The old saying that “politics stops at the water’s edge” seems quaint in today’s polarized political world. Bipartisanship is hard to find anywhere, and foreign policy is no exception. President TrumpDonald TrumpRobert Gates says 'extreme polarization' is the greatest threat to US democracy Cassidy says he won't vote for Trump if he runs in 2024 Schiff says holding Bannon in criminal contempt 'a way of getting people's attention' MORE has certainly deepened the divisions on national security, but he did not create them.
On Iran, those divisions have become sharper as the risks of escalation and conflict have become more acute. Combined with the instinct to do the opposite of Trump, many of the Democratic candidates are now saying they will go back into the JCPOA if elected.
There are good reasons to challenge the Trump approach to Iran; while “maximum pressure,” is imposing real costs on the Iranian economy, the Trump administration seemed to assume the Iranians had no options, believing they would succumb to the pressure and be prepared to concede on the JCPOA and their regional behavior. The administration did little to anticipate how the Iranians might decide to raise the costs to us, our interests, and our friends in response to our maximum pressure. It now faces what will soon be an Iranian incremental walk-away from JCPOA limits, as well as asymmetric threats for which the administration appears to have no answer.
So there is good reason to question the Trump approach; applying pressure to Iran has always been necessary to adjust its behavior, but that pressure had to be combined with not putting the Iranians in a corner.
Simply going back to the JCPOA is, however, not the answer.
For one thing, even for a Democratic administration, the JCPOA may not be sustainable in the face of Iran feeling free to destabilize the rest of the region. Promoting conflicts and providing rockets and weapons to Hezbollah, the Houthis, Hamas and Islamic Jihad sooner or later would have produced sanctions on those behaviors — notwithstanding the JCPOA. And the Iranians, seeing the chilling effect on investments, would likely have cried foul, saying the deal does not apply to regional issues, and threaten to walk away.
The irony is that if Iran had become less aggressive in the region after the JCPOA, there might be less fear about Iran becoming a nuclear threshold state in 2030 with zero break-out time for producing weapons-grade fissile material — the consequence of the JCPOA’s limitations on Iranian enrichment ending then. But the Iranians have done the opposite, even declaring that Syria and Lebanon were part of their “forward defense.”
Trump is not to blame for that. Indeed, part of the reason for the maximum pressure campaign was to counter “malign Iranian activities” in the region. That, however, requires allies, and Trump alienated the British, French and Germans by blowing off four months of negotiations in which they agreed to impose sanctions on Iran’s regional behavior and ballistic missile testing if he would stay in the deal. While they were not prepared to renegotiate the JCPOA, President Macron of France acknowledged there was a need for a successor agreement to ensure that the sunset provisions in the JCPOA were extended.
Like Macron, Democratic candidates could declare that the limitations on the numbers and types of centrifuges, the level of enrichment, and the stockpile of enriched material, must be extended. Why not propose extending them for 15 years. Keeping these limitations in place until 2045 would reduce both the risks of an Iranian nuclear bomb and the likelihood that the Saudis and others will say they should be allowed to have the same nuclear infrastructure as the Iranians. In addition, Iran’s effort to build a precision-guidance capability for missiles in both Lebanon and Syria risks a wider regional war with Israel, as Israel justifiably sees precision-guidance for tens of thousands of those rockets as a strategic threat with which it cannot live. Why not, therefore, also outline specific limits on the kinds of weapons and military infrastructure that Iran can provide or transfer to Lebanon and Syria.
The Iranians undoubtedly would say “more for more” — more from us requires more from you. No doubt, they would seek not just the lifting of the nuclear sanctions but the non-nuclear sanctions as well. The latter refer to the sanctions we have long had against the Iranians for their support of terror and human rights violations — and those sanctions, given Iranian behavior, should not be lifted. Yes, their existence inhibits banks and businesses investing in Iran. Still, the U.S. could promise it would lift the reimposed nuclear sanctions and also create a special-purpose channel for conducting trade and investment in Iran for financial institutions. Rather than simply urging businesses to invest in Iran as John KerryJohn KerryPressure grows for breakthrough in Biden agenda talks Overnight Energy & Environment — Presented by ExxonMobil — Climate divides conservative Democrats in reconciliation push Equilibrium/Sustainability — Presented by Altria — Walrus detectives: Scientists recruit public to spot mammal from space MORE did after the JCPOA was concluded, that special-purpose vehicle would establish ground rules for the commercial activity and investments that would be permitted.
Democratic critics of Trump’s policies need not simply support returning to the JCPOA as is. Indeed, that may spur others in the region to demand the same industrial-scale nuclear enrichment capabilities that Iran is permitted, risking proliferation.
Nor should they call for a grand bargain where all differences with the Iranians are settled — the gaps are too wide. But a negotiation to extend the sunset provisions, along with limiting the kind of Iranian arms or military infrastructure in Syria, is an approach that probably could be negotiated at some point, precisely because the Iranians are feeling real economic pain. Pressure and diplomacy are needed, and Democratic presidential candidates can offer an alternative. With Trump clearly not wanting a war, he might even draw from their ideas.
Dennis RossDennis Alan RossBiden faces lasting blemish from Afghanistan exit Biden needs a Middle East strategy to avoid new crises Biden ramps up pressure on Iran as it grapples with protests MORE is counselor and the William Davidson Distinguished Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He served as special assistant to President Obama, as Special Middle East Coordinator under President Clinton, and as director of the State Department's Policy Planning Staff in the first Bush administration. Follow him on Twitter @AmbDennisRoss.