U.S. President Donald Trump has been outspoken in his disdain for the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action limiting Iran’s nuclear program. “The Iran deal was one of the worst and most one-sided transactions the United States has ever entered into,” he told the United Nations General Assembly on Sept. 19. “Frankly, that deal is an embarrassment to the United States, and I don’t think you’ve heard the last of it — believe me.”
Like the reality TV host that he was, the president has intimated that he has already made up his mind about whether to certify Iranian compliance with the deal on Oct. 15 — but he won’t say what he’s decided. Will he or won’t he? Stay tuned for the ratings extravaganza in which all will be revealed!
I have no idea what the president will do — he is far too erratic to be predictable — but I can offer my own viewpoint as someone who opposed the Iran deal because I thought it was too lenient. The deal did not end Iran’s nuclear program but merely suspended it for a decade, and it did not address Iran’s other regional threats, namely its sponsorship of terrorism and development of ballistic missiles. And yet I would not recommend pulling out of the deal now — not when the International Atomic Energy Agency, whose inspectors monitor 27 separate sites, has certified that Iran is in compliance. Instead of nuking the nuclear deal, the United States should take other steps to check the growth of Iranian influence.
It would send a terrible signal to other states that in the future might be interested in concluding an arms control treaty with the United States if Washington were to abrogate a treaty simply because of a change of administrations. Why would anyone trust Washington to keep its word ever again?
Pulling out of the treaty now would isolate not Iran but the United States. If the Trump administration simply leaves the treaty, without re-imposing meaningful sanctions on Iran, the effect would be purely symbolic — and the symbolism would be of America standing alone. Already Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani, who presides over a despotic regime, sounded more moderate and reasonable at the United Nations General Assembly than America’s hot-headed chief executive, who made headlines by calling North Korean leader Kim Jong Un “Rocket Man” and threatening to destroy his country. Pulling out of the Iran deal without a reasonable provocation would only create international sympathy for Iran in spite of its appalling human-rights violations — and it would most likely leave the agreement in place anyway.
Congress could impose U.S. sanctions on Iran if Trump pulls out of the agreement. But the United States doesn’t do much business with Tehran. The only way to punish Iran is to convince major European and Asian countries to cut off their own trade. That’s something they are unlikely to do as long as Iran appears to be in compliance with the deal. Perhaps the Trump administration could pressure the Europeans with its own “nuclear option” — threatening to kick out of the U.S. market any countries or companies that do business with Iran. But that would be a difficult threat to carry out against America’s largest trading partner and would likely cause a full-blown crisis at a time when trans-Atlantic ties are already strained.
The Trump administration is now said to be exploring a less apocalyptic scenario: Rather than simply jettisoning the Iran deal, Trump might try to renegotiate it, or perhaps negotiate an additional treaty placing limitations on Iran’s development of ballistic missiles and its support of terrorism. But why would Iran, which resisted any such limits in 2015 at a time when it was under heavy sanctions, agree to them now, after already having gotten an economic windfall from having sanctions lifted? Even if Trump can now re-impose some penalties, it will not be nearly as many as existed prior to the Iran deal.
It is hard to see how the United States could force Iran to the negotiating table absent a credible threat of military action. But the United states doesn’t have an easy option to destroy Iran’s hardened nuclear facilities or else it may have already done so, and that’s a dangerous game to play with unforeseeable consequences. Given Trump’s impetuosity and ignorance, his saber-rattling could easily spiral out of control, in both Iran and North Korea, leading America into one or more wars that nobody wants — least of all a president who promised to limit America’s involvement in foreign conflicts. It would be particularly foolhardy to spark a crisis with Iran while we are already in the midst of a war scare with North Korea.
The good news is that there is much that the United States can do to curb Iran’s dangerous designs without scrapping the agreement, negotiating a new treaty with the mullahs, or going to war against them. The Trump administration is already doing some of that — for example, by imposing sanctions on companies linked to Iran’s ballistic missile program, its cyberattacks, and its terrorist-sponsoring Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). There is much more to be done on the targeted sanctions front, including designating the IRGC a terrorist organization. But there are also important steps that Trump can take on the ground in Syria and Iraq.
Iran is attempting to “Lebanonize” both countries by exerting de facto control through IRGC-run militias such as Hezbollah while allowing nominally independent leaders such as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to remain in pro forma positions of authority. The Obama administration turned a blind eye to this power grab in the interest of concluding a nuclear deal with Iran. If the Trump administration has a strategy to stop the Iranians, beyond rhetorical bluster, it’s a well-guarded secret.
The U.S. armed forces continue to see their mission in the region as fighting the Islamic State, period. The danger is that by dismantling the Islamic State — as U.S. allies are currently on the verge of doing in both Syria and Iraq — they will simply create more space for Iran to dominate. The Trump administration is unwittingly abetting this Iranian power grab by ending CIA aid to moderate Syrian rebels and by pulling U.S. troops out of an important outpost in southern Syria near the border with Iraq, effectively ceding that ground to Iranian-backed militias. Iran is now on the verge of controlling a land route running all the way from Tehran to Beirut — the new Persian Empire.
If the United States were serious about curbing Tehran’s power, it would provide support to militias in both Iraq and Syria willing to resist the Iranian interlopers. In the case of Iraq, that would mean insisting that, once the Islamic State is defeated, the government disband the Popular Mobilization Forces, made up mostly of Iranian-backed militias, and create a Sunni civil guard to protect Sunni areas from Shiite aggression. That will not be easy to do, but the United States can gain important leverage if it does not bring its troops home after the Islamic State is defeated — if, that is, it does not repeat the mistake that former President Barack Obama made in 2011.
In Syria, the United States could push back against Iran by expanding the Syrian Democratic Forces fighting the Islamic State in the north, recruiting more Arab fighters along with the core Kurdish forces, and also by providing fresh support to the Free Syrian Army in western and southern Syria. Granted, the moderate rebels have taken heavy losses in recent years, in no small part because of the paltry outside assistance they have received by comparison with radical Sunni or Shiite groups. But it should still be possible to build effective military forces made up of Syrian exiles in Jordan or Turkey.
If supported by U.S. airpower and U.S. advisors, both currently being provided to the Syrian Democratic Forces liberating Raqqa, such troops could push Assad and the Iranians back, preventing them from consolidating control of areas that the Islamic State leaves behind. Eventually, a shifting balance of power on the ground might make it possible to negotiate an end to the conflict that would limit the Iranian-backed regime’s control primarily to territory populated by the Alawite sect.
The problem is that the course of action outlined above would deepen American involvement in both Syria and Iraq, carrying risks of increased casualties and effectively committing the United States to a dreaded role in nation-building. That is anathema to Trump, who, like his predecessor, would like to kill the Islamic State and bring U.S. troops home. The president has been convinced before by his national security advisors, in the case of Afghanistan, to go against his instincts. Perhaps he can be convinced do so again if he learns that the immediate and empty gratification of blowing up the nuclear deal doesn’t amount to a serious Iran policy.