Don't tear up Iran nuclear deal — more sanctions strengthen US hand
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In the wake of last week’s elections, congressional Republicans and some supporters of president-elect Donald TrumpDonald TrumpGraham says he hopes that Trump runs again Trump says Stacey Abrams 'might be better than existing governor' Kemp Executive privilege fight poses hurdles for Trump MORE are pushing to tear up the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) — the nuclear deal that the U.S. signed with Iran last year.

Doing so would be a grave mistake.


Instead, Trump and Congressional Republicans and Democrats alike should unite around a strategy of preserving the JCPOA while pursuing more aggressive sanctions to check Iran’s ballistic missile programs, support for terrorism, and other illicit activities.

The JCPOA is an imperfect agreement and, particularly in its later years, allows Iran to make significant nuclear progress. But as long as the deal remains in force it will delay Iran’s nuclear weapons capability for more than a decade — a better outcome than tearing up the deal, in which case Iran may well develop nuclear weapons before the end of Trump’s term in office.

Furthermore, the diplomatic reality is that tearing up the JCPOA a year into implementation would open a huge rift with U.S. allies from Germany to Japan. As Trump himself noted during the GOP primaries, “I’ve heard a lot of people say, ‘We’re going to rip up the deal.’ It’s very tough to do when you say, ‘Rip up a deal.’”

The U.S. can, however, honor the JCPOA while implementing more robust sanctions to check Iran’s support for terrorism, its ballistic missile program, and other illicit activities — all sanctions that the agreement explicitly left in place.

How can such an approach work in practice?

First, the U.S. should apply more muscular measures to combat Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps and other hardliners inside Iran.

For example, U.S. sanctions do not currently appear to prohibit foreign companies from doing business with Iranian companies that the Revolutionary Guards own unless those companies are themselves specifically named on U.S. sanctions lists.

This creates a clear loophole: the Revolutionary Guards can simply set up subsidiaries and front companies to do business with European and Asian companies that re-enter the Iranian market. Closing this “Revolutionary Guards Gap” in U.S. law should be an immediate priority.

The U.S. Treasury Department should also more aggressively blacklist companies that are linked to hardline elements inside Iran but not fully owned by them — sanctions that the U.S. government has largely avoided over the past year as it focused on implementing the JCPOA.

More aggressive new sanctions targeting Iranian officials responsible for human rights abuses can highlight Iran’s poor record on human rights. 

Second, the Trump administration and Congress should tighten sanctions directed at Iran’s regional proxies, including Hezbollah, the al-Assad regime in Syria, and Houthi rebels in Yemen.


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Congress should pass currently-pending legislation that would dramatically tighten U.S. sanctions on the al-Assad regime, including its Iranian supply lines. The Treasury Department should also resume an aggressive pace of blacklisting Iranian government agencies and companies involved in Iran’s ballistic missile program and support for terrorism.

Of course, the U.S. should be careful to adhere to the specific terms of the JCPOA’s sanctions relief.

For example, terminating the ability of U.S. and European companies to sell civilian aircraft to Iran would violate a specific U.S. commitment under the deal.

While airplane manufacturers must ensure that Iran uses its new planes solely for civilian passengers and should cancel deals if evidence emerges that the planes will be used to ferry supplies to al-Assad or terrorist groups, new U.S. sanctions should focus on areas consistent with the JCPOA and not on revoking the sanctions relief provided under the JCPOA.

Iran will loudly protest new non-nuclear sanctions despite the fact that the JCPOA left such sanctions in place. But the reality is that such new sanctions will not prompt Iran to walk away from its nuclear deal: Iran has seen its growth rate rise above 4 percent this year as oil production increased by 1 million barrels per day and received access to tens of billions of dollars in frozen assets.

Iran will not jeopardize that windfall as long as the U.S. still honors the terms of its JCPOA commitments.

Finally, the U.S. should pursue ways to demonstrate good will to the Iranian people even as we tighten sanctions on the Iranian government.

In 2013, at the height of U.S. sanctions on Iran, the U.S. authorized American companies to sell smartphones in Iran to provide Iranians with access to communications tools and the U.S. always allowed sales of U.S. food and medicine to Iran.

As we tighten non-nuclear sanctions on the Iranian government, the U.S. should build on these precedents by expanding people-to-people exchanges, allowing U.S. doctors and medical companies to offer more services in Iran, and further expanding the availability of information technology in Iran.

After all, the JCPOA is set to expire in 15 years. Before that happens, we need Iran’s millions of pro-western young people to take Iran on a different path than the one Iran’s government is currently pursuing.  

Harrell is an Adjunct Senior Fellow at the Center for a New American Security and the former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Counter Threat Finance and Sanctions.

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