Why Trump and Netanyahu might keep Iran nuclear deal after all

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With Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Washington for his first visit with President Trump, the two leaders are likely find themselves in agreement on the need to hold Iran more accountable for its ongoing illicit conduct than was the case under the Obama administration.

Former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn — who resigned this week — recently declared that the White House was putting Iran “on notice” after its at least fourth ballistic missile test since implementation of the nuclear deal last January.

Following that, the administration rolled out a new set of sanctions actions against Iranian missile procurement networks and an Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) Qods Force network providing support to Hezbollah in Lebanon.

While both leaders have previously called for renegotiating the Iran nuclear deal — the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) — there is a growing consensus both in Israel and in Washington that re-opening the deal would cause more damage than good.

{mosads}In his meeting with Trump, Netanyahu will undoubtedly voice Israeli concerns about so-called “sunset provisions” built into the JCPOA, under which remaining restrictions on Iranian enrichment and arms exports will begin to phase out as early as 2021.


But the two will likely focus their discussion on ways to more rigorously enforce the nuclear deal as is while confronting Iran’s aggressive sponsorship of terrorism and other illicit, non-nuclear behavior.

In a new study published by the Washington Institute, we look at the role of sanctions in restraining Iran’s regional aggression and disrupting its global terrorism, money laundering and procurement networks. We suggest a multipronged approach that starts with taking back control of the narrative about the deal so as to expose Iran’s false claims that we now live in a “post-sanctions era.”

In fact, sanctions remain a viable and powerful tool to confront Iran over human rights abuses, terror support and ballistic missile tests. The Obama administration feared using such tools in the post-Iran deal era would undermine the staying power of the deal, but the deal was never intended to give Iran a free pass on its non-nuclear malevolent actions.

Netanyahu and Trump will likely see eye to eye on the need to enforce Iran’s obligations under the deal and press forward with additional sanctions for illicit behavior outside the scope of the deal. Of course, enhanced sanctions will work best if they are proportional and accompanied by diplomatic, military and intelligence measures in a coordinated campaign against Iran’s destabilizing activities.

Likewise, sanctions are most effective when they are adopted by an international coalition. The challenge for Netanyahu and Trump is how to persuade the broader international community to work together against Iran’s destabilizing activities.

European partners in particular have little interest in either renegotiating the deal or taking action in response to Iran’s regional activities. Most European states hope to see their companies benefit from renewed financial and commercial ties with Iran, yet they retain EU sanctions on Hezbollah’s military wing and Iranians involved in human rights abuses, to include the IRGC.

In line with the reality of these ongoing restrictions, Jerusalem and Washington are likely to agree on the need to emphasize to their European partners in particular that Iran’s ongoing illicit conduct is the reason for continued sanctions.

Iran helps that effort by engaging in provocative steps such as missile tests and supporting Houthi attacks on ships. Indeed, Iran made no commitment to cease non-nuclear malevolent activity and has not, in fact, halted it.

In the words of Abbas Araqchi, Iran’s deputy foreign minister and one of Iran’s chief negotiators of the deal, “During the nuclear negotiations, we clearly said that questions of security, defense, ballistic missile and our regional policies were not negotiable and not linked to the nuclear talks.”

Focusing on Iranian conduct that violates international norms will be the most likely to draw multilateral support. And demonstrating international resolve on holding Iran to account for its non-nuclear malevolent activities is more likely to win Iran’s begrudged respect for the constraints of the deal itself.

President Trump may find it surprising, but despite Prime Minister Netanyahu’s distaste for the Iran deal, he is unlikely to suggest the president should shred it. Instead, Trump should expect Netanyahu to call for the deal to be enforced to the hilt. And having put Iran “on notice,” that is something the Trump White House seems ready to do.

Matthew Levitt is the Fromer-Wexler fellow and director of the Washington Institute’s counterterrorism program. Katherine Bauer is the Blumenstein-Katz Family fellow in the Washington Institute’s Counterterrorism Program. Patrick Clawson is the Morningstar senior fellow and director of research at the Washington Institute.

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


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