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Trump, give us a national security strategy with some teeth


In October, President Trump gave his much-anticipated speech on Iran, outlining a litany of grievances between Washington and Tehran.  It was loaded with the red meat worthy of a standing ovation from any Iran hawk: hostages, terrorism, the flouting of international law. The climax came with the president’s decision to decertify the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and threat to abandon the deal unless improvements were made.

{mosads}But, to date, the sound from Congress and the White House has been silence.  December 12, the deadline for congressional action pursuant to a presidential decertification under the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act (INRA), has come and gone.  A robust set of amendments to the INRA proposed by Sens. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) went nowhere, and there appears to be no plan to move the diplomatic ball forward with another certification deadline fast approaching on January 13, 2018.

Still, the administration has another chance to make a difference with the rollout of its National Security Strategy (NSS).  Done right, the Trump White House can make a clean break with the past, and recapture momentum with forward-looking organizing principles concerning Iran. Three such guideposts that this document must include are: Iran’s creeping imperialism is unacceptable; vanquishing the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria does not equal victory; and the JCPOA should be strengthened. 

Past national security strategies have prioritized the Iran nuclear file at the expense of articulating a durable strategy to contain Iran’s expansionist designs.  For example, the Clinton administration’s 1994 document called for a strategy of “dual containment of Iran and Iraq” — without detailing exactly what that meant.  It’s 2000 “National Security Strategy for a New Century” chastised Iran for its “continuing efforts to acquire WMD;” generally pledged to “oppose Iranian efforts to sponsor terror” without any specificity; and appeared intent on taking advantage of a new “pragmatism” with the reformist Khatami presidency in power — an experiment that never quite panned out.  

Fast forward to 2002. The Bush administration’s first National Security Strategy made only fleeting references to Iran — deploying its “rogue regimes” and WMD preemption dogma. Its 2006 version took a more comprehensive view — focusing of course on the nuclear issue but also on “block[ing] the threats posed by the regime while expanding our engagement and outreach to the people the regime is oppressing” — but again, with scant detail on how to accomplish such goals.

Unlike his predecessor, the 2010 Obama NSS concentrated on engagement with Iran’s government — something sought “without illusion.”  Ditto for 2015, when the White House was testing its interim Joint Plan of Action while negotiating a final nuclear deal, all while declaring the nuclear file as the greatest source of instability and violence in the Middle East, and putting the regime’s meddling in the neighborhood on the back burner. 

President Trump now has a chance to distinguish himself, by outlining an Iran strategy with teeth as part of his first NSS.

The first prong should be thwarting Iranian attempts at hegemony.  European Union leaders have made clear they are loathe to rock the boat on Iran for fear of undermining the JCPOA — especially given the challenge of North Korea. Nevertheless, Brussels is far from the only player with equities in this debate.  France has called for an “uncompromising dialogue” with Tehran over its missile program.  

Earlier this month, British Prime Minister Theresa May said  “Iran is showing that it is more interested in bolstering its role in the region, and that of its proxy Hezbollah, than finding a lasting peace in Syria.” Such observations are warranted, given that Tehran recently announced that it was prepared to increase the range of its missiles beyond the 2,000 km limit that its strategic defense doctrine permits.

Indeed, from Riyadh to London, an international consensus has emerged that the status quo on Iran remains unacceptable.  The Trump administration should harness this momentum to form a global coalition — similar to the diplomatic legwork done by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in the crushing sanctions levied on the mullahcracy over its nuclear program — to impose punishing multilateral non-nuclear sanctions on Iran.  But this requires a functioning State Department and an empowered secretary of state.

Second, the NSS should make clear U.S. long-term goals in Iraq and Syria now that the Islamic State is on the run. Washington may have won that battle, but it must be prepared for the day after — namely Iranian attempts at colonization — or it will lose the war.  Iran must not be allowed to maintain a beachhead in Iraq. 

For instance, disarming the Shiite Popular Mobilization Forces in Iraq, as Muqtada al-Sadr recently did with his own Peace Brigades, is crucial.  The NSS must also emphasize that forfeiting Syria policy to Russia remains a non-starter. A report in the New Yorker that the United States will accept Assad’s legitimacy until presidential elections in 2021 is troubling, as it undermines the administration’s repeated assurances that it is serious about checking Iranian expansionism. Continuing Assad’s rule in Syria enhances Iran’s regional reach — after all, according to the Wall Street Journal, “administration officials estimate that Tehran and its allies now provide 80 percent of the fighters for President Bashar al-Assad’s depleted regime there.”

Lastly, decertification of the JCPOA has become conflated with withdrawal.  Clarifying that the goal is amending the JCPOA will be important assurance to our allies when we ask them to support more intensive efforts aimed at checking Iran’s non-nuclear misbehavior.

National Security Advisor Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster outlined four core national principles ahead of the unveiling of the strategy next week: “protecting the homeland and the American people, advancing American prosperity, preserving peace through strength, and advancing American influence.”  Using the NSS to enunciate a strong Iran policy will go a long way in achieving these goals.

Jason M. Brodsky is the policy director of United Against Nuclear Iran.  He is on Twitter @JasonMBrodsky.

Tags Bob Corker Donald Trump foreign relations Foreign relations of Iran Hillary Clinton Iran Iran and weapons of mass destruction Iran–United States relations Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action Nuclear energy in Iran Nuclear program of Iran Politics of Iran Presidency of Donald Trump Sanctions against Iran Tom Cotton

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