- By Ilan GoldenbergIlan Goldenberg is a senior fellow and director of the Middle East Security program at the Center for a New American Security. Previously, he served as chief of staff to the special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, supporting Secretary of State John Kerry’s initiative to conduct peace negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. From 2012 to 2013, he served as a senior professional staff member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. From 2009 to 2012, he was first a special advisor on the Middle East and then Iran team chief in the office of the undersecretary of defense for policy.
President Donald Trump’s decision on Monday to certify that Iran is still abiding by the terms of the nuclear deal, or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action — a decision that prevents the reimposition of U.S. proliferation-related sanctions on Iran — would seem to be good news for supporters of the nuclear agreement. However, stories that Trump spent an hour arguing with his entire national security team about whether to certify and only reluctantly agreed to continue the nuclear agreement should be of grave concern. Indeed, Trump’s behavior and the administration’s insistence on coupling every certification with over the top, belligerent rhetoric may be setting the United States up to walk away from the nuclear agreement on the worst terms possible.
The first problem is that in the event Trump decides to leave the agreement, the blame game will be critical. If the United States is blamed for the collapse by its P5+1 partners (Britain, China, France, Germany, and Russia) and other key international actors, sanctions will be nearly impossible to reimplement. Many of America’s partners will continue to engage with Iran economically and call our bluff, daring the United States to sanction them. The end result will be an Iran that is no longer constrained by the nuclear obligations of the deal but is not under severe economic pressure.
At every turn, the administration has made absolutely clear that it does not like the nuclear agreement, believes it was a bad deal, and is signaling a desire to abandon it. This approach, combined with the overall negative perception of Trump across the globe, means that in almost any scenario he will be blamed for the collapse of the agreement. It is hard to imagine a scenario in which the Trump administration would be able to reimplement sanctions. Even if Iran were caught cheating red-handed, the intelligence would likely be disputed. And with the administration facing such a trust deficit globally, specifically on this issue, it is hard to see how the United States could come out of the situation in a strong position.
But even as the United States signals to the world that it may walk away from the deal, the message to Iran is that the United States will talk tough but not really take meaningful steps to counter the Islamic Republic in the region. That is because the tough talk has run into the reality that the Middle East is incredibly complicated and that there is little support in the United States for new, major military adventures. In Islamic State-controlled eastern Syria, the administration has hotly debated whether to compete militarily not just with the Islamic State, but also with Iran. And it appears that the more cautious Pentagon approach may be prevailing over the more aggressive strategy being pushed by the National Security Council.
Meanwhile, Jordan, Russia, and the United States earlier this month agreed to a ceasefire in southwest Syria. Trump has touted this breakthrough as a major success. But in recent days, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has come out against the agreement, arguing that it is too friendly to Iran and could allow Iran and its allies in Syria to establish a base on Israel’s border. The text of the agreement has not been shared publicly, so it is hard to know where the precise problem lies. But it seems most likely that this is a case in which the United States is willing to accept more risk to cut an agreement that it believes is in its interests and Israel’s, while the Israelis take a more absolutist position about their security. Indeed, this dynamic is quite similar to the years-long disagreements over the nuclear deal — though Israel’s supporters in Washington do not seem to be going after Trump for this approach with nearly the same vigor that they did when President Barack Obama and Netanyahu had similar disputes.
These policy decisions in Syria may be the right ones. But if they are, why does the administration persist in its over-the-top rhetoric and threats toward Iran? All the administration is doing is demonstrating to Iran and to U.S. regional partners that the United States is all talk no action, which will weaken its hand on Iran policy overall, and especially in a scenario in which the nuclear deal collapses and Iran considers restarting its program.
It is hard to explain why the administration is pursuing these incoherent and contradictory steps. What appears to be driving it is a similar dynamic to what we see with healthcare. The American public has moved on from both the healthcare debate and the Iran debate. It is ready to focus on new issues. But Trump has no clear agenda or policies of his own, and in their absence he is simply trying to tear down Obama’s key domestic and foreign policy achievements, with little understanding or care for what might replace them. On Tuesday, he failed quite spectacularly on both fronts. But he is going to keep trying — and unfortunately, on Iran, as opposed to healthcare, he does not need Congress’s help to bring down the policy.
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