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After Dumping Nuclear Deal, Trump Has No Strategy for Iran

End of JCPOA impacts shipments of export cargo and import cargo in international trade.

After Dumping Nuclear Deal, Trump Has No Strategy for Iran

After months of speculation and a flurry of last-minute European diplomacy, Donald Trump has taken perhaps the most consequential decision of his unconventional presidency with the re-imposition of United States sanctions on Iran in a deliberately provocative breach of the 2015 nuclear agreement. By torpedoing US adherence to the accord, Trump has all but guaranteed its collapse, a move that opens the door to the unfettered resumption of Iran’s nuclear program and unleashes unpredictable escalatory pressures in an already volatile Middle East.

The premeditated American dismantling of an agreement that was the product of more than a decade of intense diplomacy and economic pressure marks a staggeringly counterproductive step. That it was undertaken over the vocal objections of Washington’s closest allies and without a clear strategy of mitigating the newly heightened risks of Iranian proliferation and conventional retaliation represents an abdication of American leadership on the international stage that is unparalleled in recent history.

Notably, it was precipitated by a president who could not even respond to a single, simple question, shouted by a reporter as Trump signed the order to re-impose sanctions with a flourish of his pen, about how his decision might make the country safer. That is the only question that matters: How is America safer now that the United States is unravelling its end of a bargain that curbed Iran’s nuclear activities?

A Deal Dismembered

Trump’s silence on this point illustrates more than simply his own limited familiarity with the complex issues at stake in the deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA, which he disparaged as “defective at its core.” It highlights the absurd logic that his administration has deployed in grappling with the challenges posed by Tehran. If the president truly believes that the JCPOA’s far-reaching inspections regime and its restrictions of 10, 15, and 25 years on various aspects of Iran’s nuclear activities are somehow insufficient to guard against Iran’s unshakeable yearning for a nuclear weapon, what risks, then, are posed by the evisceration of all constraints?

The inevitable consequence of American abrogation of the deal is the attrition of its constraints. American investment in negotiating a resolution to Iran’s nuclear ambitions—undertaken first by the George W. Bush administration and culminated by Barack Obama—furnished the requisite quid pro quo that persuaded Tehran to make historic concessions. Absent America, Tehran has ceded those ambitions for little more than European goodwill; trading diamonds for chocolates, as an influential Iranian politician once ridiculed a prior nuclear accord. Tehran walked away from that agreement, and over time it is sure to abandon the wreckage that remains of the JCPOA.

For Trump, the decision is all ego; dismembering the Iran deal satisfies a multiplicity of petty personal interests—in undoing his predecessor’s legacy, making good on his own campaign promises, and stroking his inflated sense of his own negotiating prowess as manifestly superior to Obama, who he charged with conceding “maximum leverage” in exchange for a “giant fiction.”

By contrast, for Trump’s advisors—most notably National Security Advisor John Bolton—and many others in Washington especially within the Republican policy establishment, the madness is the method. Guided by their mantra that Tehran only responds to force, Trump administration hawks have embraced the theory that the United States needs to be prepared to disrupt the status quo across the region, precisely because Iran has found it a conducive context for enhancing its own influence. They have no ready explanation for precisely how disruption will rebalance the regional power equation in America’s favor, and the only prior application of this strategic vision—the 2003 US invasion of Iraq—is hardly a reassuring precedent.

The View From Tehran

For better or, as is likely, for worse, this “chaos theory” dovetails neatly with the array of possibilities available to Tehran in responding to the demise of the nuclear deal. Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, moved quickly to forestall any sense of a regime in crisis by taking to state television immediately after Trump concluded his own remarks. His reassurance was primarily aimed at his own jittery population, whose trepidations about mounting pressure had helped collapse the value of the domestic currency in recent months.

Iran can muddle through a considerable amount of economic pressure and turmoil, thanks to a diversified economy as well as long experience and well-honed tactics for mitigating and evading sanctions. But the reality is that despite profound international resentment over Trump’s tactics, the re-imposition of US sanctions will present much of the world with only one viable choice, to abstain or wind down trade and investment with Tehran rather than risk US penalties. European assurances to Tehran can do little to change the calculations of the private sector, especially when the upside rewards of opportunities in Iran remain modest in comparison to the potential liabilities.

And as the benefits of the deal wane, Tehran will contend with its own saber rattlers, whose worldview was shaped by the isolation and existential conflict of the revolution’s early years. They will seek to match American pressure with Iranian pushback and demonstrate the country’s capability to outmaneuver American forces on the range of battlefields across the region where they are in close proximity with Iran’s Revolutionary Guard and its proxy militias.

Trump has repeatedly insisted that he will steer clear of embroiling America in yet another long, messy, costly conflict in the Middle East, but his decision to target the nuclear deal elevates the odds of Iranian escalation and, with it, even greater threats to US interests and allies. The irony is acute; Trump derided the JCPOA because “it didn’t bring calm, it didn’t bring peace,” but undoing the deal will only inflame a region already riven by extremism and sectarian rivalries, making it harder for the United States to extricate itself as the president himself has promised. Until and unless the administration resolves the contradictions between the president’s maximalist objectives, his disinclination to take on the Iranians on the ground, and Washington’s divergence from its core allies on this question, Trump cannot hope to make progress on any element of the Iranian challenge.

Undoing the deal will only inflame a region already riven by extremism and sectarian rivalries.

Trump peppered his speech with incongruous notes of triumphalism about his as-yet inconclusive diplomatic gambit toward North Korea as well as the expectation that Iran’s leaders “are going to want to make a new and lasting deal, one that benefits all of Iran and the Iranian people. When they do, I am ready, willing, and able. Great things can happen for Iran.” Although it might prove a clever gambit for managing the fallout, neither Rouhani nor his harder-line rivals in the security establishment are likely to take Trump up on his offer to “make Iran great again” by returning to the negotiating table. Given the widespread public support for the deal among Iranians, Trump’s announcement dealt a visceral blow to the national dignity well beyond the regime itself; no serious politician would survive an effort to engage with Washington any time soon.

Great Expectations, Dashed

From the start, the inflated expectations underpinning the deal on both sides threatened its viability. Iran’s leadership promoted the nuclear deal as a total victory that meant the wholesale removal of economic restrictions and an expressway to diplomatic and economic revival. In reality, Iran faced a continuing web of US sanctions, international trepidation, and a dysfunctional economy that resisted an easy jumpstart.

President Obama was far more circumspect in his rhetoric, taking care to describe the deal as resolving only one element of the threat posed by Iran. But his officials routinely posited that the deal could generate other avenues of cooperation with Iran, and the logic beneath the agreement’s time-limited restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program presupposed Iran’s evolution into a responsible and respected member of the international community. The reality turned out very differently there too, as Tehran maintained and in some cases intensified its efforts to extend its influence across the region through any means necessary.

The disconnect between the text of the deal and the aspirations attached to it set the stage for rising frustration and bitterness on both sides, paving the way for Trump’s demand to “fix” the agreement by fundamentally revising the trade-offs at its core. The increasingly frantic European efforts to provide the president with the appearance of a victory while leaving the essence of the agreement untouched proved in the end to be a wild goose chase. Fine-tuning the JCPOA cannot alter the fact that it represented a transaction, not a transformation, as I noted the day after the deal was concluded in July 2015:

Only the most credulous optimist can assert that a nuclear deal will somehow produce an Iranian epiphany about the horrific and destabilizing consequences of its assistance to Bashar Al Assad. Tehran’s approach to extending its regional influence, via the funding and direction of violent proxies across the region, will continue to exacerbate instability in Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon, and beyond, while fueling the geostrategic rivalry with Saudi Arabia and the related sectarian tensions. This week’s resumption of a trial of a Washington Post reporter underscores that Iran’s unjust detention of American citizens for months or even years will likely continue as well. The same streets where Iranians celebrated a deal yesterday were the scenes of anti-American and anti-Israeli protests, where both flags were burnt in effigy, only a few days ago.

With his announcement on Tuesday, Trump has jettisoned that transaction for the far more ambitious goal of Iran’s transformation. That will require far more than the stroke of a pen: For this gambit to succeed, the White House now has to devise a strategy that can compel or persuade Tehran to make unprecedented concessions on an array of vital security policies. When the nuclear agreement was first concluded, Rouhani described it as an “end and a beginning” for Iran. With Trump’s termination of the nuclear deal, the formidable challenge of trying to get more with less is just beginning.

Suzanne Maloney is deputy director and foreign policy senior fellow at Brookings’ Center for Middle East Policy, Energy Security, and Climate Initiative. This article originally appeared here.

Sanctions limit Iran shipments of export cargo and import cargo in international trade.

Trump’s New National Security Team: Disaster For The Iran Nuclear Deal

Iranians gathered for picnics to mark sizdah bedar, the culmination of the annual celebration of the Persian new year (Nowruz.) Nowruz, a pre-Islamic holiday that coincides with the spring equinox, remains “so embedded in Persian culture” that it endured the early puritanism of Iran’s post-revolutionary era. For millions of Iranians and others who celebrate, the weeks around Nowruz mark an annual opportunity for ritual and renewal, a time for housecleaning and family get-togethers, casting out the dark winter and welcoming the fresh buds of spring.

For Iran’s leadership, the advent of a new year comes at a time of historic uncertainty, both at home and across the regional and international horizon. The street protests that erupted unexpectedly in late December and convulsed 80 cities across Iran have mostly abated now, but frustration over economic conditions and social and political restrictions continues to smolder. That unrest has left Tehran’s political class feeling unusually on edge, sharpened by new provocations from former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the intensifying jockeying around a future succession process for Iran’s supreme leader.

Meanwhile, having beaten back the Islamic State in Iraq and opponents of Bashar Assad in Syria, Tehran now faces powerful resistance to its expanded regional posture—from Israel, which has launched attacks on Iranian positions in Syria, and from its traditional rival Saudi Arabia, whose brash young crown prince appears determined to contest Iran’s reach at any price. Across a tense and unsettled region, Iran remains the 800-pound gorilla, but Iranian commanders are wary about the prospect of new pushback, promising that “we won’t be blindsided by the enemies.”

Dark Clouds In DC

The most imminent threat, however, emanates from Washington, where the Trump administration is poised to upend the 2015 nuclear deal, a move that would reinstate harsh economic sanctions on Iran and intensify frictions between the two old adversaries.

Last week’s announcement that former Bush administration official John Bolton will join the White House on April 9 as Trump’s third national security advisor casts an even more ominous pall over the start of the new year for Tehran. Bolton has consistently and vociferously campaigned against the nuclear deal (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA), insisting that “Trump can and should free America from this execrable deal at the earliest opportunity” and outlining a step-by-step plan for doing so. He proposes to replace diplomacy with military strikes to destroy Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, coupled with “vigorous support for Iran’s opposition, aimed at regime change in Tehran.” Even more unfortunately, Bolton has depicted a deranged, discredited cult of Iranian expatriates as a legitimate opposition movement—a ludicrous embrace that defies explanation, except perhaps the group’s lavish kickbacks.

With Bolton managing the interagency decision making process—and another opponent of the agreement, Mike Pompeo, taking the helm at the State Department—Iranians and the world are already beginning to brace for America’s retreat from the Iran nuclear deal. The appointments added a note of fatalism to an already fitful dialogue between Washington and Europe, aimed at heading off President Trump’s ultimatum to address the agreement’s perceived shortcomings before the May 12 deadline for extending US sanctions waivers on Iran.

Is Trump stuck with an Iran deal he loathes?

The prospective upending of the nuclear deal has already incited a torrent of outraged op-eds and well-meaning expert appeals for a reprieve. The outcry seems unlikely to sway the dealmaker-in-chief, whose loathing of the deal has been one of the few constants in his erratic foreign policy vision since the 2016 campaign. The lurch toward a more intransigent US national security team only compounds the challenge for America’s partners in the deal—Britain, France, and Germany—whose diplomats have been frantically trying to devise a supplemental pact that meets Trump’s demands while avoiding an explicit violation of the existing nuclear agreement.

If the European effort fails—and it is a fair bet that it will—Trump has pledged to “terminate” the agreement in May. The fallout for Iran could be severe: As the full suite of American sanctions, including penalties on importing Iranian crude oil, snap back into place, Iran’s precarious economic situation will certainly deteriorate. Over time, depending how adeptly the regime harnesses the inevitable nationalist backlash, the sanctions will intensify the simmering dissatisfaction on the streets and among the political elite. Iran’s long experience with sanctions and international recrimination means that pressure tends to play out in an unpredictable fashion. For now, it’s anyone’s guess whether the breaking point comes in the form of a negotiated resolution, as it did in 2013, or via some more catastrophic outcome.

Washington must recognize that the costs of American abrogation of the nuclear deal will not be borne by Iran alone.

But however the next step goes down in Iran, Washington must recognize that the costs of American abrogation of the nuclear deal will not be borne by Iran alone. Terminating the JCPOA will corrode any prospect of sustaining Iranian compliance with the deal’s constraints on its nuclear program as well as the transparency provided via the deal’s rigorous inspection regime. The collapse of the deal will reverberate across the landscape of American interests and influence: generating a trans-Atlantic rift at least as acrimonious as that incited by the 2003 Iraq war, undermining multilateral diplomacy around other urgent crises—such as North Korea—and bolstering Russian and Chinese influence in the Middle East. Many project that the end of the nuclear deal would launch an inexorable march toward a direct military conflict with Iran, with ruinous consequences for regional stability and the global economy.

Bring it on, say the deal’s fiercest critics, who contend that the most perilous forecasts mostly reflect partisan fear-mongering and that contingency planning can mitigate any worst-case scenario. In October 2017, Bolton disdained any “too-cute-by-half approach” that seeks to improve the nuclear deal, and he has argued instead for a maximalist approach, including military strikes, intended to remove the Iranian government. Bolton’s dogmatic stance exceeds the Republican mainstream, but his diagnosis has wider currency, especially among US allies in the region, who maintain that drastic measures offer the only possible pathway for overturning Iran’s creeping dominance across the Arab world.

Suzanne Maloney, is deputy director of Brookings’ Center for Middle East Policy, Energy Security, and Climate Initiative. This article originally appeared here.

Trump decision on JCPOA will impact shipments of export cargo and import cargo in international trade.

To Help Iran’s Protestors, Keep Nuclear Deal Intact

The protests that have rocked Iran over the past 10 days have come on the eve of a set of crucial decisions surrounding America’s adherence to the Iran nuclear deal. President Donald Trump fervently opposes the 2015 agreement, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, describing it as “the worst deal ever.” In October, he announced that he would decertify Iran’s compliance with the deal and threatened to terminate the JCPOA unless Congress and US allies found ways to toughen its enforcement and expand its restrictions on Iran’s nuclear activities. While talks continue, no new legislation or other initiatives to address the shortcomings that Trump perceives have been announced. This week, Trump will have to make a clear choice about the future of the deal, with the culmination of deadlines for decisions on waiving an array of American sanctions on Iran, as required under the agreement. The latest showdown on the future of the deal follows more than a week of spontaneous street protests in cities across Iran that apparently began over economic issues and quickly shifted to generalized rage against Iran’s post-revolutionary system.

The White House has spoken out forcefully in support of Iranian demonstrators, with Trump denouncing Tehran on Twitter as “failing at every level” and the Treasury Department unrolling new penalties on entities related to Iran’s ballistic missile program. The unrest will no doubt tempt the White House to double down and take advantage of the waiver deadlines as an opportunity to intensify pressure on Tehran. That would be a terrible mistake. Refusing to continue the sanctions waivers is a full frontal assault on the nuclear deal that, at minimum, would initiate a diplomatic uproar among our allies and partners, unsettle oil prices and broader economic trends, and encourage Iran to reconstitute the elements of its nuclear program.

And as a response to the current volatility in Iran, bringing down the deal would be precisely the wrong step from Washington. It would shift the focus away from the protestors’ courageous efforts to expose the failings of their government and instead vindicate Tehran’s narrative of American treachery. The Iranian leadership would relish a new justification for falsely attributing all the country’s economic problems on Washington. Right now, the eyes of the world are focused on Iranians’ legitimate grievances about the consequences of their government’s corruption and its massive investment in regional adventurism. The best thing that the Trump administration could do right now is to ensure Iranians’ voices are heard and that their demands from their own leaders are not overshadowed by counterproductive American theatrics around the nuclear deal.

There is a tremendous amount of uncertainty about whether the president is purely interested in showmanship on Iran or whether in fact he is looking to advance an agenda that might bring us into direct confrontation with Tehran.

The things you need to know

In 2015, Congress passed legislation requiring the president to certify Iranian compliance with the deal.

The legislation was intended to assert Congress’s role in evaluating major foreign policy initiatives. It created a 90-day reporting requirement that President Trump reportedly dislikes.

In October, he announced that he would not certify the Iranian nuclear deal.

In his announcement, Trump outlined an array of accusations against Iran, including its support for terrorist groups, its repression of its own people, and its use of Shiite militias around the region to target American troops in Iraq and elsewhere. However, the nuclear deal was never intended to address any of these issues. The deal was solely focused on the issue of Iran’s nuclear ambitions and its nuclear program.

The deal was reached after more than a dozen years of negotiations and involved the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, the European Union, Russia, and China.

Decertifying the deal was largely a symbolic move by the president and has not yet provided greater leverage for getting a better deal or for addressing the range of concerns that exist about Iranian policies outside the arena of the nuclear issue.

This week, President Trump will need to make a decision about whether to continue the deal-related sanctions waivers. That is the most important aspect of American compliance with the agreement, and what he does there will be more important than the speech that he gave this past October.

It’s not clear whether the president is purely interested in showmanship on Iran or whether he is looking to advance an agenda that might bring the United States into direct confrontation with Tehran.

If President Trump seeks the latter, he’ll need to do a better job at explaining his approach and how he intends to succeed to the American people.

Confrontation with Iran would likely require a much greater American presence in the Middle East—something the president campaigned against extensively.

Suzanne Maloney is deputy director and foreign policy senior fellow of Brookings’ Center for Middle East Policy. This article originally appeared here.