Shadow Government

The Next U.S. President Should Make a New Deal with Iran

If Democrats win in 2020, they should work with America’s regional allies to strike a new nuclear agreement while showing zero tolerance for Tehran’s regional destabilization campaign.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani addresses lawmakers in Tehran on Sep. 3.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani addresses lawmakers in Tehran on Sep. 3. Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images

The policy of the Trump administration toward Iran is clear: Apply maximum pressure. What is not clear is the objective, and the message keeps changing. Last year U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo listed 12 demands for negotiations with Iran, while this June U.S. President Donald Trump offered to be Iran’s “best friend.” At the G-7 summit in August he spoke of Iran becoming a very rich country so long as it agrees to not develop a nuclear weapon. Pompeo’s list amounts to fundamental change in the nature of the regime; Trump’s bottom line sounds a lot like that of the Iran nuclear deal.

As 10 Democrats take the stage on Thursday in a primary debate that will likely touch on, among other things, the United States’ post-2020 foreign policy, it is worth considering what future U.S. policy toward Iran should look like.

At this point, the Trump administration is no closer to realizing either Pompeo’s maximalist position or Trump’s narrow one. Even so, the maximum-pressure campaign is delivering serious economic distress in Iran. Consider that prior to the United States walking away from the deal and reimposing sanctions in 2018, the International Monetary Fund forecast that the Iranian economy would grow by 4 percent. Presently, it predicts that Iran’s economy will contract by 6 percent. Iranians now are living with a major devaluation of their currency and loss of savings, high inflation, failing businesses and industries, and the soaring costs of materials, basic foods and medicine. Yet Iran’s leaders continue to reject negotiations, including an invitation to the White House, despite this extraordinary economic pressure.

In response, Iran’s leaders are now applying their own version of maximum pressure on the United States, its friends in the Middle East, and its allies in Europe. Alleged sabotage of oil tankers; seizures of Emirati- and British-flagged ships; Houthi rocket and drone attacks on petroleum pumping stations, Saudi Aramco facilities, and civilian airports in Saudi Arabia; Shiite militia strikes near the U.S. Embassy in Iraq; and the downing of a U.S. drone. All are measures intended to signal that the Iranians can apply pressure on the oil market and drive a wedge between Washington and those accustomed to the U.S.-led security umbrella.

If that were not enough, Iran’s decision to incrementally stop observing some of the deal’s limitations on their nuclear program is designed to pressure the Europeans either to violate U.S. sanctions in order to meet Iran’s economic needs or face the prospect of the nuclear deal’s collapse. French President Emmanuel Macron’s initiative to provide Iran a $15 billion credit line in return for coming back into compliance with the deal is a testimony to the effectiveness of Iran’s pressure policy.

The danger of both sides adopting a maximum-pressure approach is that it could easily lead to a miscalculation and a conflict, which both Trump and Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei have declared they don’t want. While Trump at the G-7 signaled his desire for talks, the Iranians responded with conflicting messages—Iranian President Hassan Rouhani initially welcomed the prospect of a meeting, then reversed course by making Iranian participation conditional on U.S. sanctions relief. Under Rouhani’s revised vision, Iran should get sanctions relief just for showing up.

What happens next will depend on the supreme leader’s assessment of whether the regime can maintain domestic stability during a time of acute economic hardship. Khamenei may well believe that he can outlast Trump despite the serious economic dislocation, hope that he loses the presidency in 2020, and wait for a new administration to seek negotiations. If there is a new U.S. president in 2021, however, Iran will approach the negotiating table having taken its own actions to weaken the deal while also exacerbating conflicts and instability across the Middle East.

If Trump loses in 2020, his successor—who may be inclined to focus narrowly on reentering the deal and restoring the status quo ante, as Edoardo Saravalle has argued in Foreign Policy—could find that the Iranians believe that the United States “owes them.” They will insist that Iran did not walk away from the deal and yet they suffered real economic pain, and that Trump’s actions compelled them to take reversible nuclear steps. They are likely to call not just for lifting the reimposed nuclear sanctions, but also additional steps to ease Iran’s economic isolation that were not required of the U.S. government in the 2015 deal. They might even insist on relief from non-nuclear sanctions on human rights and terrorism—sanctions that are enshrined in U.S. law and that produced a chilling effect on investment in Iran even after the deal was implemented.

If a Democratic president succeeds Trump, he or she should not accept such arguments. A new administration will be dealing with U.S. allies who, on the one hand, believe that Washington is less reliable than it once was, and, on the other, blame the U.S. government for the escalating tensions in the Persian Gulf and across the region. A new national-security team will want to end the United States’ isolation from its allies and restore an image of reliability. This will pose a delicate challenge, as the new administration must show that Washington is not the source of crisis in the Gulf even as it seeks to persuade allies to join it in pushing back on Iran’s role as a regional destabilizer.

Iran’s “malign activities” in the region, as Pompeo has called them, are real and not new. In Lebanon, Iran is building up Hezbollah’s missile arsenal to threaten Israel and is now trying to fabricate precision guidance for tens of thousands of rockets there. In Syria, Iran enabled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s war crimes, imported its own forces as well as Shiite militants from Iraq, Pakistan, and Afghanistan to preserve the regime, and entrenched its military infrastructure for long-term influence in Syria.

In Yemen, Iran transferred sophisticated weapons and expertise to the Houthis for their attacks against Saudi Arabia. In Iraq, Iran sponsors militias outside the control of the central government, such as Kataib Hezbollah and Asaib Ahl al-Haq, which have been responsible for the deaths of over 600 U.S. forces in Iraq.

Iran’s destabilizing actions in the region existed well before the 2015 deal, continued during the nuclear negotiations, and increased after the agreement’s implementation. Of course it is better to have Iran’s nuclear weapons program constrained and limited independently of its threatening acts in the Middle East. But it is folly to believe that Iran can actively undermine the security of its neighbors, back war criminals, and speak of wiping Israel off the map, without any negative impact on the sustainability of the nuclear deal or a successor agreement. The U.S. Congress will inevitably impose sanctions on this behavior—regardless of White House support—and Iran will cry foul.

The Trump administration has shown it can impose a price on Iran. It has not shown it can change the regime’s behavior, either with respect to the nuclear program or its regional proxies. Over time, this pressure might succeed in getting Iran back to the negotiating table—but it will always be an uphill climb if the U.S. government is isolated in applying pressure and demanding behavioral change. Should Trump lose in 2020, his successor will need allies but also an awareness that simply going back into the Iran deal cannot be the means and the end of a new U.S. policy on Iran.

It may be too much for a successor agreement to extend limits on Iranian enrichment and also unwind Iranian support for terrorism. While both sets of issues need not be addressed comprehensively in the same agreement, it is critical that Iran and the international community understand that the next U.S. administration will be committed to addressing both. (This is especially true at a time when Iran’s efforts to increase the quantitative and qualitative rocket threat to Israel in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon are risking a regional Iran-Israel war.)

To do this, the next administration will need to make clear that it intends to work with, rather than against, U.S. allies and partners. Real leverage against Iran has always required not just economic pressure but also political isolation. With allies’ help, it is possible to affect Iran’s behavior for the better; if Washington continues to go it alone, it is not.

Dennis Ross is the former U.S. envoy to the Middle East and counselor at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He is the author, with David Makovsky, of Be Strong and of Good Courage: How Israel’s Most Important Leaders Shaped Its Destiny. Twitter: @AmbDennisRoss

Dana Stroul is a senior fellow at the Washington Institute and previously a senior staff member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee covering the Middle East. Twitter: @dstroul

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