Elephants in the Room
Here’s How Trump Can Bring Iran Back to the Table
Maximum financial pressure might be enough to force new nuclear talks.
Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said this month that he would never negotiate with U.S. President Donald Trump, perhaps because the Iranian regime believes it can outlast the ongoing American financial pressure campaign until the 2020 U.S. presidential election. Trump should respond by ratcheting up the pressure and reaffirming U.S. red lines for negotiations—which could push Khamenei to change his mind.
Iran’s rejection of talks makes sense for now. The toughest sanctions suspended under the Obama administration’s Iran nuclear deal, or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, are not scheduled to return until November. That gives Germany, Turkey, Russia, and other countries doing business with Iran two more months to find workarounds that can help the regime survive, including pressuring the Belgium-based SWIFT financial messaging service to keep Iran’s Central Bank connected to the international financial system. Iran, therefore, will want to wait for November to see whether any countries are successful in evading U.S. sanctions and, most importantly, whether their banks remain connected to SWIFT.
In addition to plotting various sanctions evasion schemes, Iran’s leaders also might try to expand their nuclear and missile activities in hopes of regaining leverage. The Trump administration would be wise to focus on both tracks. Maximum pressure should come with maximum isolation, particularly in nuclear and missile sciences, to slow any regime attempt to advance its weapons program.
Though often overshadowed by high-profile oil and financial sanctions, key restrictions targeting civilian nuclear cooperation with Iran will return in November, too. Hundreds of people inside Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, Defense Ministry, and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) will return to the U.S. Treasury Department’s blacklist. Under U.S. law, the procurement channel to Iran established by the nuclear deal will be off-limits to all foreign companies, including banks and insurers. Stopping the sale of dual-use equipment will again become a U.S. priority.
The Trump administration will need to use all its legal authorities to cut off international support to Iran’s nuclear weapons infrastructure. That requires targeting governments, officials, and agencies that engage in activities authorized by the nuclear deal, such as building a new heavy-water reactor at Arak. It also requires enforcement of secondary sanctions against anyone who establishes research or business ties with designated individuals or institutions.
Universities and research institutions, both in the United States and around the world, should no longer be allowed to teach, train, or employ Iranian students and researchers in the fields of nuclear physics, pure science, and engineering. Prior to the nuclear deal, barriers existed in the United States and Europe to prevent Iran from growing a new generation of nuclear scientists and missile engineers. These barriers must return—by threat of new U.S. sanctions if necessary.
The International Atomic Energy Agency also requires reforms. Both the administration and Congress should condition U.S. funding—which makes up about 25 percent of the agency’s budget—on the termination of investments and technical assistance in Iranian nuclear projects, an end to IAEA-hosted seminars and conferences in Iran, and the removal of all Iranian employees from the agency. The recent discovery of a secret Iranian atomic archive underscored the danger of Iran’s never-ending pursuit of a nuclear weapon. The IAEA must perform its core mission and investigate the sites, activities, research, and materials detailed in the Iranian archive.
These steps, alongside a sustained financial warfare campaign, could be enough to convince the supreme leader that his regime’s only chance of survival is behavioral change. To increase the pressure, the Trump administration should target SWIFT’s board members with sanctions unless the cooperative disconnects Iranian banks. Trump should also consider imposing sanctions on the financial sector of Iran in its entirety, and blacklisting any other economic sector in Iran that has ties to the IRGC.
If Khamenei or his proxies reach out for talks, Trump will need to avoid the fundamental mistake former President Barack Obama made: providing any form of sanctions relief prior to or during negotiations. He will need to hold firm on Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s 12 public demands, which include an end to state sponsorship of terrorism, withdrawal of forces from Syria and Yemen, and a permanent end to Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons.
When it comes to Iran’s nuclear capabilities, Trump will need to stick by six key red lines: no natural and enriched uranium, no conversion and enrichment facilities, no nuclear reactors with plutonium production potential, no reprocessing capabilities, no weaponization system work, and no missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads. These six noes are not just critical for getting a good deal with Tehran but, with North Korean officials watching closely, Pyongyang as well.
Critics will argue that these red lines are unreasonable and can never produce a negotiated agreement with Iran. Such an argument remains anchored in the failed strategic approach that produced the nuclear deal. Dealing with a deceitful, terrorism-sponsoring government such as Iran’s requires a paradigm in which the regime, facing certain collapse under maximum pressure, gets to choose its fate—and perhaps chooses fundamental behavioral change to preserve its existence.
Of course, it is equally possible that Iran will bet against Trump’s ability to trigger regime collapse through a maximum pressure campaign, and talks will not occur. With people protesting in the streets, a falling currency, and sanctions pressure not even close to maximum levels yet, that just might work out better for long-term U.S. national security.
Richard Goldberg, a senior advisor at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, was the U.S. National Security Council’s Director for Countering Iranian Weapons of Mass Destruction from 2019 to 2020. Twitter: @rich_goldberg