And end the Iran deal.

Bring Back Containment

8/11/2017 9:40:55 PM

Iran test-launches a long-range Qadr ballistic missile, March 9, 2016.

Iran test-launches a long-range Qadr ballistic missile, March 9, 2016.

And end the Iran deal.


THe Weekly Standard, August 11, 2017 - The Trump administration is conducting a comprehensive review of U.S. policy toward Iran. There is no doubt top national security officials view the Islamic Republic as a major threat, both in terms of regional instability and proliferation. This recognition represents the principal difference from the previous administration and a welcome step forward. One likely outcome will be a stronger U.S.-led effort to counter Iran’s expanding presence, particularly in Syria and Iraq. The formation of an Arab alliance against Islamic terrorism, announced when Donald Trump visited Saudi Arabia, signaled a move toward a more effective regional stance.

But there is little to suggest that, beyond an attempt to roll back Tehran’s external adventurism, there will be a fundamental change in U.S. policy. Press reports indicate that the usual interagency battle lines are being drawn—between those who advocate regime change and those who would continue past policies.

The main indicator of the direction of Iran policy will be the president’s decision on the future of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Candidate Trump’s stance on the nuclear deal during the campaign was clear: The JCPOA was a calamity for American security interests. Trump called it the worst agreement ever negotiated and declared in the spring of 2016: “My number-one priority is to dismantle the disastrous deal with Iran.”

But much seems to have changed since he took office. His secretaries of state and defense have both reportedly urged him to stick with the deal—while admitting Iran remains the chief sponsor of international terrorism and the greatest threat to U.S. interests in the Middle East. Most telling are the administration’s two declarations to Congress that Iran is in compliance with the agreement. That might be true only in a very narrow, technical sense.

Iran may now be complying with those terms of the agreement monitored by the International Atomic Energy Agency, but that does not mean Tehran has stopped work on nuclear weapons.

Just recall that the potential military activities identified by the IAEA in November 2011 were swept under the rug and that the supreme leader has explicitly ruled out inspections of the facilities that were the suspected sites of many of those activities.

Iran continues aggressively to expand its offensive ballistic missile force, already the largest and most dangerous in the region.

The revelations recently made public by National Council of Resistance of Iran make clear that the country’s weapons programs, both nuclear and missile, are alive and well and moving forward.

Consistent with this conclusion, U.S. officials have assessed that Iran has an active intercontinental ballistic missile program, for which the only purpose is to deliver a nuclear warhead.

A number of arguments for and against staying in the nuclear agreement are presumably being considered in the administration review. The two most often heard in favor of remaining are:

. The agreement provides some transparency to Iran’s nuclear program and slows it at least temporarily. Better to have 5,000 centrifuges spinning than 12,000 or 19,000. Better to have quantitative and qualitative limits on low-enriched uranium and limits on heavy water and the Arak reactor than not. But the issue is how meaningful these limits are in the broader context of Iran’s nuclear ambitions and at what cost.
. Leaving will lead to widespread criticism from the other parties to the deal. John Kerry often raised the specter of the United States being isolated if Washington did not go forward with the agreement.
As for arguments in favor of withdrawal, five stand out:

The JCPOA does not prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons—ostensibly its intended purpose. Even defenders of the agreement acknowledge that it represents—at best—a mere pause in that pursuit and that Iran retains the capacity to sneak out or break out of the agreement and possess a nuclear weapon in a matter of months or even weeks. Iran’s new generation of advanced centrifuge designs will permit it an almost immediate breakout capacity even before the terms of the JCPOA expire. After that time, as President Obama acknowledged, the breakout period would be essentially “zero.”

. The flawed verification provisions of the JCPOA mean that we cannot verify that Iran has stopped work on nuclear weapon design. If Tehran does not have a covert program today, it would be the first time in decades.

. The premise of the deal is demonstratively false. Far from leading to a more moderate Iran, the agreement has resulted in increased funding of international terrorism and a further expansion of Iran’s external interventions. The irony is that the misguided policies of the Obama administration have only strengthened the regime in Tehran, providing it with the means to advance its proliferation programs, foment disorder in neighboring countries, and brutalize its own people—the first and foremost victims of the regime .

. Staying in the agreement undermines the U.S. ability to contain the broader threat by providing legitimacy to an illegitimate regime and strengthening the Iranian economy and thereby the regime. This undercuts the regional coalition to roll back Iranian adventurism and military aggression.

. The JCPOA—in the form of an executive agreement reinforced by a U.N. Security Council resolution—usurped the constitutional prerogative of the Senate, which, under Article II, Section 2, has the power and responsibility to advise and consent on all treaties. President Obama deliberately chose not to pursue a treaty because he knew the Senate would reject it.

President Trump will make the final decision on the nuclear agreement. If he takes the country out, it will almost certainly be against the advice of his cabinet members and the institutional national security complex in and out of government. But this would nevertheless be the right decision: It is not in the U.S. interest to remain in the JCPOA.

Yet a decision to leave would not be easy. It’s always tempting to postpone a hard choice that will inevitably bring widespread criticism. Other options will be floated as alternatives to straight withdrawal, such as putting the onus on Tehran by insisting on “scrupulous compliance” with all terms of the agreement while imposing additional sanctions on the regime for its missile activities and support for terrorism.

But that approach could easily become a quagmire, as questions of compliance with arms control agreements such as the JCPOA are inherently legalistic, lengthy, and political. Inevitably, it would lead to an entangling debate over whether Iran’s violations are “minor” or rise to the level of material breach. Whatever the outcome, the time lost would be profoundly detrimental to U.S. security interests. If President Trump does not act decisively to end participation in the JCPOA, the near-future is clear: Iran will be the next North Korea, a dangerous adversary on the brink of acquiring a nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missile.

In place of the JCPOA, the United States must develop and implement a comprehensive strategy of containment and regime change from within.

That is the real challenge of the Iran policy review. It is not a call to replace diplomacy with war, as alarmists will argue.

Rather, as it was with the Soviet Union for decades in the Cold War, it is perhaps the only means to deal effectively with the threat the Islamic Republic poses.

The misplaced hope has long been that the regime will become more moderate or that we will identify a moderate faction within the regime and encourage it to move the country in a positive direction.

Hope has repeatedly triumphed over experience since the Iranian theocracy was established. What must be acknowledged is that the regime is the heart of the threat.

The regime is the source of the nuclear and missile programs; it is the source of Iran’s expansionist policies in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen; it is the source of brutal domestic repression. It is a regime that will not change and cannot change because change would lead to its downfall.

The key is to support change from within—something that was ruled out by the Obama administration. The United States cannot impose change from the outside but it can assist internal change and those popular forces that can bring it about.

U.S. policy should give hope and sustenance to the opposition forces in Iran that support democracy, human rights, and a secular government focused not on repression, missiles, and nuclear weapons but on the needs and aspirations of its people.

Despite the propaganda from Tehran’s apologists, this is a weak regime with little popular support. Like other repressive regimes, it is brittle and will—one day—crumble to the will of its citizens. President Trump must work to accelerate its fall.



Robert Joseph was undersecretary of state for arms control and international security from 2005 to 2007.