The Trump administration is right to keep up the pressure on a belligerent Iran
The Economist, Feb 23rd 2017 -… Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister reckoned that the Iranians have only “stepped up the tempo of their mischief” since the negotiation in 2015 of a nuclear deal between Iran and the world’s six leading powers. And the regional actors are hardly alone in their hostility. The Trump administration placed Iran “on notice” at the start of this month and imposed a limited new set of sanctions, following a medium-range ballistic missile test; Iran responded by testing another one. Is a fresh confrontation, even a conflict, brewing again so soon after the deal of 2015 was supposed to have ushered in an era of peaceful coexistence?
Perhaps not; but that depends above all on Iran. The hardliners who are in charge in Tehran need to reconsider their priorities. Judging by their actions and rhetoric, they appear to believe that the nuclear agreement (formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) marked the end of a process of rehabilitation. In fact, it goes only part of the way.
The purpose of the deal was to put tight limits on Iran’s destabilizing enrichment program—nothing more, nothing less. Under its terms, Iran agreed to rejig a reactor so that it can’t make weaponisable plutonium. It also dismantled most of the centrifuges it had been using to make enriched uranium and eliminated almost all its stockpile of the stuff. The restrictions are to last 15 years and even after that, Iran’s nuclear activities will remain under a highly intrusive inspection regime. In return, the rest of the world agreed to lift the UN-mandated economic sanctions that had crippled Iran’s economy after the nuclear threat started to cause alarm in the mid-2000s.
Now for the next step
. Although Donald Trump has inveighed against the deal, in office he has shown no sign of seeking to scrap it. Most observers, including even the Israeli army and intelligence services, think it would be a mistake to do so. However—and this is a crucial point—other sanctions on Iran remain. America, in particular, still has a large array of them, imposed a decade earlier to penalise a number of Iranian transgressions, especially human-rights abuses, support for terrorism and the development of weapons of mass destruction, including the missiles that can be used to deliver them.
These sanctions were tightened several times by the generally doveish Barack Obama to punish Iran for a missile test. The law that mandates them was extended for ten more years in December. The vote in Congress was hardly a cliffhanger: the Senate backed the extension by 99-0 and the House by 419-1. American firms are still banned from doing business with Iran, though the president can always waive sanctions. After the nuclear deal, Mr Obama did so in many areas, for instance letting Boeing join Airbus in selling planes to Iran.
None of these prior sanctions had anything to do with the nuclear programme and everything to do with Iran’s record of making trouble, which it continues unabated. Iran is helpful in taking on Islamic state. But, as Mr Lieberman noted, it still poses the largest threat to the stability of the Middle East. Its Shia proxy armies, aided by the Quds force, its own overseas special-forces unit, have extended its hard power far beyond its borders. Iraq is now virtually an Iranian client state. Hizbullah, an Iranian marionette, is the strongest force in Lebanon and menaces Israel. In Syria Iran props up the vile regime of Bashar al-Assad. In Yemen it arms and trains the Houthi rebels who overthrew the government two years ago. Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, which both have large Shia populations, accuse it of organising terror cells in their countries.
America should not tear up the nuclear deal. It is not perfect, but it was better than confronting an Iran only months from possessing nukes. But sticking with the nuclear deal does not stop America from being tough elsewhere. Indeed, responding to missile-tests and other transgressions signals that the world will react to nuclear breaches, too. Until Iran stops acting as though it is hellbent on recreating the Sassanian empire, Mr Trump is right to apply targeted sanctions against the individuals and companies that are helping the Middle East’s chief empire-builder puff itself up.