Elephants in the Room

Trump Has an Iran Strategy — But It Will Be Very Tough to Pull Off

The Trump administration’s game plan has a certain logic, but executing it will be the most difficult diplomatic gambit his team has attempted thus far.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, right, and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani at U.N. headquarters in New York on Sept. 18. (Kevin Hagen/Getty Images)
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, right, and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani at U.N. headquarters in New York on Sept. 18. (Kevin Hagen/Getty Images)

The Trump administration’s game plan for Iran has a certain logic to it, but executing it will be the most difficult diplomatic gambit his team has attempted thus far.

The administration is attempting to signal to supporters of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the nuclear agreement U.S. President Barack Obama negotiated with Iran, that President Donald Trump is willing to blow up that deal because he sees it as disadvantageous to the United States, while also signaling that the president is willing to not blow up the deal, provided that he gets his way on other elements of a counter-Iran strategy. At the same time, the administration is attempting to signal to opponents of the JCPOA that there is a way to address the weaknesses in the deal without blowing it up, provided that those opponents give the president some relief by revising the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act (INARA) to remove the 90-day certification requirement.

Managing all of those contrary signals requires a fully integrated strategy that coordinates the diplomatic, political, and communications lines of action.

In its most basic form, this is a boat-rocking strategy. Trump is threatening to do something that most people do not want him to do — including, apparently, most people on the president’s own team — in order to get others to do things that they have hitherto been unwilling to do. (By the way, this strategy is not unlike the strategy that the Trump team is currently pursuing on North Korea — only there, the primary target of the boat-rocking is the Chinese government, and here the primary target is European allies and Democrats on Capitol Hill.)

There are many weaknesses in the JCPOA, but perhaps the most glaring is this: Even the most generous interpretation — and for an exceedingly generous interpretation, you can’t top Colin Kahl’s Panglossian, “best of all possible deals” description — must concede that the JCPOA only puts the nuclear issue on hold, while leaving unaddressed the rest of Iran’s nefarious activities in the region. These include its destabilizing missile program, support for regional terrorist groups, undermining of Iraqi politics, fomenting of sectarian violence throughout the region, and so on.

Obama clearly believed that freezing the nuclear issue with the JCPOA would create diplomatic space for progress on those other fronts that might lead to reformed Iranian behavior. His more hawkish advisors believed that freezing the nuclear issue with the JCPOA would not prevent the United States and its allies from confronting Iran on these other issues. Both were too optimistic.

In practice, Iran has pocketed the gains from the JCPOA and continued its other activities unabated. And in practice, Obama was hesitant to challenge Iran on those other activities lest doing so would disrupt the diplomatic gains of the JCPOA, whereas Trump has received little support from our allies when he showed greater willingness to confront Iran.

When combined with the unwillingness of our allies to do more to push Iran on non-nuclear issues, the 90-day requirement that the president publicly certify that Iran is abiding by the JCPOA agreement was a pill too bitter for Trump to swallow more than twice.

Accordingly, the president has decided he would simply not certify. Note that this is different from declaring Iran to be in material violation of the agreement. The JCPOA provides many ways the president could blow up the agreement by taking such action, and it is vital to recognize that the administration is not doing that now. They are rocking the boat, not sinking it.

Refusing to certify that Iran is in compliance triggers a process whereby Congress could reimpose nuclear-related sanctions. If Congress did that, that would blow up the agreement (and sink the boat).

The Trump administration is betting that Congress will not do so because, in the interval, the White House is hoping to persuade our allies to get tougher on Iran on the non-nuclear issues. In exchange for that greater allied cooperation, the administration hopes it will be able to persuade Congress to amend the INARA and remove the 90-day certification, thus buying more time for other lines of pressure to come to bear on Iran.

The foregoing is based on the advanced reporting on what the Trump administration is planning to do, along with a heavy dose of rational actor rationalization (“What is the best way to make sense of the confusing signals coming out of the administration?”). If I have read the tea leaves correctly, the Trump team has a strategy, albeit a strategy that is very difficult to pull off successfully.

Making this strategy work will require that all the key U.S. actors — from the president on down to members of Congress — play their roles carefully and with discipline, not misrepresenting what the administration is doing and not overreacting or underreacting to what the administration is doing.

It will also require deft and sustained diplomatic pressure on our allies, simultaneously cajoling them out of their post-JCPOA complacency and reassuring them that going along with the Trump administration is not a one-way ticket to what they would consider to be the worst of all possible outcomes: a violent confrontation with an Iran that can put the collapse of the JCPOA on us.

This would be a heavy lift even for an administration that is firing on all cylinders. The acid question is whether this White House, which is still dealing with embarrassing leaks about intramural conflict and coordination problems, has the discipline and diplomatic firepower to execute it.

Doing so is not a guarantee of success. The enemy still gets a vote and, in this case, Iran has plenty of gambits of its own to play to frustrate the strategy. But Iran’s countermoves may not be the biggest worry if the administration itself is not able to implement the strategy with the deftness it requires.

Photo credit: Kevin Hagen/Getty Images

Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy and Bass Fellow at Duke University, and director of the Triangle Institute for Security Studies and the Duke Program in American Grand Strategy. He is co-editor of Elephants in the Room.

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