The United States needs a new strategy for effectively constraining Iran’s future nuclear capabilities. The Trump administration’s current approach has little chance of succeeding. But simply returning the United States to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) is not a long-term solution.
By the time the United States would return to the 2015 deal, key nuclear restrictions would soon expire. Moreover, achieving the wide domestic support needed to make a nuclear deal with Iran politically sustainable in the United States would not be served by simply turning the clock back to before Trump took office.
The United States needs to pursue a renewed nuclear bargain with Iran, building on the solid foundation of the original and addressing its shortcomings. Diplomacy must play a central role in that effort, which will require:
– Mending fences with the Europeans and other key negotiating partners to rebuild the broad international support needed to press Iran to come to the negotiating table and accept meaningful restraints;
– Abandoning the current administration’s excessive demands in favor of a more realistic negotiating position that keeps Iran a safe and verifiable distance from the nuclear weapons threshold for an extended period of time, while demonstrating to Iran a willingness to accept an outcome compatible with Tehran’s legitimate interests;
– Pursuing a new deal focused on the nuclear issue, while actively and effectively— although separately and in parallel – implementing a broad strategy for addressing the other dimensions of the Iranian challenge, including its aggressive regional activities and its missile program;
– Improving the incentives (primarily sanctions relief) that would be offered to Iran, both in terms of their scope and their reliability to deliver anticipated benefits, in order to persuade Iran to accept a renewed bargain that goes beyond the JCPOA in important respects, especially in terms of the duration of its nuclear restrictions; and
– Making every effort to gain wide domestic support in the United States for any new negotiated outcome in order to make it durable and politically sustainable, despite presidential leadership transitions in Washington.
While diplomacy should take center stage in efforts to constrain Iran’s future nuclear capabilities, diplomacy alone is not enough. The Trump administration’s anti-Iran campaign has put great pressure on Tehran, but it has also reinforced Iranian opposition to U.S. demands and resistance to even engaging with the United States.
To promote productive negotiations – and in the event that negotiations fail – diplomacy will have to be complemented by other policy tools that do not require Iran’s participation or consent, such as sanctions, counterproliferation measures, and deterrence.
These more coercive policy tools can impede and discourage Iran’s movement toward the nuclear weapons threshold and provide incentives for Iran to negotiate seriously. But in the end, nuclear restraint must be Iran’s choice and is best codified in a renewed nuclear agreement.
Preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons has been a bipartisan U.S. national security priority for over three decades.
The JCPOA, concluded by the Obama administration in 2015, was a major step toward that objective, effectively blocking Iran’s pathways to nuclear weapons in the near and medium terms, and providing a promising platform for achieving a permanent solution in the future.
But the Trump administration opposed the JCPOA, claiming both that the deal itself was flawed and that it failed to address other objectionable aspects of Iranian behavior, including its missile program and destabilizing regional activities.
Determined to fulfill a campaign promise, President Trump decided in May 2018 to withdraw from the JCPOA and re-impose sanctions against Iran that were suspended under the agreement. His administration hoped that its “maximum pressure campaign” would compel Tehran to accept a comprehensive new deal containing not just more rigorous nuclear restrictions than in the JCPOA, but also a resolution to a wide range of U.S. concerns about Iran’s activities, including its support for regional proxies, its activities in Syria, and its missile program.
The administration’s demands were set forth in a highly ambitious list of 12 “requirements” outlined by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo soon after U.S. withdrawal. The combination of U.S. demands that the Iranian leadership was certain to reject, together with positions taken by senior administration officials both before and after assuming office, has persuaded many observers that the administration’s true goal is to promote the collapse of the Iranian regime.
Although it is too early to calculate the full impact of the U.S. pressure campaign, it is already clear that it is taking a heavy toll on the Iranian economy, magnifying deep-seated problems caused by many years of mismanagement and corruption. But despite the economic distress caused by the re-imposition of U.S. sanctions, the Trump administration is unlikely to achieve its goals, whether to force Iran to capitulate to its demands or to collapse the regime.
A significant impediment to the administration’s strategy is a lack of support, and often outright opposition, from countries whose cooperation would be needed to pressure Iran to come to the negotiating table and accept meaningful restrictions. Determined to preserve the JCPOA despite the U.S. departure, some Europeans have sought to circumvent U.S. sanctions in order to shield Iran from economic pressures that could lead it to leave the JCPOA as well.
They recognize that their efforts, including the creation of INSTEX (the Instrument for Supporting Trade Exchange), a mechanism designed to facilitate trade with Iran without running afoul of U.S. sanctions, will have only a modest effect in reducing the impact of sanctions. It appears that their strategy is to buy time by persuading Iran to remain in compliance with the JCPOA for another couple of years in the hope that a successor U.S. administration will take office in early 2021 with a more positive attitude toward the agreement.
Reflecting their deteriorating bilateral relationships with the United States and their relatively close ties with Iran, Russia and China are more openly hostile to the U.S. anti-Iran campaign – and less concerned about Iran’s regional and missile activities – than the Europeans. Both have defended Iran in the U.N. Security Council, including on missile issues, and have pledged to maintain and even expand economic relations with Iran despite U.S. sanctions.
But the principal reason the administration’s strategy will fall short is Iran’s determination to resist U.S. demands and its resilience in the face of external and internal pressure. While acknowledging the harm the sanctions are doing, Iran’s leaders use the domestic hardships to mobilize public resistance to U.S. “bullying.” With decades of experience coping with sanctions, they have activated a strategy to mitigate their effects, including through smuggling operations (especially to get Iranian oil to market), diplomatic outreach to undermine international support for sanctions, and budgetary assistance to Iranians whose loyalty is deemed essential to regime stability.
Iran’s leaders seem confident that their mitigation strategy – together with efforts by Europeans, Russians, Chinese, and others to maintain economic relations, as well as the implicit threat of repressive methods to stifle domestic dissent – will be enough to withstand U.S. pressure and maintain their grip on power.
Iranians say they will remain in the JCPOA as long as they receive the economic benefits to which they are entitled under the terms of the agreement. They are waiting to see how much revenue they can preserve from oil exports and how effective the Europeans and others will be in protecting Iran’s commercial links to the world. In the meantime, they seem to derive political value from isolating the United States from its traditional partners and from being seen by the international community as showing great restraint and responsibility in the face of extreme provocation by Washington.
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