Foreign Policy

Trump’s steps on Iran show cooperation with Congress is possible

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On Wednesday, the Trump administration made clear that its Iran policy review is headed toward the position shared by the chairs and ranking members of the House and Senate foreign relations committees that the United States should take a firmer stance against Iran’s non-nuclear malign activities.

Even if tensions between Congress and the administration over Russia continue to increase, these steps make it clear that Iran policy is an arena in which the two branches can and should work very effectively together.

The administration renewed a statutory waiver of nuclear sanctions against Iran’s petroleum exports. In explaining his decision to renew the waiver, President Trump explained that he was doing so “[a]s my administration conducts a review of its Iran policy, and consistent with United States commitments specified in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).”

On the very same day, the administration imposed new non-nuclear sanctions against Tehran and released a report highlighting Iran’s human rights abuses. Last month, the Treasury Department imposed the first human rights-related sanctions designations against Iranian individuals and entities since before the JCPOA was announced in July 2015

In announcing Wednesday’s steps, the State Department declared that, “[A]s we continue to closely scrutinize Iran’s commitment to the JCPOA and develop a comprehensive Iran policy, we will continue to hold Iran accountable for its human rights abuses with new actions.”

In addition, the State Department emphasized, “The United States’ resolve to continue countering Iran’s destabilizing activity in the region, whether it be supporting the Assad regime, backing terrorist organizations like Hezbollah, or supporting violent militias that undermine governments in Iraq and Yemen. Above all, the United States will never allow the regime in Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon.”

The clear implication of Wednesday’s steps is that the administration will not permit Iran to have a “patient pathway” to a nuclear weapon following expiration of the JCPOA’s restrictions. At the same time, the administration will endeavor to slow Iran’s ballistic missile program; ramp up resistance to Iranian regional aggression; dismantle Iran’s global terror network; and foster the process of evolutionary change toward a more politically pluralistic and eventually free and democratic future for Iran. 

The Obama administration was accused of prioritizing keeping the JCPOA alive over pushing back against Iran on non-nuclear issues and over holding firm against incremental Iranian violations of the JCPOA itself

The Trump administration appears to be taking a different approach. Wednesday’s steps included designation by Treasury of four entities and three individuals for activities in connection with Iran’s efforts to develop ballistic missiles, which would be Iran’s preferred method of delivering any nuclear weapons it developed.

One of the designated Iranians had provided explosives and other materials to the Syrian entity responsible for developing and producing non-conventional weapons, including chemical weapons and the missiles to deliver them. 

These included both Iranians and also an outside supplier, a China-based network which Treasury described as “supporting Iran’s military by supplying millions of dollars worth of missile-applicable items.” As pointed out by Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and others, ostensibly private brokers based in China have long served as a leading source for Iran’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs.

Designating the China-based network was a particularly important signal to China in light of the recent revelations that the Obama administration had quietly dropped charges against an Iranian who played a leading role in procurement through that country.

The Trump administration’s different approach is very consistent with that advocated by leading members of Congress including Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and Ranking Member Ben Cardin (D-Md.) in their S. 722, and House Committee on Foreign Affairs Chair Ed Royce (R-Calif.) and Ranking Member Elliot Engel (D-N.Y.) in their H.R. 1698

The Trump administration has been accused by some of acting impulsively at times. Its apparently careful, measured and thoughtful approach to Iran policy is encouraging. Tearing up the JCPOA, without a better strategy for preventing an Iranian nuclear bomb and a broader strategy for combating non-nuclear malign Iranian behavior, would make no sense

As Donald Trump himself put it during the campaign: “I would love to tell you that I’m going to rip up this contract, I’m going to be the toughest guy in the world. But you know what? Life doesn’t work that way.”

In the early 1980s, President Reagan instructed his National Security Council to develop a comprehensive strategy to roll back the Soviet Union using covert and overt steps in the economic, political, human rights, diplomatic, intelligence, arms control and military arenas. It was a strategy which succeeded in part because it was crafted with expertise and creativity, thoughtfully sequenced, and implemented in an exceptionally coordinated and disciplined manner by dedicated officials across the executive and legislative branches.

To be successful, a new United States policy towards Iran will require the same elements. Let’s hope that no matter what else they are struggling over, the administration and Congress can take advantage of their commonality of views on Iran and work together to develop and implement an effective strategy to halt and roll back Tehran’s non-nuclear malign activities.

They must also ensure that Iran will not have a “patient pathway” to a nuclear weapon following expiration of the JCPOA’s restrictions.


Orde Kittrie is a professor of law at Arizona State University and a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank focused on national security and foreign policy. Kittrie is a former nonproliferation specialist at the U.S. State Department.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.

Tags Ben Cardin Bob Corker Donald Trump Ed Markey Foreign relations of Iran Iran Nuclear program of Iran Nuclear proliferation Politics of Iran

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