Foreign Policy

What Trump Should Really Do With Iran

U.S. policy should be to apply maximum pressure on Iran with the goal of changing Iran's government.

National Security Desk · Jan. 22, 2018

The bickering and grandstanding last week over a soon-to-be-realized government shutdown, complete with a week of debate over a vulgar word, pushed another highly important issue off the front pages — namely President Donald Trump’s statement that he had waived sanctions on Iran for the last time and would be moving forward to get the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action modified to correct its numerous deficiencies. As is his usual practice, the president went all-in regarding his administration’s position: “This is a last chance. In the absence of such an agreement, the United States will not again waive sanctions in order to stay in the Iran nuclear deal.”

The president wants the deal’s terms re-negotiated, but that is very likely impossible. Even our closest ally, the United Kingdom, is openly opposed to any re-negotiation, as UK Foreign Minister Boris Johnson made clear. He stated bluntly that the JCPOA is not subject to re-negotiation, pointing out — fairly and correctly — that those who want to replace the JCPOA with something else have yet to put forward a better alternative.

More importantly, China and Russia are doing what they always do, which is anything they can to counter U.S. influence and interests. Each has UN Security Council veto power, and as Barack Obama’s administration cynically took the JCPOA to the UN for approval rather than to Congress, any changes would require the UN to go along. That simply will not happen.

Iran of course adamantly insists the deal cannot be re-negotiated. On Saturday, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani remarked, “Except for one or two countries, the international community currently supports the JCPOA and the U.S. administration is undoubtedly making a miscalculation in this regard. … Commitment to the JCPOA can constitute a very strong base for the establishment of broader cooperation between Iran and the European Union and promotion of peace and security in the region and the world.”

Rouhani was joined in this fantasy view by UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric: “The [nuclear deal] constitutes a major achievement of nuclear non-proliferation and diplomacy, and has contributed to regional and worldwide peace and security.” People in Syria, Yemen, Lebanon and Iran itself might differ about how you define peace and security.

In short, President Trump will face a long uphill struggle to get the JCPOA re-negotiated. Iran and even our notional European allies will undoubtedly play the same game Iran used to run out the clock on George W. Bush’s administration: They’ll pretend to negotiate only until Democrats win majorities in Congress and/or the 2020 presidential election removes Trump from the equation, at which time everyone can return to pretending the nuclear deal was a brilliant success. China and Russia will threaten and if necessary use their veto power, negating any progress in changing the deal. And the president’s domestic political problems may overshadow everything else if the 2018 mid-terms deliver a Democrat House, as impeachment proceedings would likely be the first and only item on the agenda.

What then is to be done? First, in order to show that he is serious, the president must explain to the American population, Congress and the UN what he wants to achieve and why it is so important. A blueprint for doing so was provided in August by former UN Ambassador John Bolton.

But as Bolton pointed out last week, re-negotiating the JCPOA just to have Iran cheat and obfuscate under a new set of terms is pointless. U.S. policy should be to apply maximum pressure on Iran with the goal of changing Iran’s government. The recent nationwide protests in Iran provided a glimpse of the powder keg that is the Iranian population’s hatred of the clerical regime. By re-imposing the sanctions waived under the JCPOA, and implementing new sanctions, maximum economic pressure can be brought to bear on Iran. By providing moral and material support to the Iranian population, maximum political pressure can likewise be brought to bear.

As we said recently, even the Soviet Union was brought down by economic and political pressures despite its enormous state security apparatus, and Iran is no different. This should be our ultimate goal, not tinkering around the margins of a diplomatic agreement like the JCPOA.

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