Does Trump Have a Post-Decertification Iran Strategy?

Within the next three days, President Donald Trump is likely to announce his refusal to re-certify the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), often referred to as the Iran nuclear deal. The Wilson Center brought together an opponent and two supporters of the deal to discuss the situation.

Reuel Marc Gerecht, senior fellow at the neoconservative Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) opposes the deal, yet he also seems frustrated by the lack of a coherent plan from the Trump administration as to how to deal with Iran.

“I expect Congress will not reinstate sanctions, but the president will hit Iran with executive branch legislation,” he said. “I expect him to declare the [Iranian] Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) a terrorist organization. I expect him to throw a wide variety of sanctions at the Guard Corps, and at Hezbollah. The notion of putting US boots on the ground in Syria and Iraq does not appeal to the president, so I don’t think there will be a lot of pushback on the ground other than sanctions.”

Since FDD is perhaps the most prominent of neoconservative institutions, it’s noteworthy that it’s dissatisfied with decertification. Clearly, it doesn’t expect this move by itself to lead to the invasion of Iran that they have wanted for a long time.

“The administration is concerned about whether the Europeans will go along,” Gerecht said. “I am skeptical they will, but I expect the president to make a play to try to get the Europeans to address this and to try to revisit aspects of deal. The Europeans are in a bind, they can’t retaliate against the US, but [trying] to get Iran to discuss supplementing the JCPOA is a tall order. Much revolves around whether the president is willing to use force against Iranian nuclear sites. If so, you have much more interesting diplomacy. If not, we will return to where we left off, but with a lot more bad blood among our allies.”

In fact, there has been a strong message from U.S. allies in Europe that they disapprove of the course Trump is pursuing and that they have no intention of following the United States if it abandons the JCPOA. There is little doubt that the US will stand alone in leaving the deal, should it do so.

But Trump’s decertification will not be sufficient to do that. Instead, it starts a 60-day clock, by the end of which Congress must decide whether to reinstate pre-deal sanctions on Iran. Given the antipathy toward Iran in Washington, it would be foolhardy to make predictions with any certainty. On matters this profound, Congress has historically been loath to take risky action. Even Republicans have serious concerns over what abandoning this deal, when there is no evidence Iran has violated it, would mean for American credibility in the short term (especially with regard to any diplomacy with North Korea) and the long run.

But all Republicans who held office in 2015 opposed the bill. Offered an opportunity to destroy it, they will face considerable pressure to reinstate sanctions, pressure magnified by pointed statements from the president.

The Broader Context

Suzanne Maloney, deputy director of foreign policy at the Brookings Institution believes the whole issue is best understood in a broader context:

(Secretary of Defense Jim) Mattis and (National Security Adviser H.R.) McMaster have seen Iran up close and personal and have long prioritized greater US efforts to push back on their influence. There is a tension between two priorities. The president wants to bring Iran into a renegotiation process, while others want to see a more robust US effort to counter Iranian influence in the region.

The dilemma we face today is not merely a Trump dilemma. It’s because we reached a meaningful arms control agreement, that didn’t deal with other issues and was implemented at a time when Iranian regional influence was on the rise. The dilemma we have with Europe would have happened with anyone, because the EU immediately went into their old stance on Iran, which focuses on business.

In Maloney’s framing, attempts to renegotiate rely much more on force, whereas attempting to modify Iran’s behavior more broadly depend on long-term engagement. Indeed, this is, in many ways, the ideological battle fought in Washington, and it goes well beyond the nuclear deal. It is a question of whether the goal is regime change or a relationship with Iran that serves to tamp down the tensions that continue to enflame the Middle East.

Barack Obama clearly fell into the latter camp. Yet, despite his fiery rhetoric, Trump is not firmly in the former camp, as Gerecht implied.

The Use of Force

Colin Kahlassociate professor in the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and strategic consultant for the Penn-Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement, described the dispute.

I think there is wide recognition that Iran is going to be a player and that it has hegemonic aspirations. But how do you check their ambitions where they threaten ours and our allies? There you have two very different perspectives. One is that as long as this regime is in power it will be an implacable menace and that the real purpose of sanctions or other actions is regime change, not the nuclear program. The other argument is that the goal is changing Iran’s behavior. This view recognizes that there are factions within the regime and that provides opportunities to shape Iran’s behavior over time while also trying to seek arrangements that deescalate conflicts that (lead to aggressive) Iranian activities and counterpunches by the Saudis and others.

Many in the current administration are regime changers. I would caution folks to listen to opponents of JCPOA and ask themselves if those opponents would be satisfied with any deal with this regime. I believe the answer is no.

To the extent that Gerecht and FDD can be said to represent opponents of the JCPOA, they will be satisfied with nothing short of regime change. At the very least, Gerecht made it clear that in his view, nothing short of the use of force against Iran would be satisfactory. “The agreement hinges on the unwillingness of the United States to demand that certain expectations for Iran are nonnegotiable, and that if they are unwilling to meet those expectations, we will use force. We were, and probably still are, unwilling to do that,” he said.

Gerecht makes it clear again that, in his view, decertification without a clear intention to escalate toward war is not satisfactory. He seems to be hoping that Iran will provoke a stronger response: “if Iran follows through on threats to US servicemen, then I think you will see bipartisan support for (US action).”

Escalation, De-escalation

Iran may well not give U.S. hawks the excuse they want to escalate. Despite IRGC bluster, there is little chance they will actually launch an attack on Americans stationed in the region. As long as Europe sticks with the deal, international sanctions cannot be effectively reinstated.

Still, even the weaker sanctions that Trump could impose against Iran or allied groups like Hezbollah without Congress or international support could lead to escalated tensions. “Iran has been clear that they will not stay in deal at any price,” Maloney said. “They’re trying to weather this, but they are inevitably going to push back in their own way, so I expect we will see a more aggressive stance in the region, especially where US interest are present.”

In the end, decertification really gains nothing for the United States. It discredits America with its allies, undermines any negotiations with adversaries and increases the possibility of war with Iran. Although such a conflict would please the FDD, Trump’s own supporters approved of the president’s campaign rhetoric blasting the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq. They didn’t want to see more American blood spilled in the Middle East. Yet that is just what the man they voted for is bringing the United States closer to.

Congress Takes Aim At the Palestinians

The imbroglio over House Speaker John Boehner’s unseemly invitation to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and John Boehner

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and John Boehner

Netanyahu after President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address last month is continuing to rage in Washington. But when it comes to the Palestinians, it is business as usual in Congress.

On February 4, the House of Representatives’ Sub-Committee on the Middle East and North Africa will hold a hearing on suspending aid to the Palestinian Authority as punishment for their temerity in exercising their legal right to bring their grievances against Israel to the International Criminal Court (ICC). The sub-committee, chaired by hawk Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), has stacked the deck well against the Palestinians.

The panel appearing before the committee is a group of staunchly pro-Israel academics and think-tank pundits. It consists of Jonathan Schanzer of the neo-conservative Foundation for the Defense of Democracy; Danielle Pletka from the neo-conservative American Enterprise Institute; David Makovsky from the AIPAC-inspired Washington Institute for Near East Policy; and Eugene Kontorovich, a professor of law who is one of a tiny handful of legal scholars who try to make the case that Israel is not actually an occupying power in the West Bank according to international law.

The constitution of the panel is not surprising, given the hard push AIPAC has been giving on this issue, the rightward tilt of the sub-committee, and the Republican impetus to confound any moderation on Middle East issues by the Obama administration. In many ways, though, this is a grandstanding play by Congress. They have, after all, already passed legislation mandating that aid to the Palestinian Authority be suspended if it initiates or assists in a case that the ICC pursues against Israel. Now, with AIPAC cheering hard behind them, they are pushing it a step further and demanding that the Palestinians completely withdraw from the Rome Statute (the treaty that created the ICC).

Congress and the White House do not have a sharp disagreement on this issue, unlike the question of a nuclear deal with Iran. Both the White House and the State Department have publicly expressed their displeasure at the Palestinian decision to join the ICC, and the State Department has initiated its own review of aid to the Palestinians as a result.

Nonetheless, the Obama administration would clearly prefer to deal with this issue in a way that doesn’t cause further, perhaps fatal, damage to the Palestinian Authority. But whereas in the past both the Israeli government and its advocates in the United States have agreed that sustaining the PA was a priority, Jerusalem seems to have changed its position.

The hearing follows a letter, signed by prominent members of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs from both the Democratic and Republican parties. Addressed to Secretary of State John Kerry, the letter explicitly states that continued ICC membership would “threaten the viability of the PA itself.” It goes on to declare that the “United States should not support direct economic assistance to the PA until it demonstrates a meaningful reversal of this destructive course and proves it can be a willing partner for peace.”

Clearly, this Congress is determined to force the Palestinian Authority to abandon the ICC or it will destroy the PA entirely. This approach is not limited to the House. Last week 75 senators signed on to an AIPAC-authored letter spearheaded by Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) similarly urging harsh reprisals against the PA for its action.

Turning reality on its head, the Senate letter tells Kerry that “Israel needs a Palestinian partner that has renounced violence, refuses to partner with terrorists, accepts Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state, and is willing to make compromises for peace. President Abbas’ recent actions undermine these efforts.” With the lone exception of Israel’s insistence that, unlike every other country in the world, the Palestinians, and the Palestinians alone, recognize it as a Jewish state, Abbas has gone to extraordinary lengths over the last decade to fulfill all of these demands.

These letters and hearings have come about under the shadow of the controversy over Netanyahu’s announced address to Congress in March. As such, they have received relatively little attention in Washington. But they represent a significant upgrade in the intensity of congressional action against the Palestinian Authority.

Neither the House nor the Senate letter makes any mention of urging Kerry to push for a resumption of negotiations, even though both note that this is, in the view of the signatories, the “only path” to resolving the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians. Considering that the upcoming House panel doesn’t have a single voice on it that is anything less than hostile toward the Palestinians, the inescapable conclusion is that these congressional actions are, in fact, intended to strip the Palestinians of any means to defend their rights and claims in a non-violent fashion.

In March, whether Netanyahu addresses Congress or not, he will be coming to Washington. He will be coming with the clear purpose of scuttling the efforts of the Obama administration, as well as of the key European allies of Israel – Great Britain, France, and Germany—to reach a diplomatic resolution to the long nuclear standoff with Iran. A few days ago, Marsha Cohen and a team of experts ably deconstructed the likely substance of the case he will be bringing.

In light of those realities, the question that needs to be asked of both Netanyahu and the Obama administration is, quite simply, “why aren’t we talking about the Palestinians?” Instead of scuttling peace talks with Iran and blocking every non-violent route the Palestinians have to address their ongoing occupation and dispossession, would we not do better to seek peaceful and reasonable resolutions to both? Or is that just too much to ask of the United States?

Iranian Elections: Netanyahu, Neoconservatives Are the Big Losers

This post originally appeared at LobeLog.

Outside of Iran, there is no doubt that the biggest losers in Iran’s election this past weekend were the Likud government in Israel and its supporters, especially neoconservatives, in the United States.

The response of Israel’s Prime Minister to the election of centrist candidate Hassan Rouhani as Iran’s next President was almost comical in its sharp reversal from the rhetoric of the past eight years. As was widely reported, Benjamin Netanyahu said that it was Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and not the president who sets nuclear policy.

Hassan Rouhani, Iran’s new president

That is, of course, true, and it is precisely what opponents of an attack on Iran have been saying for the past eight years. Netanyahu and his neocon allies, on the other hand, were repeatedly pointing to outgoing president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as the fearsome specter, the man who wanted to “wipe Israel off the map” and must be prevented from acquiring the means to do so. With Ahmadinejad gone, and, much to the surprise of many observers, not replaced by someone from the arch-conservative (or, in Iranian political terms, principlist) camp, the hawks have lost their best tool for frightening people and getting them behind the idea of attacking Iran.

So, Netanyahu has stepped up his push for a hard line on Iran, saying, “The international community must not become caught up in wishful thinking and be tempted to relax the pressure on Iran to stop its nuclear program.” Netanyahu is admitting that all the rhetoric around Ahemdinejad was insincere, and that the Iranian president is only relevant insofar as his visage can be used to whip people into a frenzy behind his call for war. Continue reading

Israel’s New Cabinet

This article originally appeared at LobeLog

The new Israeli government features a security braintrust that might be a bit more reasonable on Iran, but is likely to be even more hawkish both in the immediate region

Netanyahu has a new and untested cabinet

Netanyahu has a new and untested cabinet

and within the country itself. Gone are voices from the Israeli right who favored a more reasoned and diplomatic approach to their right-wing agenda. They have been replaced by figures who want more direct action and refuse even the pretense of a two-state solution.

On Iran, the retirement of Ehud Barak removes Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s leading supporter in his effort for a strike on Iran sooner rather than later, whether that be carried out by Israel or, preferably, the United States. He is replaced by Moshe “Bogey” Ya’alon. Bogey is also an Iran hawk, but is not in favor of Israel launching an attack other than as a last resort. He is far more content than Barak to allow the United States to take the lead and wants Israel to act only if it becomes apparent that the US will not. That puts him pretty well in line with the Israeli military and intelligence leadership in practice, though he sees Iran as more of a threat than they do.

In fact, no one in the current or even the outgoing inner circle came close to matching Barak’s eagerness for military action against Iran. Only Netanyahu himself could match him, and he remains daunted by the lack of support for his position in Israel. The ongoing hawkishness in the US Congress and President Barack Obama’s repeated statements holding firm to a military option and refusing a policy of containment also blunt Netanyahu’s resolve. It would seem that, at least for the time being, the calls for war on Iran will be fueled more in the United States than in Israel.

Ya’alon is a former Chief of Staff of the Israel Defense Forces, but he did not have a distinguished term of service there, was not well-liked and returns without a great deal of good will among the military and intelligence services’ leadership. In fact, colleagues in Israel tell me there is a good deal of consternation in those services regarding Bogey’s appointment. But for now, they will wait and see how he acts. For a deeper look at Ya’alon, see my recent piece on him here. Continue reading