Last week, the Trump administration recertified that Iran is complying the nuclear agreement, setting off predictable debate between who those want to exit the deal immediately and those who see it as his predecessor’s signature foreign policy achievement.
But for all the will-he-or-won’t-he attention on Trump’s decision, the focus on the nuclear deal is missing the point: The administration’s real agenda on Iran doesn’t hinge on the nuclear agreement—a dangerous deal that puts the U.S. in a impossible situation. Instead, the Trump administration’s priority should be restoring leverage against Tehran, so that we can dissuade Iran from sprinting toward a bomb and create far more favorable circumstances to negotiate an agreement that—unlike Obama’s deal—actually prevents a nuclear Iran.
Abiding by the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), as the agreement is known, will only enable a nuclear and hegemonic Iran. It provides Tehran significant financial, military and geopolitical benefits, both upfront and over time, in exchange for minimal, reversible and temporary concessions on its nuclear program. As the JCPOA’s restrictions fall away in coming years, Iran will be legally permitted to produce everything it needs for a nuclear weapon.
Yet, the JCPOA also forfeits what little leverage the United States had – in the form of economic sanctions – with no way to rapidly rebuild pressure. Thus, leaving the deal would free Iran to sprint for a nuclear weapons capability in a year or less, likely far less time than the United States would need to rebuild the international sanctions regime. Our partners to the deal would be unlikely to go along with us, further undermining our leverage.
This catch-22 stems from earlier failures to develop compelling pressure on Iran, as reported by JINSA’s Gemunder Center Iran Task Force, which we co-chair. The Obama Administration created a false narrative that eschewed military options against Iran’s nuclear program and regional aggression, leaving Congress to focus narrowly on sanctions. These sanctions may have brought Tehran to the table, and helped keep it there long enough hammer out a deal, but alone they could not force it into an acceptable agreement.
Consequently, the JCPOA puts Iran on track to become as intractable a challenge as North Korea is today, and very possibly worse. Threatening the United States and its allies, including with nuclear weapons, is a core ambition of both these rogue regimes. Yet while Pyongyang’s relentless pursuit of this goal has only isolated and impoverished it, the JCPOA does the opposite for Tehran.
The Trump administration must not abide this untenable and deteriorating situation. The United States now needs what it clearly lacked before: a comprehensive strategy of robust leverage against all of Iran’s destabilizing behaviors.
The first step is full enforcement of the JCPOA – including potentially re-imposing suspended sanctions in response to Iranian cheating – as a clear signal that Tehran can no longer flout its nuclear obligations. However, given the damage already done by the deal and the fact time is not on its side, the administration’s ongoing strategic review and threats of renewed sanctions are insufficient.
American policymakers must also rebuild military leverage over Iran. Contingency plans to neutralize Iran’s nuclear facilities, if it materially breaches or withdraws from the deal, should be updated to reflect its growing nuclear infrastructure and military capabilities under the JCPOA. Just like it already appears to be doing against North Korea, the Pentagon must also develop credible capabilities in preparation for a possible shoot-down of future Iranian ballistic missile tests. U.S. Navy ships must also “fully and responsibly” utilize rules of engagement to defend themselves and the Persian Gulf against rising Iranian harassment.
It is equally important the United States work with its allies. The recent ten-year Memorandum of Understanding on defense assistance to Israel should be treated as the floor for cooperation, in particular on missile defenses shielding U.S. forces, Israel and its neighbors from increasingly capable arsenals of Iran and its proxies.
Stronger regional collective defense is also needed. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are shouldering the burdens of countering Iran’s growing footprint around the Arabian Peninsula. Formal U.S. military backing, and possible support from Israel, will raise the costs to Tehran of further aggression while reassuring our worried allies.
Public announcements and military exercises will make these intentions, capabilities and allied unity abundantly clear to Tehran. Strategic communications can also amplify investors’ continued wariness of the Iranian market and, in combination with human rights, terrorism and missile sanctions, increase internal strains on the regime.
These concentric pressures – none of which violate the JCPOA – will help deter Iran from pursuing nuclear weapons capability whether it complies, violates or withdraws from the deal.
They also create the most favorable conditions for a renegotiated agreement – one enshrining many of the parameters initially demanded by the Obama Administration. This should include: “anytime, anywhere” inspections to verify the absence of weaponization activities and secret facilities; dismantling Iran’s nuclear-capable missiles; ensuring Iran could never enrich enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon; and no sunset or end to sanctions or embargoes until inspectors verify the completely peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear program.
Neither staying in nor exiting the JCPOA can accomplish America’s overriding priority in the Middle East. Only increased U.S. leverage can prevent a nuclear Iran.
Ambassador Eric Edelman is former Undersecretary of Defense for Policy and senior advisor at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. General (ret.) Charles Wald is former Deputy Commander of U.S. European Command. They co-chair JINSA’s Gemunder Center Iran Task Force.
Follow the Foundation for Defense of Democracies on Twitter @FDD.