Trump and Tehran.

Author:Pillar, Paul R.

In abandoning the nuclear deal with Iran, the Trump administration disrupted an international consensus on how to deal with Tehran. U.S. policy toward Iran will now be a story of attempted recovery from the failures of that disruption. Domestic politics drove the original decision to confront Iran, and domestic politics, in an election year, will shape Donald Trump's attempts at avoiding war. Any hope of salvaging success will require significant change in Trump's policy, some hints of which have already appeared. Iran, too, has changed, but in unhelpful ways that will make the recovery process all the more difficult.

The too-easily-forgotten background to the current mess was broad agreement--expressed most strongly by proponents of a hard line toward Iran--that the sine qua non of Iran policy was to prevent an Iranian nuclear weapon. The response to that broadly-held concern was the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), a multilateral agreement that--by disposing of stockpiles of enriched uranium, filling nuclear reactors with cement and a host of other measures--closed all possible paths to such a weapon and imposed an intrusive system of international monitoring to assure the world that they stayed closed. The international consensus on the subject took the form of United Nations Security Council Resolution 2231, which passed unanimously in 2015 and was the Council's formal blessing of the JCPOA.

The Trump administration's reneging, beginning in 2018, on U.S. obligations under the JCPOA was foreshadowed by earlier Republican attempts during the Obama administration to sabotage the negotiation of the agreement. Both the earlier sabotage and the later reneging were motivated by the identification of Barack Obama with the JCPOA. That the agreement was a signal foreign policy accomplishment of this Democratic president was reason enough to try to destroy it. A complementary motivation was opposition to the agreement by the Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu, whose unrelenting push to keep Iran ostracized served several political purposes, including promoting Israel's relations with the Gulf Arab monarchies and diverting international attention from Israel's own policies. The position of that government had, as always, profound political implications in the United States, even though in this case the JCPOA'S closing of all paths to an Iranian nuclear weapon was clearly in Israel's interests, as many former senior Israeli security officials stated.

Vague references to a "better deal" did not clarify the Trump administration's desired end game. Different players in the administration had differing desires. Especially evident was a division between Trump, who wants deals, and his former National Security Advisor John Bolton, who always wanted a war. For a while after the initial reneging in mid-2018, the differences did not seem to matter. As U.S. violations of the JCPOA escalated into unrestricted economic warfare against Iran, the administration pointed to the significant damage inflicted on the Iranian economy as if that were ipso facto a positive achievement. The administration took satisfaction in how the private sector's fear of losing access to U.S. markets undermined European governments' efforts to circumvent secondary U.S. sanctions. The administration's policies did not even seem to dent the existing nuclear restrictions on Iran. For a year after the United States reneged on the JCPOA, Iran--reaffirming its commitment to the agreement and expressing its desire for full compliance with it--continued to observe its own obligations under the accord.

By mid-2019, however, it was impossible to ignore how the "maximum pressure" campaign was failing on every front. Iran's patience ran out when the Trump administration ended the last of the waivers of sanctions it had placed on purchasers of Iranian oil. Tehran then began a series of small, incremental moves beyond the JCPOA'S limits on the amount of enriched uranium that Iran could stockpile and the level of enrichment. Using the same strategy it employed before the JCPOA was negotiated, Tehran gradually ramped up its nuclear activity to pressure the United States and other foreign states to negotiate seriously about sanctions relief. Iran, in other words, has been responding to maximum pressure with pressure of its own.

The nuclear program is still below the levels it reached before the JCPOA deconstructed most of that program, and nowhere near the ability to construct a nuclear weapon. With each of its incremental steps, Iran has emphasized that what it has done is easily reversible and that its objective is a return of everyone to full compliance with the JCPOA. But for the time being, the result has not been a move toward a "better deal" but instead a series of moves in the opposite direction. Iran will continue the gradual expansion of its nuclear program as long as the maximum pressure campaign continues.

A similar story is unfolding regarding what gets vaguely but routinely labeled as "malign" or "nefarious" Iranian activity in the Middle East. The Trump administration has contended that this is the front where its economic warfare is most effective, because crimping Iran's economic resources, the argument goes, forces Iran to curtail its regional activity whether or not Tehran signs any new agreements. But there was no discernible curtailment of Iran's regional activity when the pressure campaign started in 2018, any more than there was any discernible expansion of that activity when the JCPOA went into effect in 2015 and Iran gained some sanctions relief. Iran does what it does in the region not according to the level of its financial resources but instead for what it regards as security reasons. Any...

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