Handling Iran: Keep the sanctions, don't ditch the deal
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Two Iran-related news items grabbed headlines this week. The Trump administration rolled out new non-nuclear sanctions, the latest in its efforts to punish Iran’s aggressive regional behavior while adhering to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The sanctions accompanied the administration’s recent 90-day report, sent through the State Department, notifying Congress of Iran’s continuing compliance with the JCPOA, a positive update that, by all accounts, President Trump was reluctant to submit.

Trump’s most prominent national security advisers apparently urged him not to tear up the deal as they formulate a comprehensive strategy for countering Iran, and continuing sanctions appear to constitute part of this effort. But the president’s trigger finger for trashing multilateral agreements is itchy, which could have detrimental consequences for any new strategy. Trump would do well to take his advisers’ counsel, keep the sanctions, and belay the talk of ditching the deal.

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Consistent and dogged focus on pushing back against Iran’s asymmetric tactics is much-needed, and the new sanctions get directly at these threats. They target Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) procurement of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and other materiel, IRGC-Navy fast attack boats and Iran’s ballistic missile program, among other items; these programs constitute direct threats to regional stability.

 

There is evidence that Iran has provided the Houthi rebels with UAVs and ballistic missiles, provoking and threatening the Saudi-led coalition that has bombed Yemen into devastation. The Islamic Republic’s continuing development of a ballistic missile program menaces the United States’ Gulf partners and American forces stationed in the region. The IRGC-Navy uses fast attack craft to buzz U.S. Navy ships, creating dangerous situations that could have escalatory consequences.

This is not to mention how Iran has used the IRGC and its proxies and affiliated militias to exploit political and sectarian fault lines in the Arab world, increasing its influence around the region. Tehran has saved its Syrian ally, the murderous dictator Bashar Al-Assad, through direct IRGC support and its influence over foreign forces like Hezbollah and Iraqi Shia militias that traverse the region’s porous borders.

In Iraq, where Iran’s sway has grown since the U.S. invasion in 2003, the Shia militias it backs appear poised to further impose themselves on the country’s political process as the ISIS threat recedes.

The new sanctions are one positive step toward addressing these threats, and are not inherently threatening to the nuclear deal. As long as the Trump administration does not use sanctions to actively undermine the JCPOA’s terms, it will find them to be an effective tool for combating Iran’s challenge going forward. The Obama administration imposed non-nuclear sanctions against Iran after it negotiated the agreement, recognizing the agreement’s narrow, nuclear-only focus.

But it is this narrow scope that President Trump takes issue with and that crystallizes the JCPOA, for him, as a bad deal. Administration spokespeople have indicated as much in statements and press backgrounders, decrying Iran’s non-nuclear “bad behavior” as violating the spirit of the nuclear deal.

But the president’s apparent insistence on dismantling the JCPOA is short-sighted and nonsensical. Whether one agrees with the terms of the deal’s scope and various provisions is, at this point, immaterial. The reality is that China, Russia and the European states that negotiated the agreement will not again participate in an international sanctions regime as comprehensive as the one that brought Iran to the bargaining table if the U.S. breaks the JCPOA’s terms.

They will also not support the Trump administration if it uses overly-comprehensive sanctions or other tools to prevent Iran from obtaining the negotiated benefits of the deal, or to disrupt the business opportunities that are slowly emerging for European and U.S. companies. This is not to mention that Israel and the United States’ partners in the Gulf, no fans of Iran, find American breaching of the agreement to be a bad idea.

President Trump would do better to accept the reality of the nuclear agreement, interpret it narrowly and allow his secretaries of state, defense and treasury to tackle separately Iran’s non-nuclear challenges. A frequent criticism of the Obama administration was that it capitulated to Iran in Syria talks and on other non-nuclear threats in service of the agreement. Rather than stubbornly tearing down his predecessor’s work, Trump could improve on it by bringing confrontation of Iran’s threats and diplomatic engagement into closer balance.

President Trump should also focus on resolving existing diplomatic crises that impact his Iran policy rather than creating new ones. The president’s comments on the Qatar diplomatic crisis have distracted and weakened the de facto anti-Iran coalition that was shaping up during his visit to Riyadh. With the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and Arab Gulf states in disarray, Trump’s tweets have made the work of his top diplomats more difficult, and have presented the U.S. as an ineffective mediator tripping over its own feet.

The longer the crisis is allowed to fester, the longer it will take the U.S. and its Arab Gulf partners to advance difficult joint projects aimed at combatting Iranian threats, like a GCC-wide integrated ballistic missile defense shield. Trump’s call with Omani Sultan Qaboos on conflict resolution is a positive first step toward righting his stance, but the president will have to avoid backsliding (or Twitter) if there is to be any hope for sustained progress.

The next White House review of the JCPOA is due in October, likely accompanied by another round of Treasury sanctions. If his military and diplomatic advisers can strike the correct balance and the president can stay out of his own way, there may still be a nuclear deal in place alongside them.

Owen Daniels is assistant director of the Middle East Peace and Security Initiative in the Atlantic Council's Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security. Follow him on Twitter @OJDaniels.


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