The Iran conundrum

President Trump’s decision to decertify the Iran deal followed by his threats to pull out (while senior officials contradicted him by insisting he wanted to remain in the deal) and a strong push back from the European Union have understandably left Democrats on the Hill and experts on both sides (some opposed, others supported) of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) somewhat dumbfounded. Just how is this thing supposed to work?

In a radio interview, a crucial voice in determining the viability of his plan, ranking member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), underscored the predicament. He noted that Trump’s decertification was “met with disfavor” around the world and “makes it difficult for the U.S. to negotiate agreements” if our word is subject to constant revision. (Welcome to the Trump era.)

As for Congress’s role, he was emphatic: “We don’t want to do anything to violate the JCPOA.” In other words, Congress does not want to help Trump become the violator of the deal by imposing new or different conditions that are in conflict with the JCPOA. He was equally clear that it is up to the president to do the negotiating. “Congress cannot do this,” he said, dispelling the notion that the Congress could somehow negotiate with the EU on the terms of U.S. legislation (the Iran Agreement Review Act).

It’s not just Democrats who have raised objections. Critics of this approach include hawkish foreign policy gurus like Max Boot, Kori Schake and James Jeffrey. In that vein, Reuel Marc Gerecht underscored the problem with the strategy, calling it a diplomatic “Hail Mary.” He notes that the objective — to now contain Iran regionally and check Iran’s regional behavior — surely can be addressed outside the JCPOA, but the administration shows zero interest in doing so:

The White House says it wants to focus “on neutralizing the Government of Iran’s destabilizing influence and constraining its aggression, particularly its support for terrorism and militants.” “We will revitalize,” the administration promises, “our traditional alliances and regional partnerships as bulwarks against Iranian subversion and restore a more stable balance of power in the region.” But what does that actually mean? The administration has so far shown no interest in deploying more U.S. troops in the Levant and Iraq. The Syrian war has clearly shown that Sunni Arab states have no capacity, and really no will, to deploy ground forces against the Islamic Revolutionary Guard, the foreign Shiite militias and Syrian armed forces under Iranian control, or Russian Spetsnaz and air power. The Iranian-Russian axis in Syria is on the and is taking more ground than American-aided rebels, most of whom are Syrian Kurds, who are not interested in taking on the Iranian-Russian axis.

Add to that the administration’s lack of concern about Iraqi-Kurdish military clashes, which leave Iran as the beneficiary, and it’s obvious we still do not have an Iran policy that is operational. As one report explained:

Iran has used the confrontation to deepen its involvement in Iraqi politics. Iranian-backed militias joined the troops Baghdad sent to Kirkuk, and reports emerged that the head of Iran’s Quds Force, Qassem Suleimani, was entering Kirkuk to hold talks with Iraqi Kurdish officials.

Some experts expect that the Iranian support for Baghdad in the fight over Kirkuk will rebound to Tehran’s benefit. The Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank, forecast greater Iranian influence within the Iraqi government and greater popular support for Iran-backed candidates for Iraq’s elections, slated for next spring.

In short, rather than make a showy gesture in decertifying the Iran deal, which freaked allies and puts the U.S. on defense internationally, we could be doing the hard work of pushing back on Iran. But if that’s a no-go for this administration, what’s the point of also wrecking the JCPOA?

Gerecht also questions the premise, namely that Iran can be coaxed into giving up a whole bunch of concessions at a time the U.S. has little leverage (e.g. no international support, Iran’s economy revived):

[C]oncerning the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the chances of a new effective agreement are poor. Any good deal would actually “deny the Iranian regime all paths to a nuclear weapon,” as the White House stresses. This means, among other things, that the Section T concerns must be satisfied. We would have to imagine supreme leader Ali Khamenei and senior Guard commanders turning over the key physicist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh-Mahabadi and his colleagues and all of their paperwork to the International Atomic Energy Agency. They would have to allow the agency unfettered access to military sites. Imagining this scenario is to imagine the supreme leader being removed in a coup by guardsmen and clerics more stubborn than he. The “good deal” scenario imagines Khamenei betraying everything he holds holy. This only seems plausible if the regime is confronted with certain death.

Perhaps that has been the scheme all along. Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) has been candid about his belief in a military option to be used against Iran:

Those who say this seem to believe we have only two choices: capitulation under the deal or years-long occupation after forcible regime change. Of course that’s not the case.

We always have the option of calibrated strikes like President Trump ordered against Syria earlier this year-indeed, we’ve used them to good effect with Iran itself. There was Operation Praying Mantis in 1988, when we destroyed or damaged half of Iran’s operational navy to retaliate for their mining the Persian Gulf. There was Operation Desert Fox in 1998, a four-day operation against Iraq, which also startled the ayatollahs. And it’s worth remembering Iran didn’t offer to suspend uranium enrichment until 2003, when we invaded Iraq. Throughout their history, the ayatollahs have consistently yielded to credible military threats.

And while the credible threat of military action may be all that’s needed to change the regime’s behavior, let there be no doubt about this point: if forced to take action, the United States has the ability to totally destroy Iran’s nuclear infrastructure. And if they choose to rebuild it, we could destroy it again, until they get the picture.

If that is the end game here, Congress should give the administration less, not more, leeway to move toward confrontation. Congress could, for example, require Congressional approval if sanctions are to be re-imposed (thereby putting the U.S. in breach of the agreement) and/or setting forth its position that the president must come to Congress for a memorandum for the use of force.

In short, Congress has no reason to trust this president and neither do our allies. Considering how entirely dysfunctional is our State Department, perhaps we should think less about regime change in Iran and more in terms of containing the U.S. president until he can be compelled to leave office (by election or otherwise).




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