Exclusive

Iran Nuclear Deal Critics Push Plan for ‘Global Economic Embargo’

Memo outlines a “21st century financial version of Kennedy’s Cuba quarantine.”

An Iranian woman walks past a mural depicting a revolver bearing the colours of the US national flag and spread on the wall of the former US embassy in Tehran, on September 2, 2015, during the inauguration ceremony of a memorial plaque bearing one hundred anti-American comments made by the Islamic republic's late founder Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini outside the embassy. The leader of the Islamic revolution dubbed the United States the "Great Satan" on account of its policies and support for Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the last royal ruler before the Islamic republic was founded. AFP PHOTO / ATTA KENARE        (Photo credit should read ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images)
An Iranian woman walks past a mural depicting a revolver bearing the colours of the US national flag and spread on the wall of the former US embassy in Tehran, on September 2, 2015, during the inauguration ceremony of a memorial plaque bearing one hundred anti-American comments made by the Islamic republic's late founder Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini outside the embassy. The leader of the Islamic revolution dubbed the United States the "Great Satan" on account of its policies and support for Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the last royal ruler before the Islamic republic was founded. AFP PHOTO / ATTA KENARE (Photo credit should read ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images)

Opponents of the Iran nuclear deal are pushing a proposal that calls for President Donald Trump to declare that Tehran has failed to comply with the agreement and to threaten an unprecedented economic embargo designed to rattle the regime.

The document, which has been circulating on Capitol Hill and in the White House, says the president should declare to Congress next month that the deal is no longer in the national security interest of the United States. Then the president would make clear his readiness to hit Iran with a “de-facto global economic embargo” if it failed to meet certain conditions over a 90-day period, including opening military sites to international inspectors.

“This would be a 21st century financial version of [John F.] Kennedy’s Cuba quarantine,” according to a copy of the proposal obtained by Foreign Policy. The embargo would involve reimposing sanctions lifted under the deal, as well as additional measures including restrictions on oil exports.

The unsigned memo was written by Richard Goldberg, a former Republican congressional aide who has long advocated tough action against Iran. The document has been shared with officials in the Trump administration and Republican lawmakers in Congress, sources familiar with the memo told FP.

“This is a hand grenade thrown into the middle of the Iran debate,” said a source who has discussed the proposal with congressional offices.

The leaked memo is the latest bid by critics of the nuclear deal to shape the White House debate on the issue after a number of Iran hawks were forced out of the White House, including chief strategist Steve Bannon and Derek Harvey, who served on the National Security Council. Another prominent neoconservative and opponent of the Iran deal, former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton, opted to publish his own policy memo last month after acknowledging that he no longer had access to the Oval Office.

The memo from Goldberg, who was a senior aide to former Republican Sen. Mark Kirk of Illinois, is designed to “help key policymakers in the administration think outside the box and spur more creative conversations,” said a second source familiar with the discussions behind the document.

Senior officials in the Trump administration, including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary James Mattis, have so far advised the president to stick to the nuclear deal, even though he repeatedly denounced it as a presidential candidate and vowed to tear it up.

The 2015 Iran nuclear accord, negotiated between Tehran and world powers including the United States, imposed restrictions and inspections on the country’s nuclear program in return for the lifting of an array of crippling economic sanctions. Under a congressional law separate from the deal, the president must certify to lawmakers every 90 days whether Iran is abiding by the deal and whether lifting sanctions remains in the country’s national security interest.

Trump has previously certified that Iran was in compliance with the accord, but he did so reluctantly, complaining to aides about the options presented to him. He has signaled that he might decertify Iran at the next deadline in mid-October.

Tillerson told reporters on Thursday that the Trump administration has yet to make a decision.

“President Trump has made it clear.… We must take into account the totality of Iranian threats, not just Iran’s nuclear capabilities — that is one piece of our posture towards Iran,” he said, speaking alongside British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson from London. “In our view, Iran is clearly in default of these expectations” of the nuclear deal, he added.

Trump faced another deadline on Thursday on the nuclear accord. The president decided to continue to waive a series of economic sanctions that were lifted under the deal. The State Department said the move would allow the United States to “maintain some flexibility.” 

But speaking to reporters Thursday aboard Air Force One, Trump once again slammed the nuclear agreement and hinted at a possible change in course next month.

“You’ll see what I’m going to be doing very shortly in October,” said Trump, en route to Washington after visiting storm-hit areas in Florida.

“The Iran deal is not a fair deal to this country. It’s a deal that should not have ever been made.… We are not going to stand what they are doing with our country. They’ve violated so many different elements and they’ve also violated the spirit of that deal.”

One source who has advised the White House on the issue told FP that the president’s staffers are struggling to “thread the needle” and provide him with options that allow him to put more pressure on Iran and break with the policies of the Barack Obama administration while avoiding a precipitous withdrawal from the nuclear deal. White House and Defense Department officials are deeply concerned about the potential risks of Iranian retaliation against thousands of U.S. troops deployed in Iraq and Syria who are in close proximity to Tehran-backed militias.

With more hawkish voices no longer holding senior positions in the White House and the deadline fast approaching, opponents are vying for the president’s ear, promoting their stance in the public arena.

In a speech last month, Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., made the case why the administration would be justified in decertifying Iran under U.S. legislation. Haley suggested that Congress could then debate whether to reimpose sanctions on Iran. But the memo leaked Thursday calls for going a step further — by threatening a large-scale economic embargo if Iran did not open access to more nuclear sites or step back from its pursuit of ballistic missile technology.

“The President is looking for a path to ‘decertification’ that can build consensus among his national security advisers, especially those who fear the question: what next?” the memo states. “Establishing a credible threat of a total U.S. financial embargo in-waiting would enhance U.S. diplomatic leverage to curb Iranian illicit behavior and allow for a period of further evaluation at the end of the next 90-day period.”

The memo also argues that the threat of a massive economic embargo would need to persuade Iran that it would not have enough time to “break out” and build a nuclear weapon in 12 months before sanctions strangled its economy and threatened the regime’s stability.

“Iran must believe that if the U.S. pursues an immediate global sanctions embargo, the timeline of regime instability and economic collapse could be faster than nuclear ‘breakout,’” it notes.

The proposal is designed to address a “range of concerns about decertification, including the big ‘What happens next?’ question,” said the source who had discussed the memo with congressional offices. “It’s a sign that the debate is moving from whether to decertify to how to decertify.”

Meanwhile, supporters of the deal, including former senior officials and diplomats in the Obama administration, are engaged in their own political lobbying effort. They argue that international inspectors have found Iran to be complying with the nuclear agreement, and that any attempt by the Trump administration to withdraw or undermine the deal through unilateral action would have disastrous consequences and possibly lead to a military confrontation. 

Colin Kahl, who served as former Vice President Joe Biden’s national security advisor, told reporters in a teleconference on Wednesday that unilateral U.S. sanctions would be opposed by European allies and would not have the same impact as those introduced with international support before the 2015 deal.

China, India, and other countries could decide to buy oil despite U.S. warnings and sanctions, and Washington could find itself in a trade war with some of the world’s biggest economies, Kahl said.

“This is precisely a scenario that the hard-liners in Iran might love,” he said. “That is, using the fact that the U.S. is out of step with the rest of the international community to drive a wedge between us and Europe, between us and the Chinese and the Russians on this issue.”

FP‘s Robbie Gramer contributed to this article.

This article was updated with State Department comments on extending sanctions relief and President Trump’s remarks to reporters.

Photo credit: ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images

Jana Winter is an investigative reporter based in Washington, DC. She worked previously as a national security reporter at The Intercept and breaking news/investigative reporter for FoxNews.com.

Dan De Luce is Foreign Policy’s chief national security correspondent. @dandeluce

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola