For nearly 40 years, the United States and Iran have been on a confrontational path. The question for the United States has always been how to change Iran’s behavior—its support for terrorism, nuclear development, and regional exploitation of gaps in Sunni Arab governance and grievances of Arab Shia populations, along with human rights abuses—predominately through a combination of economic pressure and political isolation. Yet, the Islamic Republic of Iran has survived and adapted, despite significant international sanctions.
On Friday, President Trump announced the outline of his strategy for Iran—one that is entirely focused on pressure. His statement included an indictment of Iran’s destabilizing activities, support for terrorism, growth of its missile program, and its human rights infractions. He also took the anticipated step of not certifying to the U.S. Congress that Iran’s compliance with the multinational Iran nuclear deal merits proportionate U.S. sanctions relief. The U.S. Administration is right to chart a comprehensive strategy for Iran. But in seeking to address deficiencies in the JCPOA by passing the buck to Congress, it is introducing unnecessary political risk and escalation at a time when U.S. government and international unity of effort to address Iran’s broader regional activities is needed most.
Through its support for its partners, proxies, and militias in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen, Iran is actively shaping the regional environment to its advantage, particularly where it perceives a lack of U.S. engagement and gaps in local governance. Just Monday, Iranian-allied militias in Iraq partnered with Iraqi security forces to overrun Kurdish forces in Kirkuk, Iraq. Lack of clarity for U.S. strategy in Iraq, particularly following the Sept. 25 Iraqi Kurdish referendum, created the conditions for Iran to encourage the Iraqi national government in Baghdad—a U.S. partner—to use force against another U.S. partner—the Kurdistan Regional Government.
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The Administration now needs to detail its strategy in concert with Congress and U.S. allies to address the broader array of Iran’s destabilizing activities and capability development. This broader strategy should address Iran’s support for proxy and militia forces that have grown over the last five years in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen, seek to establish caps on Iran’s missile development, deter Iran’s provocative maritime and cyber activities, and counter Iran’s dissemination of information through media and proxy groups to shape local populations’ perceptions. These tools enable Iran’s coercive and shaping strategy in the region in ways that often undermine U.S., allied, and partner interests.
The Administration is also raising unnecessary political risks by passing responsibility to Congress. Congress will have to determine how to handle the “hot potato” of the president decertifying that U.S. sanctions relief to Iran is to the advantage of the United States, as he does not believe that Iran is compliant with the Iran nuclear deal, formally known as the multinational Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The president can make this decertification under a U.S. law passed in 2015 by a skeptical Congress eager to exercise oversight of the JCPOA implementation: He must make a decision on whether to certify every 90 days. This also comes as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has affirmed that Iran is abiding by the deal, and the five U.S. allies who signed the JCPOA with the United States still strongly support it.
Congress could take at least three steps next. It could do nothing and wait for the next opportunity for the president to certify in 90 days, which the president may not do or may outright call for the United States to abandon the JCPOA. Alternatively, Congress could choose to reimpose sanctions, which would then put the JCPOA in jeopardy. Or, as recommended by the president, Congress could amend the 2015 law to include “trigger points,” automatically reinstating U.S. sanctions if Iran crosses those lines. These trigger points could include missile development redlines, an intelligence assessment that Iran has reached a nuclear capability of being able to build a nuclear bomb within a year, or Iran’s refusal to extend limits on its nuclear fuel production. Questions certainly remain about Iran’s missile development and its possible breakout to nuclear capability after the JCPOA expires. However, Congress should encourage the Administration to deal with these issues through a negotiated, diplomatic process with U.S. allies and Iran that builds upon the JCPOA rather than putting it at risk.
No deal is perfect. Deal making requires tradeoffs and compromise to arrive at an outcome that all parties can uphold. To go back to deal making requires capitalizing off the last round through new leverage, including a combination of pressure and incentives or because exogenous factors have fundamentally shifted the calculus or relative advantage of the negotiating parties.
President Trump was elected on a platform of discarding the JCPOA. Although he has adopted a position that is short of that, it may begin a process of unraveling U.S. political support for the deal. With Republican majorities in both houses of Congress, and with midterm elections in 2018, there are political advantages to aligning with the president. However, a bipartisan approach to addressing Iran’s nuclear profile and its regional destabilizing activities will ensure the strategy is adaptive to changes in the U.S. political and international security environment.
Moreover, to create the type of conditions that were necessary to bring Iran to the nuclear negotiating table, U.S., allied, and partner pressure and incentives are necessary. Europe, Russia, and China have far more economic leverage with Iran than the United States does, given Iranian economic and energy ties to these countries. And none of those parties are currently interested in renegotiating or addressing gaps in the JCPOA. Europe does not want to see it unravel via the effects of U.S. unilateral moves, as it is a multinational agreement backed by a UN Security Council resolution that is effectively curbing Iran’s nuclear program. Russia will see an advantage in a fracturing transatlantic approach, as frustration and disunity amongst U.S. and European allies may create opportunities for Russian power projection and influence in eastern Europe, Syria, and perhaps more broadly in Europe and the Middle East. Gulf partners and the Israeli prime minister support the U.S. president’s announcement, but the Israeli security establishment and former Israeli political leaders still strongly support the JCPOA as the best alternative to Iranian pursuit of a bomb.
International investors may be spooked by the possible unraveling of JCPOA consensus and be reluctant to pursue opportunities in Iran, feeding Iranian perceptions that JCPOA parties are not serious about providing an economic opening to Iran in return for its nuclear compliance. Iran is not a unity actor and, much like the United States, has several domestic competing power centers and viewpoints.
Historically, an international pressure-only strategy has effectively unified Iranian views into one of resistance. The JCPOA has proved to be an exception, given the multinational dual-track strategy of pressure and incentives applied, which compelled Iran to agree to curb its nuclear program in exchange for gradual economic relief, overseen by significant international monitoring and verification. A sequenced combination of pressure and incentives, based on defined steps Iran makes first, can similarly deter Iran’s other activities. Crafting this strategy will require a renewed U.S. commitment to diplomacy, backed by military and economic coercion, and a reversal of what seems to be a deemphasis on the diplomatic instrument of U.S. national power.
Melissa Dalton is a senior fellow and deputy director of the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.