Trump Can Make Iran Policy Great Again
Here's how the next president can transform Obama's Iran deal into something worthy of the name.
During his campaign for the presidency, Donald Trump often dismissed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the nuclear agreement signed between the United States and Iran. His critique, while vague, was sensible. The JCPOA did concede too much residual enrichment capacity, its sunset clauses were too short, and it offered sanctions relief that was too generous. On top of that, the White House indulged in its own cash-and-carry program, trading hostages for money.
It is hard to see how a prudent Iran policy can coexist with the JCPOA as it stands today. An actual Iran policy needs to move beyond arms control and emphasize ways of putting stress on the country’s theocratic regime and pushing back on its ambitions in the Middle East. The future Trump administration now has the opportunity to develop just such a comprehensive Iran policy.
Because the JCPOA is not a treaty ratified by the Senate, it is not binding on any administration. It’s important to note that the House of Representatives actually rejected the accord while 56 U.S. senators similarly went on the record with their opposition. The Trump administration can thus render JCPOA null and void simply by declaring it so. But repealing the accord will also imply a willingness to negotiate a more robust agreement.
That’s why the new administration would be prudent to first articulate its own arms control precepts. In the process of transacting its flawed accord, President Barack Obama’s team abandoned many of its own standards, and it is time to restore worthy principles as the basis of any new agreement. This means that the scope of the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program has to be defined by national needs. Given that an oil-rich Iran really does not require nuclear energy, this would mean at best a modest and symbolic program. The Obama administration also essentially whitewashed Iran’s past nuclear infractions, as the Islamic Republic did not really disclose its previous experimentation with nuclear weapons technology. This issue must now be categorically resolved, and Iran should be expected to reveal its previously undeclared procurement activities and work on triggering devices. Since the only plausible means of ensuring compliance with any arms control accord is to grant inspectors unfettered access to all sites and scientists, Iran’s nuclear inspection regime should be “anywhere, anytime” as opposed to JCPOA’s managed access that relies on Iranian cooperation. And finally, ballistic missiles that are an important aspect of any nuclear weapons program must be part of any agreement.
As mentioned, these principles are not new. They were the policy of the first-term Obama administration and the official position of the so-called P5+1 that pursued negotiations with Iran, which included China, Russia, Germany, France, and the United Kingdom. Thus, the Trump team would be merely asking its international partners to embrace judicious ideas that they themselves once endorsed — and which were only abandoned by a second-term Obama eager for an agreement and legacy.
Still, revising JCPOA with follow-on agreements will require considerable skilfull alliance management. Trump may benefit from the fact that European states will be eager for a positive start with a new administration. Moreover, the one potential benefit of the warmer relationship between Washington and Moscow that Trump wishes to pursue could be Russia conceivably playing a more constructive role in such renegotiations.
President-elect Trump’s diplomacy will also benefit from a credible threat of force against Iran. Given his solicitations and the deference he paid to the mullahs, no one in Tehran took seriously Obama’s claim that all options are on the table. The administration was so eager for an agreement and so averse to coercive measures that Iran’s rulers knew they were immune from any military repercussions. Can they wage the same bet on a Trump administration? The president-elect’s emphasis on renewing American power and occasionally unpredictable behavior may have already unsettled the ruling clerics in Iran.
The historical record is clear on the likely effects. In 2003, the Islamic Republic suspended all of its nuclear activities for it feared that an emboldened George W. Bush administration fresh from the shock-and-awe invasion of Iraq may target Iran next. The mullahs are sensitive to power, and not blandishments, and will likely think twice before tangling with a hawkish administration.
Trump and his advisors would be wise not to limit themselves to arms treaties, however, but also focus on ways of stressing Iran at home and in the Middle East. Parallel with renewed nuclear negotiations, the Republican White House and Congress should cooperate on a rigorous sanctions regime that would once more segregate Iran from the world economy. Past experience has shown the power of the United States in excluding Iran from international financial markets and the global banking network. If Iran once more is incapable of financing its commerce and effectively selling its oil, then it will be deprived of funds to pay for both its domestic needs and imperial adventures.
The United States should also not be shy about supporting opposition movements and pressing for democratic change in Iran. Since the uprisings of the summer of 2009, the Islamic Republic has used repression and promises of a better economy to pacify a sullen and disenfranchised population. Iran very much resembles the Soviet Union of the 1970s: a bloated, bureaucratic state justifying its power by an ideology that convinces no one. The system itself invites instability as its corruption, internal intrigues, and persistent purges reflect a government that can’t sustainably maintain its own cadre or co-opt its citizens. Iran’s overburdened security services may be able to cope with the occasional demonstration but cannot stem the tide of sustained protests.
The task for the United States is to persistently weaken Iran’s economy, isolate it globally, and make inroads to nascent opposition forces. The more the Islamic Republic’s regime weakens, the better the prospects for the country’s forces of dissent. Given the power of rhetoric, the new Trump administration should devote considerable effort to delegitimizing the Islamic Republic by highlighting its repression, the corruption of its elite, and the massive funds it spends propping up dictators such as Bashar al-Assad and terrorist organizations such as Hezbollah. The Iranian public neither wishes for its troops to die in Syria nor have its money spent on Arab radicals. By relentlessly pressing Iran on all fronts, not just the nuclear one, the future Trump administration may yet be able to push the state toward reform at home and moderation abroad. And that would be an Iran policy worthy of the name.
Photo credit: ATTA KENARE / Staff