Making the Most of the Bad Nuclear Deal
When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with US President Donald Trump today, they will already share a major point of agreement: that the nuclear deal with Iran is thoroughly flawed.
This is true because rather than preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, the deal ensures it will happen. Furthermore, the agreement, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), only deals with the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program, and there are numerous other areas of grave concern regarding the regime’s behavior that must be addressed.
Both Netanyahu and Trump seem to share a core belief that Iran will continue to cheat on the margins of the nuclear deal while pursuing its nefarious regional agenda.
If that is what they believe, then their objective should be to get rid of the deal while preserving maximum leverage to affect the Iranian regime’s behavior and curtail its nuclear program. Iran’s behavior — not its nuclear program — must become the focus.
At first glance, it would appear that the best method to achieve that aim is to either tear up or renegotiate the nuclear agreement; yet that is not the case.
Paradoxically, the best way to get rid of the deal is to stick to it, and let it collapse under its own weight. That is most likely to happen when intense pressure is applied in response to Iran’s non-nuclear-related transgressions outside of the agreement.
The key is for the JCPOA to be undone by Iran, not by America or its allies.
That means that the best strategy is to keep the deal as it currently stands, and vigorously enforce all of its provisions — rather than letting Iran slide as former President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry did.
Don’t hope for a change in the regime’s behavior; expect that there won’t be one. Most importantly, take advantage of the fact that Obama and Kerry agreed to Iran’s demand that the agreement only deal with its nuclear program, while not addressing the other distressful aspects of the regime’s behavior, such as its abuse of human rights, support for terrorism and its burgeoning ballistic missile program.
Given the multilateral context in which the deal was negotiated, multiple tools of American statecraft will be necessary to ensure this strategy’s success. The US should leave no stone unturned in building an international consensus against Iran. President Trump should explain that while he believes the deal is weak, he will respect its contours because, as Secretary of Defense James Mattis said, “When America gives her word, we have to live up to it and work with our allies.”
In return, America and its allies must come to an understanding that any breach of the deal will be met with specific penalties that are agreed to in advance. Iran has already been cheating incrementally on the nuclear side, but not egregiously. There should be no tolerance for even the smallest infraction.
The bulk of American pressure should be brought to bear on Iran’s non-nuclear-related activities. And while a multinational effort remains the preferred approach, however, the Trump Administration find Russia, China, and others unwilling to cooperate, it can make progress with those countries that are willing to support it.
Some of the options for punishing Iran include incrementally increasing sanctions against the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and its external terrorist wing, the Quds Force (something Trump has just started to do). The IRGC is Iran’s economic, security, military and political powerhouse. The more individuals and organizations that are designated as terrorist entities, the less effective they’ll be in a range of illicit activities.
Some of these actions can be accomplished through executive action, while others require Congress to act. This shouldn’t be a problem, as the House and Senate have shown their eagerness to apply pressure, with many Democrats open to new sanctions legislation as well.
Another option is emboldening the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), the global standard-setting body that fights money laundering and the funding of terrorism. Iran’s illicit financing is even more toxic than its nuclear portfolio, so the US should apply international pressure here.
Friends, foes and those in between should be convinced by the Trump Administration that it’s in their interest to work with the US because, at the end of the day, when those provisional “sunsets” in the JCPOA arrive, the US will act militarily if that is what’s required.
Make no mistake: Along the way, Iran will seek to isolate America in the court of world opinion, arguing that the US is violating the JCPOA and backing away from its commitments. That is why the Trump administration will have to work diligently to demonstrate that it is sticking to the deal but pushing back against Iran’s non-nuclear activities. Convincing America’s allies of this reality should be diplomatic priority number one. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will have his work cut out for him, but the US can win in the global court of opinion if he lays out the ground rules judiciously.
While many in Washington argue that renegotiating the nuclear agreement is the best option, Iran has no incentive to finalize a new deal. Besides, in the final analysis, it is fundamentally not in the US’ interest — and runs counter to American values — to offer that which the regime seeks. Moreover, renegotiating the terms still concedes upfront Iran’s right to enrich uranium — the original sin of the original deal.
The paradox remains: It took a horrible nuclear deal to get into this mess, and it will take the same horrible nuclear deal to get out of it. America’s new leverage will come from its return to and strengthening of the system of alliances that Obama turned away from. It comes from a president realizing that his nation’s power is an indispensable force for good, rather than an unnecessary burden to be held in check or withdrawn. By leading its allies, the US can make sure the regime in Tehran finally feels pressure instead of receiving participation trophies and pallets of cash. Used properly, an invigorated diplomatic toolbox with increased leverage could refine Iran’s behavior in the short term and provide the needed space to consider further options in the future.
Of course, it would be diplomatic malfeasance to let the world know that the US’ goal is to scuttle the deal by sticking to it. So please burn this after reading.
A version of this article was originally published by The Jerusalem Post.