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 Kahl, associate 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).”
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.