If Trump pulls out of the Iran deal, what’s our new strategy?

If Trump pulls out of the Iran deal, what’s our new strategy?
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President TrumpDonald John TrumpRosenstein expected to leave DOJ next month: reports Allies wary of Shanahan's assurances with looming presence of Trump States file lawsuit seeking to block Trump's national emergency declaration MORE sent mixed messages about the future of the Iran nuclear agreement during his French counterpart’s visit last week. He labeled the accord “insane” and “ridiculous,” but said Washington could reach a new understanding with Paris and other European capitals “very quickly” and that he is committed to being “flexible.”

Taken together, it was vintage Trump, who revels in keeping both allies and adversaries guessing about his next step. Come May 12, the date set in law to extend waivers on sanctions, it remains anyone’s guess whether he will scrap a deal he long has derided as the worst ever negotiated — though Israel’s new revelations about a secret Iranian nuclear archive will certainly add weight to the “cancel the deal” argument.

But if the president pulls America from the deal and simply lists its flaws, even longtime critics of the accord (myself included) should withhold their applause. Withdrawal alone doesn’t offer an alternative approach to prevent Iran’s acquisition of a nuclear weapons capability. Withdrawal alone doesn’t explain how the United States will respond to the reactions from friends and adversaries, including Iran. And withdrawal alone doesn’t provide a guide for the administration’s overall objectives vis-à-vis Iran and the policies to achieve them.


In other words, withdrawing from the agreement is an act, not a strategy. And an Iran strategy is what we need.

If the president does decide to leave the deal, there are four broad options for an Iran strategy:

To negotiate a better deal, one that corrects the original agreement’s flaws by including permanent restrictions on enrichment, a ban on ballistic missile development and a more intrusive inspection regime. This would require building up leverage to compel Iran back to the negotiating table, including the re-imposition of both United Nations and U.S. sanctions, possibly even secondary penalties on countries that fail to shrink their purchases of Iranian oil to low-enough levels.

And unlike President Obama’s maneuver to present the Iran deal as an “executive agreement,” President Trump should promise to bring any deal to the Senate as a treaty, which would add pressure on our European partners to help produce an agreement that merits the constitutionally-required 67 votes.

To negotiate a bigger deal, one that not only fixes the flaws in the old deal but that also addresses Iran’s malign regional activities. This factor — Tehran’s support for terrorism, subversion, and Shiite expeditionary militias in Syria and Iraq — has transformed the region’s security situation, alarming Arabs and Israelis alike. A more ambitious agreement will be more complicated to achieve, but success would be a dramatic affirmation of American leadership — and of the president’s deal-making prowess.

To launch a policy of regime change. This audacious approach would result from an assessment that the Tehran regime is so venal that no agreement with it is worthwhile. The president could argue that Iran’s pursuit of regional supremacy poses a clear and present danger to U.S. interests. Of course, efforts to bring about regime change can take many forms, with military confrontation far down the options list. But merely stating the goal would define a new trajectory for America’s engagement in the Middle East.

To implement a strategic retrenchment from the Middle East, shrinking America’s exposure to the region’s dangerous and insoluble problems. Obama may have designed the nuclear deal as a tool to extricate America from the Middle East swamp, but Trump could argue that we are as stuck there as ever. “Let us not be bound like Gulliver to a burdensome agreement that keeps us tied up in knots with Iran for years to come,” one can envision the president declaring. “Let us be free to choose when and where we act.”

In this scenario, the United States would continue to provide (or, even better, sell) arms to our local allies so they can counter Iran and its proxies. And the president could link withdrawal from the nuclear deal to a new deterrence doctrine: Any evidence of Iranian enrichment of fissile material past a certain point would trigger massive American military action, designed to end the regime.

Though these options span the policy spectrum, it’s not hard to imagine Trump endorsing any of them. This is a testament to the administration’s strategic incoherence regarding Iran — and the Middle East, more broadly.

If he chooses to withdraw from the deal, the right answer would be to embed that decision within a new strategy to reach a better deal. That approach will produce the least heartache among our friends in Europe, some of whom do share our concern about the current deal’s flaws, and has the best chance of success.

But it is not enough. The president should augment a “better deal” policy with key elements of the second and third options, without taking on the political cost of publicly and fully embracing those more radical paths. That should include stronger, more assertive measures to counter Iran’s destabilizing behavior throughout the Middle East, as well as new initiatives — in human rights, religious liberty and internet access, for example — that put America squarely on the side of Iranians struggling for freedom. Taken together, this would constitute a true Iran policy — the first in decades — not just an Iran nuclear policy.

And there is a wrong answer, too — the nativist response of withdrawing from the region behind a wall of threat and bluster. After all, American engagement in the Middle East is not based on altruism. Beyond supporting our traditional interests and allies, our selfish goal is to resolve problems there before they get exported here.

Let’s hope the president’s decision on the nuclear deal emerges from a sound, reasoned strategic choice on Iran, not from a misguided isolationist impulse or a deep-seated animus to his predecessor’s crowning achievement.

Robert Satloff is executive director of The Washington Institute, where he holds the Howard P. Berkowitz Chair in U.S. Middle East Policy.​ An expert on Arab and Islamic politics as well as U.S. Middle East policy, he has written and spoken widely on the Arab-Israeli peace process, the challenge of political Islam, and the need to revamp U.S. public diplomacy in the Middle East. A frequent media commentator, he has testified to numerous Congressional  committees on U.S. Middle East policy. Follow him on Twitter @robsatloff.