Washington must contain the real Iranian threat to Middle East peace

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Throughout the 21st century, and perhaps earlier as well, the United States has repeatedly missed the Middle East’s most significant developments. With President Trump’s recent ultimatum on the Iran nuclear deal, it risks doing so again.

The illicit nuclear program that should have been of grave concern in 2003 was Iran’s, not Iraq’s. The predations of a power-hungry regime dividing its people and driving its country to civil war in 2011 that should have raised alarms were those of Tehran-backed Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, not Mohammed Morsi in Egypt. The transnational force that posed the gravest danger to the Middle East in 2014 was Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and its proxies, not the Islamic State.

{mosads}Now, after 15 years of diverted attention and neglect, the Iranian threat to Middle Eastern stability and to U.S. interests has become a many-headed hydra that encompasses an ongoing nuclear program, illegal ballistic missile development and international arms shipments, support for terrorism, and brutal repression at home. The challenge for U.S. policymakers is not just confronting these threats, but determining the right order in which to address them.

The Trump administration understands the wide range of dangerous Iranian behavior. President Trump has called for a comprehensive strategy to “address the full range of Iran’s destructive actions.” Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability was the central, some might say only, pillar of the Obama administration’s Iran policy, leading to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). But Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was right to assert that “the flawed Iran nuclear deal is no longer the focal point of our policy toward Iran.” Not because it is a sound agreement, but because other Iranian threats loom much larger right now.

The JCPOA’s gravest flaw is also what mitigates its importance to U.S. strategy: the deal’s effective expiration by 2031. As President Obama acknowledged, “In year 13, 14, 15…the breakout times would have shrunk almost down to zero.” This huge future payoff ensures that Iran will largely abide by the deal, even if it cheats on the sides. That gives the United States and its allies time, about a decade, to strengthen the deal and make its constraints permanent.

Despite that time frame, the nuclear deal remains at the center of the current partisan tussle over Iran. President Trump, bound by a campaign promise, focuses only on nixing or fixing the JCPOA. Defenders of President Obama’s legacy decry any action on Iran, including support for Iranian protesters, lest it disturb the deal.

Meanwhile, Washington’s key partners in the region — Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — see Tehran expanding its ability to project power, positioning its militias along their borders, stockpiling advanced munitions, and even launching missiles into their territory with seeming impunity. They also see little action from the United States, driving them to take matters into their own hands, often disastrously.

Continued U.S. prioritization of the nuclear issue will only ensure that Iran does, ultimately, become a nuclear power. In negotiating the JCPOA, Tehran’s main leverage was its growing number of centrifuges and enriched uranium stockpile. In any future nuclear negotiation, however, its leverage may well be its ability to directly threaten Tel Aviv, Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, and the Strait of Hormuz and the Bab El Mandeb.

Only by containing Iranian aggression now, can the hope for a better nuclear deal be preserved. Prioritizing action to counter Iran’s expansion into Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Lebanon does not mean ignoring the danger of Iran’s nuclear program or flaws of the JCPOA. Instead, it would end the most immediate threat to the region and build pressure on Tehran that would enable an eventual revision of the JCPOA.

Congress can help reprioritize U.S. policy toward Iran. Part of the problem is the recurring need for the president to decide whether to waive sanctions on Iran as part of JCPOA, as he did last week, and certify the deal. These two mechanisms made sense when Congress was dealing with a less hawkish president. But that is no longer the case. Now, these deadlines create an inescapable cycle of heightened political tension around the JCPOA.

Congress can relieve this political pressure that keeps U.S. policy fixated on the nuclear issue, even while Iran marches unchecked from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean and the Red Sea. All it would take is rewriting relevant legislation to allow the president’s decision on sanctions waiver and JCPOA certification to remain in place but provide him the authority to reimpose sanctions or decertify the deal whenever he believes events warrant. Washington must move past its fixation on the nuclear deal, for now, and confront the immediate threat Iran poses to Middle Eastern stability.

Blaise Misztal is director of national security at the Bipartisan Policy Center.

Tags Congress Donald Trump Foreign policy Iran Middle East Rex Tillerson

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