiative, or Europeans fearful that they’re being led to the brink of World War III.
But why, I asked, would deal opponents want to risk repeating the Obama administration’s errors? Because the Trump White House would handle negotiations differently, says Dubowitz. “The Obama administration decreased pressure during negotiations, but now we increase it. Obama gave them $700 million a month to stay in negotiations, so the Iranians dragged out talks as their economy recovered. The longer they negotiated, the more their economy recovered and they avoided a crisis. So, we do the opposite and escalate pressure so they know that the longer they drag it out, the more severe the pain is. The incentive is for them to do a deal as quickly as possible.” Covert pressure mechanisms could also be applied. The possibilities are endless when applied by the tough-minded Trump cabinet officials like Rep. Mike Pompeo, Gen. James Mattis, and Gen. Michael Flynn, who will be in charge of national-security policy under President Trump.
Yes, but. What this analysis misses is that the key mechanism for regional realignment was the actual process of sitting down and talking with Iran. More talk with Iran, even with the idea of keeping the pressure high on the Islamic Republic, simply buttresses the regional architecture that Obama has already built—the point of which was to get America out of the Middle East by empowering Tehran. In practice, renegotiating the JCPOA means re-creating and empowering the same constituency inside the Beltway that supported talks originally. At the same time, every player on the board, from the Europeans to the State Department and congressional Democrats, will have reasons to fight against imposing sanctions. Every failure in negotiations will be an embarrassment to the new president—who will be depending on the last president’s allies at home and abroad to make him look good.
The “facts on the ground” that the Obama administration created around the Iran Deal are real, and there is no making them go away—other than by actually changing them. Iran has zero interest in changing course. There is no taking back the concessions that America has already made through more talk without Iran simply walking away from the table—especially now that Iran’s position in the region has been supercharged by the end of sanctions and by more than a year of overt American political and military backing.
“Renegotiation” simply locks Iran deal opponents into the very position that the Republican president ran against. It legitimizes John Kerry’s acknowledgement of Iran’s right to enrich uranium, i.e., its right to have a nuclear program. Even worse, it consolidates Iran’s hold on a broad swath of the Middle East to which it has brought large-scale death and destruction.
You can have enforcement/sanctions or renegotiation, but not both. To undo the effects of the Iran deal, the Obama administration’s deceptive marketing campaign has to be turned on its head. If the point of the Deal was Obama’s larger re-alignment strategy, the way to halt that strategy is to actually enforce the limited terms of the deal itself—and to push back hard against Iranian encroachments in other areas, instead of passively or actively supporting them as the current administration has. If the Obama White House warned that the only option to the deal was war, the Trump administration has to convince European allies as well as domestic opponents that the only way to avoid American, or Israeli, military action is to enforce the deal that everyone has already agreed to.
Barack Obama played his cards perfectly, given that his goal was to re-align the United States with Iran as a means to getting the United States out of the Middle East: The nuclear deal was simply a means to that larger end. But the opening Obama left for a foe who hoped to undo the strategic deception he authored is that the nuclear deal with Iran is a phony agreement—meaning that it was never meant to stand on its own. The strategic (and actual) payoffs for sticking to the agreement exist outside the scope of the agreement itself.
Enforcing the actual agreement while refusing to cooperate with Iran on its other strategic goals—like destroying Syria, arming Hezbollah, buying billions of dollars’ worth of advanced jet planes for ferrying weapons and troops, and building ballistic missiles—will therefore most likely cause the agreement to collapse sooner rather than later. A deal collapse will, in turn, lead to much greater pressure on Iran, including the pressure of a possibly imminent military action, or military action itself. The stark, nearly binary nature of these alternatives is also a direct consequence of the deal that Obama structured—except, of course, that Obama never contemplated taking military action against Iran: His policy at all points was exactly the opposite. In fact, he believed that creating a choice between realignment and war would help him pass the deal and thereby lock in realignment.
Obama’s grand strategy may have been too clever by half. Should Iran decide to walk away from the deal after IRGC companies are designated, for instance, or because of their efforts on behalf of a genocide in Syria, or because they are developing banned missiles that can hit Europe, Tel Aviv, and the United States, what happens next is on Iran’s head—not ours.
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Lee Smith is the author of The Permanent Coup: How Enemies Foreign and Domestic Targeted the American President (2020).