Iran Hawks Could Make a Bad Situation Worse
More pressure on Tehran won’t work. Here’s what Trump should really do.
One of U.S. President Donald Trump’s chief foreign-policy objectives is to persuade or force the Iranian government to abandon policies that pose a threat to U.S. interests—namely, the country’s ballistic missile and nuclear programs as well as its support for terrorists in the region. To this end, the administration has pulled the United States out of the nuclear deal achieved under President Barack Obama, reimposed sanctions on Iran, and undertaken a pressure campaign to try to force Iran back to the negotiating table to strike a new bargain.
In its efforts to cajole Iran, however, the United States could be making a mistake if it assumes that more pressure will automatically bring it closer to its goals. Particularly when it comes to measures aimed at Iran’s nuclear program, more pressure could heighten nuclear risks and further drive a wedge between the United States and its European allies.
In the months leading up to and since Trump’s announcement that he was pulling the United States out of the nuclear deal, many Iran watchers have taken to the pages of prominent foreign-policy outlets, including this one, to argue for or against the U.S. withdrawal from the Iran deal and provide recommendations for what the United States should do next. Advocates of the tough approach, such as Mark Dubowitz of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD) and the Council on Foreign Relations’ Ray Takeyh, see economic sanctions and political isolation as critical to achieving a new, better deal or compelling the regime to change its policies by other means.
Although some experts, such as Dubowitz and his FDD colleague Richard Goldberg, have offered specific suggestions, there doesn’t appear to be a consensus on what sanctions and isolation should entail in practice. In addition, such observers have paid relatively little attention to how the United States should execute what will likely be a yearslong campaign of maximum pressure aimed at a new deal while mitigating the risks of Iranian nuclear advances and further provocations that such a strategy will likely produce. In essence, observers may be losing sight of the broader objective and thus offering some counterproductive ideas.
For example, several authors have argued that the United States shouldn’t limit its pressure campaign to Iran. Rather, Trump should also target the United States’ own European allies that refuse to get in line behind Washington and show some willingness to work with Tehran. The administration has also seemed to back this approach. But such plans are shortsighted and, rather than bringing allies closer, could widen the gulf between them and the United States and play into the hands of key adversaries, like Russia and China, as well as Iran. Such an approach might thus help tighten the economic vise on Iran, but it would also undermine important U.S. advantages when it comes time to strike a meaningful deal: U.S. multilateralism and leverage over key international players, which would be critical in any diplomatic process with Iran over the long run.
Goldberg and FDD’s Jacob Nagel also argue that the United States should hold back funding earmarked for the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) until it cancels certain types of technical assistance to Iran and fires all Iranian employees. Holding U.S. support for the IAEA hostage to narrow U.S. political aims is not a new idea, but it would be counterproductive. It would politicize an agency whose access to Iran’s nuclear program—and nuclear facilities all over the world—is dependent on it being viewed as a neutral party. If the IAEA caved to these demands, it would play into the hands of Iranian hard-liners who are already prone to viewing the agency as a tool of the West, making Iran less likely to cooperate with inspectors. Ultimately, these measures would undermine the international body’s ability to fulfill its mandate of ensuring that countries’ nuclear programs remain exclusively peaceful, damaging broader U.S. nonproliferation goals.
Likewise, other authors, including Goldberg and Nagle, have suggested that the United States should actively seek to subvert key provisions within the existing nuclear deal, which are currently being implemented by the remaining parties to the agreement. This would include sanctioning any company or bank involved in providing Iran with nuclear technology via the procurement channel endorsed by the agreement and the United Nations. Doing so, however, would likely cause the channel—which grants U.S. allies control over, and insight into, Iranian nuclear-related procurement activities—to collapse.
Iran, meanwhile, would not stop acquiring nuclear-related technology. Rather, it would once again ramp up its illicit nuclear procurement activities, significantly reducing the international community’s ability to control or monitor Iran’s purchases. Far from a concession or benefit to Tehran, as critics have called it, the channel has instead led to a fair bit of criticism from Iranian hard-liners, who claim that it undermines national sovereignty by allowing foreign powers to decide what technology Iran can and can’t have access to.
Similarly, some critics have called on the administration to pressure remaining parties to the nuclear deal into stopping the redesign of the Arak heavy-water research reactor—a project aimed at significantly reducing the amount of plutonium produced by the reactor—and the underground Fordow complex, which was once used for uranium enrichment but is being repurposed to pose less of a proliferation concern. Goldberg and Nagle have similarly argued for the necessity for the Trump administration of using “all its legal authorities to cut off international support to Iran’s nuclear weapons infrastructure.” But it is precisely the international support that is key to making these facilities less useful for nuclear weapons. If global partners withdraw from these projects and leave them incomplete, Iran would have more of an incentive, not less, to convert the facilities back to their pre-agreement designs, increasing the proliferation risk.
Finally, recognizing that aggressive measures could in fact prompt Iran to expand its nuclear program, advocates for the high-pressure approach have defended using military action should Iran resume nuclear activities halted under the deal. There are incredibly few scenarios that might actually warrant a U.S. military strike on Iran’s nuclear program: The most obvious is an Iranian attempt to produce weapons-grade uranium in a sprint to nuclear weapons. Another might be ending all cooperation with the IAEA. By contrast, a U.S. strike in response to Iranian efforts to marginally increase centrifuge numbers or to accumulate enriched nuclear material in excess of the nuclear deal’s requirements—measures that, in all likelihood, would be political signaling by Tehran and not a dash to a bomb—would risk sparking a regional war and leave the United States more isolated. It is this calculation that perhaps exposes the deepest—and most dangerous—flaw of an indiscriminate maximum pressure approach: willingness to rely on military force to achieve a goal that was already met via peaceful means.
Taken together, the pressure approach won’t help the United States force Iran to roll back its nuclear program. Instead, it is far more likely to lay the foundations for its expansion, divide the United States from its most important allies, and, ultimately, increase the risk of conflict. In advocating for this type of pressure, those hoping to see the nuclear deal’s demise are offering advice that appears counter to their objective of stopping Iran from getting a nuclear weapon.
Instead, the administration should recognize that although the limits on Iran’s nuclear program imposed by the agreement may not be sufficient in its view, they do buy the United States time to build a pressure campaign worth waging. And now that Trump has checked off his campaign promise of leaving the deal, allowing the remaining parties to continue implementing it comes a little cost for the administration. To close any loopholes, the United States could take other steps to keep the pressure on, such as sharing intelligence with European allies about any activity that appears inconsistent with the deal. Washington should also use this time to develop realistic and credible options short of war to deter Iranian provocations that, while problematic and undesirable, fall short of dire.
Eric Brewer is a Council on Foreign Relations international affairs fellow at the Center for a New American Security. @BrewerEricM