Elephants in the Room

Will the End of the Iran Deal Mark the Beginning of an Iran Strategy?

The time is ripe for a U.S. approach based on pushing Iranian domestic politics into crisis.

U.S. President Donald Trump in the White House after announcing his decision to leave the Iran nuclear deal on May 8. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)
U.S. President Donald Trump in the White House after announcing his decision to leave the Iran nuclear deal on May 8. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

The deed is done.

U.S. President Donald Trump has kicked the Iran nuclear deal to the curb — just as he promised that he would, repeatedly, over the past two and a half years. Say what you will about the president, but he’s been true to his word. Campaign promises made; campaign promises kept. Trump’s critics may scoff derisively at the notion in light of the geopolitical stakes at play, but they’d be wrong to dismiss its deep resonance with the tens of millions of Americans who put Trump in the White House. A politician who actually does what he says he’s going to do. Go figure.

And this was no soft withdrawal, no easy exit. All nuclear-related sanctions are to be reimposed as quickly as possible, consistent with U.S. law. No later than the first week of November, every one of the most powerful U.S. economic penalties ever inflicted on Iran will be back in full force. That includes sweeping secondary sanctions against foreign firms caught doing proscribed business with the Islamic Republic. Despite the frantic efforts of their leaders, it appears there will be no reprieve, no carveouts, no shielding of European companies from the brutally harsh consequences of what Trump has wrought. Commercial entities the world over now have a brief window to unwind their interests in Iran’s deeply troubled $400 billion economy or risk being shut out of America’s $20 trillion market, including the ability to conduct transactions in the U.S. dollar, the international currency of choice.

All of this likely renders moot any last-ditch effort by the Europeans and Iran to salvage the nuclear deal sans America. In the immediate aftermath of Trump’s announcement, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani dangled the prospect that Iran might keep the deal if the Europeans could guarantee that its benefits would continue to flow. For their part, the leaders of Britain, France, and Germany gamely committed their countries to “ensuring the continuing economic benefits to the Iranian people that are linked to the agreement.” But if Trump truly means what he says about secondary sanctions, starving the Iranian regime of the revenue flows it uses to finance its continued assault on U.S. interests, this is not a check that the Europeans can cash. Any serious international business or financial institution worth its salt is simply not going to risk triggering the wrath of the U.S. government for the pleasure of making a few bucks in the irredeemably corrupt, horribly mismanaged economic dystopia of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and Qassem Suleimani, the general in charge of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. It’s most unlikely that they will be prepared to sacrifice their bottom lines on the altar of the Iran deal — no matter how hard their governments plead.

Which means the countdown to the deal’s complete unraveling has probably begun. Will it take a few months? A bit longer? No one can say for sure. Much depends on Iran. In his response to Trump, Rouhani threatened that if the Europeans failed to make staying in the deal lucrative enough, Iran might throw its nuclear program into overdrive, commencing “industrial enrichment without any limitations.” Empty bluster? Hopefully. But still a real possibility.

At that point, the ball will be very much in Trump’s court. What does he do if Iran starts blowing past the agreement’s constraints on stockpiles of enriched uranium, numbers and types of deployed centrifuges, or the testing of even more advanced centrifuges? What happens if the timeline for an Iranian bomb starts creeping below the deal’s 12-month threshold?

In his withdrawal statement, Trump warned, “If the regime continues its nuclear aspirations, it will have bigger problems than it has ever had before.” The next day, he further amplified the threat: “I would advise Iran not to start their nuclear program. I would advise them very strongly. If they do, there will be very severe consequences.”

Meaning what, exactly? It sure sounds like a threat to use military force. And that would make perfect sense. Surely, the president and his advisors understand that one likely consequence of killing the deal and reimposing sanctions is that Iran might begin expanding its nuclear program again. A credible threat of force is clearly intended to deter such a dangerous move. But what if it doesn’t? What if Iran calls Trump’s bluff before sanctions can have their intended effect or, indeed, are even fully operational again? Then he may have to strike Iran’s nuclear facilities with all the attendant dangers and unforeseen consequences that entails, or risk being exposed as a paper tiger. It goes without saying that absent a rock-solid commitment to move militarily against Iran’s nuclear program in short order should it prove necessary, the president’s decision to crater the Iran deal prematurely really would constitute not just a major gamble, but extreme diplomatic malpractice.

Which raises the broader question: What is Trump’s Iran strategy post-nuclear deal? He and members of his administration have spoken at great length about the urgent need to combat the totality of Iran’s threatening activities well beyond the nuclear sphere, including its regional aggression and ballistic missile program. In background materials that accompanied the president’s announcement, the administration set out a series of breathtakingly ambitious goals. In addition to never developing a nuclear weapon, the administration declared, the Iranian regime also must:

  • Never have an intercontinental ballistic missile, cease developing any nuclear-capable missiles, and stop proliferating ballistic missiles to others;
  • Cease its support for terrorists, extremists, and regional proxies, such as Hezbollah, Hamas, the Taliban, and al Qaeda;
  • End its publicly declared quest to destroy Israel;
  • Stop its threats to freedom of navigation, especially in the Persian Gulf and Red Sea;
  • Cease escalating the Yemen conflict and destabilizing the region by proliferating weapons to the Houthis;
  • End its cyberattacks against the United States and our allies, including Israel;
  • Stop its grievous human rights abuses, shown most recently in the regime’s crackdown against widespread protests by Iranian citizens;
  • Stop its unjust detention of foreigners, including United States citizens.

Yes, by all means. Sign me up for that new deal. Great aspirations. But how to achieve them? In what order of priority? With what mix of policy instruments and resources? With which allies performing what tasks? And, by the way, why no specific mention of curbing Iran’s destructive role in Syria and Iraq?

On these questions and many of the other fundamental elements of Strategy 101, the administration has provided little, if any clarity. Speaking of Syria, how is it possible, that there’s still rampant confusion about whether U.S. forces will stay or be quickly withdrawn? How can it be that as Israel and Iran teeter perilously close to the brink of a major war, with missiles now flying across the Syrian border in both directions, we still don’t know whether the U.S. military has any defined role in blocking Iran’s Revolutionary Guards from entrenching their power across the Middle East’s northern tier? Perhaps these fundamental questions have all been asked and answered and are being kept from public view for good operational reasons. But observing the mixed messages coming out of different parts of the government, and watching senior administration officials struggle at times with fairly predictable media inquiries, it’s hard not to feel a deep level of disquiet in the wake of a decision as momentous, risky, and controversial as the one Trump made this week.

What is clear is that to the extent a true strategy does exist, economic sanctions are at its heart. Indeed, one of the administration’s major justifications for getting out of the Iran deal was the conviction that the deal’s terms hamstrung the United States from drawing on its most powerful non-military tools to defend U.S. interests against the full array of Iran’s malign activities. Worse yet, the nuclear deal’s required waiver of sanctions was rightly seen as enriching the Iranian regime and supercharging its missile program, support for terrorism, and regional aggression.

Whether or not it might have been possible to both stay in the Iran deal and reimpose some of the most consequential nuclear sanctions under the guise of punishing Iran’s most egregious nonnuclear behaviors (for example, its support for the genocidal regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad) is now largely a matter for historical debate. The more pressing question today is whether sanctions on their own can bear the policy weight that the president has assigned to them. As hinted above, I’m doubtful and believe that effectively countering the full scope of the threat that Iran poses to U.S. interests would be much better served by mobilizing all instruments of U.S. power — not just economic, but diplomatic, military, cyber, covert action, and information operations as well.

That said, even for someone skeptical about the wisdom of Trump’s decision on the Iran deal, it’s hard to deny that the Iranian regime is perhaps as vulnerable today as it’s ever been to the kind of punishing sanctions that Trump reimposed this week. A brief sampling of the recent reporting by respected international media outlets, not known for their hawkishness toward Iran or support for regime change, has been stunning. “Has the countdown to the collapse of the Islamic Republic of Iran begun?” asks Najmeh Bozorgmehr, the Tehran correspondent for the Financial Times. “Iranians from all walks of life are raising such fundamental questions with intensity these days, in the belief that an overhaul of the ruling system is inevitable in the not-too-distant future.” She quotes an Iranian businessman who concludes, “We have reached a dead-end. … The problem is that if the Islamic Republic reforms itself, nothing would remain of it. And if it refuses to reform itself, it would die.” Thomas Erdbrink, the New York Times correspondent in Tehran, reports, “The sense of crisis in Iran runs deep and wide. The economy is in free fall. The currency is plummeting. Rising prices are squeezing city dwellers. A five-year drought is devastating the countryside.”

There’s clearly something important afoot inside Iran, something profound and potentially historic, even if not entirely visible or comprehensible to outsiders. No one can say with certainty how it will play out. But the timing could hardly be better for a U.S. strategy premised, as Trump’s seems to be, on pushing the Iranian regime to the point of severe internal crisis and confronting it with the stark choice between economic collapse and the theocracy’s disintegration, on the one hand, or suing for peace with the United States on the other. Whether the administration has the requisite skills of statecraft to take advantage of the moment, while simultaneously mitigating the significant downside risks that have been triggered by its unilateral abandonment of a flawed, but nonetheless historic arms control agreement that implicated the national interests of many of the world’s other great powers, including the United States’ most important Western allies, remains to be seen. Hope certainly abounds. But so do doubts.

John Hannah is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, focusing on U.S. strategy. During the presidency of George W. Bush, he served for eight years on the staff of Vice President Cheney, including as the vice president's national security advisor.

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