On October 13, President Donald Trump announced his administration’s new strategy on the Iranian regime that has been a headache for the international community. The remarks came on the heels of a US State Department Press Briefing by State Department Counterterrorism Coordinator, Ambassador Nathan A. Sales, and National Counterterrorism Center Director, Nicholas J. Rasmussen, on efforts to counter Hezbollah, a Lebanese militant group with ties to the Iranian regime.
Iran was a key topic during the 2016 US Presidential election with then-candidate Trump arguing for a complete US withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which is colloquially known as the Iranian Nuclear Deal. The President has not completed that campaign pledge and has instead decertified Iran as an actor in the deal.
When the deal was negotiated by the Obama Administration, the Republican-controlled Congress responded by passing the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act of 2015, which imposed a requirement that the President must certify Iran’s compliance with the deal every 90 days. Until October of this year, President Trump had certified Iran’s compliance, but he has recently decided to pick a fight over the deal.
The decision has elicited confusion as monitors of the Iran Deal, including the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), have stated that Iran is in compliance with the deal. Furthermore, top military officials including Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Joseph Dunford and General John Hyten, Commander, United States Strategic Command, have stated that their briefings indicate that Iran in compliance with the deal. The other seven signatories to the deal: Iran, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, China, Russia, and the European Union, have all stated that they support the deal.
Consequently, one must ask why President Trump would take such an extreme step. According to his remarks, the President supposedly has evidence that Iran has failed to meet its limits on heavy water production. The concern over heavy water has to do with the production of fissile plutonium, which can then be used to develop nuclear weapons. Reports indicate that Iran did go slightly over the 130 metric ton cap in February 2016 and November 2016. However, current reports from the IAEA state that Iran has corrected the infraction and come down to the 130 metric ton limit. It is important to note that President Trump had certified the deal previously while knowing of these infractions.
Thus, the reasoning for his current position is not based on new intelligence but instead on an overarching resentment and distrust towards Iran and the JCPOA. This stems from connections between some neoconservatives of the Bush Administration and Iranian expatriates organizations that do not want to see any United States involvement with the Iranian regime. The current administration seems to have made the nuclear deal a straw man for their overarching concerns regarding the Iranian regime.
No one disputes that the Iranian regime has committed terrible human rights crimes and abuses since the Iranian Revolution in 1979. However, it is not sound policy to tear apart the result of successful and difficult negotiations simply because it is not the final word on an issue. Instead of threatening the deal, the Trump Administration should explore ways of opening a dialogue about other facets of the Iranian regime, but threatening the deal is not viable.
Another concern of critics of the deal is that it was not based on punishment, and instead relieves pressure from the Iranian regime. They also believe that sanctions were slowly inducing the collapse of the Ayatollah’s government, a result sought by neoconservatives. However, it is well documented that the Iranian regime has a history of being able to avoid the more crippling effects of sanctions on the government. It is also important to remember that the United States is only one signatory of the nuclear deal. The deal was made alongside the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council to avoid a veto when Iranian nuclear policy was brought up for debate. Key representatives of the European Union, including Germany, were also brought to the table. Russia and China would not support punitive measures against Iran, which rendered it difficult, if not impossible, to bring the required powers to the table. In order for the deal to be made with the international community in the required time frame, concessions had to be made. The leadership of the United States is undeniable as a global mediator, and the lack of US involvement could begin to destabilize the deal. There is a high probability that this could provide countries such as Russia the cover they need to blow up the deal and move forward with their aggressive agendas in the Middle East.
The Trump Administration is also worried about Iran’s ballistic missile program that is not incorporated in the Iran Deal. Some see the missile program as a sign that Iran has not given up its search for nuclear weapons, while Iran maintains that the program is for self-defense. A workable deal to limit Iran’s ballistic missile program would be a diplomatic achievement that would help stabilize the Middle East, but Iran will most likely be reluctant to come back to the table.
However, the administration has gone forward with decertification and the key question pertains to next steps. Now that President Trump has decertified the JCPOA, the ball falls in Congress’ court. Under the same law, Congress has the authority to unilaterally bring back sanctions on Iran. This potentially undermines the international standing of the United States as other nations would see the application of further sanctions based on the nuclear deal as proof that the United States is an untrustworthy actor which cannot be expected to honor its agreements. As of now, it is unclear whether the more extreme faction of the Republican Congress will have the votes to impose fresh sanctions on Iran. However, one can expect that Congress may look to ask for stronger concessions from the Iranians including allowing IAEA inspectors access to top-secret military sites and the removal of sunset clauses within the agreement. While the JCPOA has a mechanism in place to allow consideration for the monitoring of military sites, it is under heavy criticism and has not proven to be effective.
The overall strategy towards Iran seems to be focused on attacking the regime’s resources for state-sponsored terrorism. The State Department, in its Country Reports on Terrorism 2016, listed Iran as the largest state sponsor of terrorism and rightly so. Multiple analyses have shown that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), a part of the Iranian armed forces, use a secretive special forces group called the Quds Force to carry out liaisons with Shiite militant groups and support terrible regimes such as that of Bashar Al-Assad in Syria. Iran will say that the IRGC and Quds Force are a domestic concern not open to the purview of the US, but they do represent a credible threat to peace in the region. While Iran is engaged in a proxy war with Saudi Arabia, the Quds Force is what continues to strengthen and inflame conflict throughout the region. It is unclear how effective sanctions on the IRGC will be since they use corrupt practices to seize land and resources from within Iran to fund their operations. Diplomatic sanctions also hold little effect since Iran and the United States do not have diplomatic relations.
The President’s remarks attempt to combine two different and complicated issues in one doctrine. The lack of nuance in deciding policy should concern any scholar of international affairs and will likely lead to the decreased effectiveness of the overall strategy. While it is admirable that the Trump Administration wants to work for a better Middle East, it is important to keep Iran’s nuclear weapons and President Trump’s concerns regarding the regime separate. Iran continues to be a complex actor and more research will have to be conducted in the coming months to flesh out the President’s remarks.