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Where do we stand on the Iran deal under President Trump?


US President Donald Trump.
US President Donald Trump.



The Hill, 27 Feb 2017 - Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States made a political commitment to Iran in Geneva during July 2015: the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), widely known as the Iran deal. Having just passed the one-month mark of the Trump administration, now is the appropriate time to reflect on the JCPOA’s economic, nuclear and regional implications, and how the new administration can get the best out of a very bad deal.


The background


When Barack Obama entered the Oval Office in 2009, he created a false narrative: There would either be war with Iran or a limit on its nuclear weapons development. It was worse than “war or diplomacy with Iran,” for it was diplomacy with no stick, only carrots. Following his storyline, Obama began secret talks in Oman that led to the Iran deal.

In his book “Alter Egos,” New York Times White House correspondent Mark Landler disclosed the Omani “back channel” to Iran beginning in 2009. Opting for diplomacy over war could have been a wise option, if the Iran deal had been as comprehensive as its official title implies — it was not. The Iran deal traded restraint of Iran’s development of nuclear weapons for explicit sanctions relief and implicit constraints on Israel’s options to deal with Iranian threats.
Dr. Raymond Tanter wrote an article on June 8, 2016, that posed the basic tradeoff of the JCPOA: In exchange for Tehran agreeing to limit its nuclear capabilities, economic sanctions would be lifted. But missiles and terrorism were outside the nuclear deal, under the assumption Tehran would moderate its testing and terrorism, if given the chance to benefit from economic sanctions relief. President Obama downplayed Iran’s economic windfall from sanctions relief; on nuclear issues, he failed to hold Tehran accountable for nuclear violations; on regional challenges, Obama ignored the accord’s negative implications in the Middle East for state sponsorship of terrorism.

James Clapper, director of National Intelligence, said on July 24, 2015, that the considered Intelligence Community judgment “is that the lion’s share of the funding will be freed up with the sanctions relief will go to things economic.” And experts at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, Emanuele Ottolenghi and colleagues, held on Oct. 4, 2016, that the IRGC launders money from its “legitimate” businesses to finance terrorist groups across the world.

Before the JCPOA, Iran was explicitly proscribed by U.N. resolutions from launching ballistic missiles capable of carrying nuclear weapons. Security Council Resolution 1929 stated the Council “decides that Iran shall not undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons.” “Decides” placed a strict legal obligation on all states to comply. In exchange for Tehran’s agreement, Obama gave Tehran flexibility for ballistic missile testing. Security Council Resolution 2231 of July 20, 2015, replaced the prohibition with accommodating language: “Iran is called upon not to undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons.”

As Colum Lynch wrote on March 16, 2016, “The updated measures are neither legally binding nor as restrictive as the measures in place at the time of the nuclear pact. Resolution 2231 provides Iran with a loophole big enough to develop medium- and long-range missiles without the risk of running afoul of Security Council dictates.” Lynch is spot on. Obama failed to hold Tehran answerable for nuclear development violations.


The Trump approach


President Trump might be influenced by views of now CIA Director and member of the National Security Council Mike Pompeo. His prior service on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence prepared him for challenging John Kerry, then-secretary of State, to sanction Iranian entities involved with missile testing and IRGC-QF terrorism. Pompeo penned a letter with colleagues reminding Kerry that in selling the nuclear deal, he assured Congress the State Department would provide a response to deter Tehran’s missile launches. But the secretary failed to do so. When Tehran tests ballistic missiles during the Trump presidency, there should be considerable pushback, both via the U.N. and by U.S. unilateral action.

On Feb. 3, 2017, the Treasury Department Office of Foreign Assets Control sanctioned “multiple entities and individuals involved in procuring technology and/or materials to support Iran’s ballistic missile program, as well as for acting for or on behalf of, or providing support to, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods Force (IRGC-QF).”

Although outside the jurisdiction of the JCPOA, Treasury acted in the financial sector to counter Tehran’s “malign behavior” abroad. The new administration could intensify its use of economic sanctions to counter Tehran without repudiating the JCPOA, which does not address Iran’s support for terrorism or development of ballistic missiles.

The newly minted national security adviser, Army Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, is likely to preside over an interagency process that supports deterring Iranian efforts to become a regional hegemon via various proxy groups. He might counsel diplomatic efforts backed by economic measures to bolster diplomacy. But McMaster is unlikely to remove the use of force from the interagency toolkit for “fixing” the Iranian deal.


The way forward


President Obama lost his bet that Iran would moderate its ballistic missile testing. His diplomatic deal assumed regime change from within was not viable, e.g., via a coalition of dissident groups.

As we pass into the second month of the Trump presidency, he stands alone among major power leaders willing to withdraw from the Iran deal. Because it is the IRGC that uses sanctions relief money from the JCPOA to fund its terrorist operations abroad, designating the entire IRGC as a terrorist entity, not just its Qods Force, reinforces the credibility of Trump’s willingness to pull out from the Iran deal if it cannot be repaired.


Dr. Raymond Tanter served as a senior member on the National Security Council staff in the Reagan-Bush administration and is now professor emeritus at the University of Michigan. Edward Stafford is a retired Foreign Service officer; he served in Political-Military Affairs at the State Department, as a diplomat with the U.S. Embassy in Turkey, and taught at the Inter-American Defense College.