Tag: Iran

Kill the Iran Deal, Open Pandora’s Box

This afternoon, Donald Trump made an announcement regarding the future of the Iran nuclear deal. Ahead of a self-imposed May 12th deadline, the President announced that he will not be waiving the sanctions. This decision places the United States in violation of the deal. But while it may not kill the JCPOA completely – European states and Iran could decide whether to keep some version of the deal going without the United States – it will start a period of profound uncertainty about the future of U.S-Iranian relations.

In some ways, this uncertainty is the most concerning thing about the current administration’s approach to the JCPOA. Trump’s speech included no realistic alternate strategy, other than “get a better deal.” His decision probably won’t be followed by public debate over whether conflict with Iran is desirable, a proposition that many in the administration seem to favor, but which most Americans would undoubtedly oppose.

Instead, by blowing up the nuclear deal today without offering any clear strategy or plan for an alternative, Donald Trump is opening Pandora’s Box, increasing the risks of escalation and bringing us gradually closer to conflict with Iran.

Initially, it probably won’t look that bad. Sanctions penalties will not kick in for 180 days. Iran has said it will take a few weeks to decide on its response, and discuss the issue with European signatories of the JCPOA. These countries may well try to keep some form of the deal running without the United States. 

Trump’s Decision: the JCPOA or Something Else?

In his surprise speech today, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu presented what he described as Iran’s “nuclear files,” promising to show proof that Iran has cheated on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the 2015 diplomatic agreement better known as the Iranian nuclear deal.

Instead, what he presented was a curious mix of details on the extent of Iran’s nuclear weapons program prior to 2003—all the major components of which were already publicly known and presented by the United States or the International Atomic Energy Agency—with a series of unfounded assertions about Iran wanting to continue with its nuclear program.

The presentation thus appears to have been far more about politics than anything else, with Netanyahu trying to use details of Iran’s past nuclear activity to argue that it cannot be trusted to comply with the JCPOA today. This is particularly ironic given that these details were among the key reasons which led to international sanctions and the eventual negotiation of the deal itself.  

Nonetheless, with President Trump rapidly approaching another key decision point on May 12th, this presentation will only add fuel to the fire. The president is widely expected to refuse to waive sanctions as required under the JCPOA, despite ongoing Iranian compliance with the deal confirmed and certified by the IAEA, the State Department, and members of his own administration.  

This all raises a key question: What comes after May 12th? Assuming the president does refuse to reissue sanctions waivers, the United States will technically be in default of the deal, regardless of whether we formally withdraw or not. And it remains unclear whether the Trump administration has any coherent follow-through plan.

Last fall, John Glaser and I explored this question in a Cato Policy Analysis, “Unforced Error: The Risks of Confrontation with Iran.” We looked past the JCPOA to ask what other policy options—if any—would be an improvement on the deal. Unfortunately, the four options we examined were all problematic: none resolved the nuclear problem, and several were astoundingly costly and dangerous. Nothing has changed to make these options more palatable in the meantime. 

The Two Faces of Mohammed bin Salman

Saudi Arabia’s prodigal son returns to Washington this week, beginning a tour through the United States apparently aimed at drumming up investment in the country. Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) is young with big ideas: he wants to reform Saudi society and wean the Saudi economy off oil. He also wants to build up Saudi as a foreign policy player – with or without the United States – and cement Saudi dominance in the Gulf.

It’s small wonder then that profiles and articles about the prince typically either laud him as a great reformer or simply criticize his foreign policy blunders. The truth is an accurate portrayal of Mohammed bin Salman must include both. And policymakers and businesses should be wary of the potential pitfalls of his proposed reforms, even as they hope for their success.  

The Crown Prince’s social reforms are a welcome step in the right direction, though they will be difficult to complete. Thus far, there has been a crackdown on the religious police, robbing them of much of their power over morality issues. Cinemas have been permitted to screen movies for the first time in decades. Women can now attend sporting events, and legal changes are in progress that will allow them to drive.

Likewise, the innovative economic reforms that MBS has proposed – notably using an IPO of Aramco stock to shift the government’s primary income source away from oil and towards investment gains, paired with an attempt to reform the domestic economy and attract inward investment – could potentially reshape and improve the state of the Saudi economy.

There is no doubt that U.S. policymakers should welcome these changes and encourage Saudi Arabia to continue down this path.

Unfortunately, on the flip side, the assertiveness shown by MBS at home has been matched by an extremely bellicose foreign policy. The young prince’s foreign policy overreach has already helped to create the world’s worst humanitarian crisis in Yemen. The Saudi blockade of Qatar has been spectacularly ineffectual and has hardened into stalemate.  

Farewell, Rex

Nothing about Rex Tillerson’s firing should surprise us, except perhaps its timing. Tillerson has often been at odds with his boss in the White House, whether on Russia, Iran, or North Korea. Though widely hailed as one of the ‘adults in the room,’ it’s not clear he had much influence at all on Trump’s biggest foreign policy decisions. He was widely disliked inside his own agency; civil servants at Foggy Bottom hated his insularity and his plans to massively cut the State Department’s budget and diplomatic capacity.

Even the casual cruelty of the firing should not surprise us. Sure, the President fired his Secretary of State via Twitter, while Tillerson was abroad, without apparently offering him any explanation or courtesy phone call. But from the man who fired James Comey, his FBI Director, via television while Comey was on-stage giving a public speech, this was almost polite. 

But while Tillerson’s firing has been expected for some time, it will have big implications. Tillerson may not have had much influence with the President, but he was one of the administration’s more reasonable voices. He apparently had a good relationship with Secretary of Defense James Mattis, acting as a sounding board for ideas, and both men have advocated against some of Trump’s more disastrous foreign policy decisions.

It’s always been questionable the extent to which these so-called ‘adults in the room’ could actually constrain Trump on foreign policy issues. But with the loss of Tillerson and – last week – of Gary Cohn of the National Economic Council, we will see them replaced by advisors who appear to be trying not to restrain the President’s worst impulses, but instead to indulge them. On tariffs, conflict and more, things have the potential to get a lot worse.

Iran, Decertification, and the Dangerous Alternatives

Late on Thursday afternoon, the Washington Post reported that President Trump plans to undermine American involvement in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) by “decertifying” Iranian compliance with the deal and kicking the issue to Congress.

This move is hardly unexpected:  when he last certified Iranian compliance with the deal 90 days ago, President Trump reportedly told staff “he wants to be in a place to decertify 90 days from now and it’s their job to put him there.” Yet as that quote suggests, the President’s decision is not based on any reality-based assessment of the deal. Iran is in fact complying with the deal, a fact verified repeatedly by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Many of Trump’s own advisors disagree with his decision. On Tuesday, Secretary of Defense James Mattis told Congress that he believed it was in the U.S. national interest to remain in the deal. They are undoubtedly aware that the President’s choice will most likely undermine or end U.S. participation in the nuclear deal, split us from our European allies, reduce the constraints on Iran’s nuclear program, and reduce America’s global credibility and negotiating power.

In a newly published Cato Policy Analysis, my colleague John Glaser and I examine the grounds for retaining the nuclear deal, and explore the alternatives that the Trump administration could decide to pursue. Our analysis suggests that the prospects for a better approach are bleak.

We examine four key alternatives to the JCPOA:

  1. Increased or Renewed Sanctions: Though the United States possesses an impressive and far-reaching sanctions infrastructure – including so-called ‘secondary sanctions’ – it is highly unlikely that new sanctions will force further concessions from Tehran. European allies will push back strongly against any new sanctions, and neither Russia nor China is likely to cooperate in creating a new sanctions regime when the United States is responsible for destroying the current deal.
  2. Challenging Iranian Influence in the Region: The United States could instead choose to push back against Iranian proxies across the Middle East, such as Hezbollah. But there are few groups or states that are practical partners for such a strategy, meaning the burden would fall most heavily on U.S. troops. The risk of blowback – endangering the lives of U.S. forces in Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere – is a serious concern. This option also does nothing to prevent Iranian proliferation.
  3. Regime Change “from Within”: A popular idea among some anti-Iran hawks, this strategy would see the United States use sanctions and funding for pro-democracy groups inside Iran to destabilize the regime. The lack of any good group to support is one key problem with this strategy. Yet the bigger problem is simply that research shows that regime change rarely works, and even when it does, it tends to produce worse outcomes.
  4. Direct Military Action: Targeted strikes on Iranian nuclear or military facilities is perhaps the most extreme option we examine. Put simply, there are no good options for a military strike on Iran; this was a key aspect of the Bush and Obama administration’s decisions to pursue diplomacy. Any military strike would likely escalate to a costly, large-scale war, further destabilizing the region and ironically most likely encouraging other states to seek a nuclear deterrent.

Contrary to the Trump administration’s statements, the nuclear deal with Iran is working. Though it has not solved – and was never intended to solve –every problem in the U.S.-Iranian relationship, the deal has halted Iranian proliferation and opened lines of communication and negotiation which can be exploited to defuse future tensions and improve relations over the long-term.

By decertifying Iran, President Trump is starting down a dangerous road towards a strategy which is far more uncertain, risky, and costly.

You can check out the whole report on alternatives to the JCPOA here.

Trump’s Tough Talk at the United Nations

Trump’s threat to “totally destroy North Korea” at the United Nations this week generated concern in many corners but a round of applause from many hawks here in the United States. Former ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton, for example, called it “the best speech of the Trump Presidency,” praising Trump for his tougher approach to North Korea’s nuclear program. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe also voiced strong support for Trump’s approach. In a New York Times oped, Abe wrote that, “I firmly support the United States position that all options are on the table.”

Abe’s choice of the phrase “all options are on the table” was not accidental. As Figure one indicates, the phrase has steadily gained in popularity since the September 11 attacks, with its use spiking in the first year of the Trump administration, as tensions with North Korea have risen. 

Figure One: The Rise of “All Options on the Table” 

Figure 1 All Options on the Table

Data source: Factiva Top U.S. newspapers database.

The meaning of the phrase, at least on paper, is clear: the United States is willing to use military force should diplomacy fail. And as tensions rise, as they have over the past months with North Korea, one would expect to hear the phrase more often.

The problem, however, is that despite occasional protests to the contrary, it is increasingly obvious that the Trump administration is ready to take the most important option off the table: diplomacy. By repeatedly arguing that, “talking is not the answer,” and that “we’re out of time” to deal with North Korea’s nuclear program, the administration is raising the stakes of the crisis and the chances that it ends in a military conflict.

No matter how happy that makes the hawks, conflict with a nuclear and well-armed North Korea would be both a military disaster and out of touch with the desires of the American public. In survey after survey over the years, Americans have voiced greater confidence in diplomacy than military strength as the best path to peace.

For those with concerns about Trump’s language, it is important to note that although Trump’s bellicose style is very different from that of his predecessors, he is not much more hawkish than either George Bush or Barack Obama. As Figure Two shows, the three post-9/11 presidents all have had “hawk indexes” higher than the three previous presidents. 

The hawk index is the ratio of how often a president appears in news stories that mention the words “war” or “military” compared to how often he appears in stories that mention the words “peace” or “diplomacy.” The score reflects not only the state of the international arena the president is coping with, but also the relative frequency that he discusses military options compared to diplomatic ones. As Figure Two reveals, American discourse and news coverage has always focused far more heavily on war than peace. 

Figure Two: The Hawk Index from Reagan to Trump

Figure Two: The Hawk Index 

Data source: Factiva Top U.S. newspapers database.

Given this data, Trump’s tough talk at the United Nations should come as little surprise. Nor, given the American track record of almost non-stop military intervention since the end of the Cold War, should we be surprised if “all options on the table” actually turns out to mean: “we are about to fight another war.”

Overwhelming Resistance to Trump’s Plan to Scuttle the Iran Deal

This has not been a good week for President Trump’s Iran policy. As the president has indicated, he plans in mid-October to decertify Iranian compliance with the nuclear deal, or the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), negotiated and signed in 2015, which rolled back Iran’s nuclear program, placed severe restrictions on it for the foreseeable future, and imposed the world’s most intrusive inspections regime on what remained.

Leaving aside for now the various and profoundly negative ramifications of Trump’s stated intention to declare Iran in violation of the agreement, the most immediate problem for the president has always been that Iran is, in fact, not in violation of the deal. As attested to by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and all other signatories to the agreement – including Germany, France, the United Kingdom, China, and Russia – Iran is fully compliant with its obligations under the JCPOA.

But this week brought significant pushback to Trump’s plan. Following the president’s speech to the UN General Assembly on Tuesday, world leaders and diplomats reportedly pressured the president and members of his administration in numerous meetings to reconsider his plan to scuttle the JCPOA. Allies publicly criticized him. “Renouncing [the Iran deal] would be a grave error, not respecting it would be irresponsible,” said the French president Emmanuel Macron, suggesting further that decertification could create another nuclear crisis like North Korea.

In a press conference following a meeting with representatives from every signatory country, Federica Mogherini, High Representative of the European Union, said that if the United States walks out of the deal, Europe would make sure it remains in place anyways. She further indicated, “The international community cannot afford dismantling an agreement that is working and delivering…Iran is complying.”

Mogherini confirmed that all of the parties to the JCPOA, including the United States, agreed in the closed-door meeting that “there is no violation.” This prompted questions for Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who had to sheepishly admit that “from a technical standpoint, the IAEA reports continue to indicate and confirm that Iran is in technical compliance of the agreement.”

Foreign Policy reported that the Trump administration’s ploy to use the threat of decertification to reopen negotiations on the JCPOA and squeeze more concessions out of Iran “collapsed on Wednesday as key European powers persevered in their effort to rescue the deal from an American walkout, and Iran’s president made clear his government wouldn’t revisit the terms of the pact.” The New York Times reported that Trump’s repudiation of the international consensus and his brash denunciation of the JCPOA was unintentionally generating global sympathy for Iran, while damaging U.S. credibility and trust.

Even members of Trump’s own party began to break ranks. On Tuesday, Rep. Ed Royce, Republican Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told CNN that Trump should not withdraw from the Iran deal, but rather continue to “enforce the hell out of it.” Senator Rand Paul (R-KY), who opposed the deal when it was signed in 2015, told reporters, “if [Iran is] complying with it, I think we should stay in it.”

Then, on Wednesday afternoon, the Commander of U.S. Strategic Command, General John Hyten, in a speech at the Hudson Institute, said, “The facts are that Iran is operating under the agreement that we signed up for under JCPOA… We have an agreement that our nation has signed and I believe that if the United States of America signs an agreement, it’s our job to live up to the terms of that agreement, it’s our job to enforce that.”

It’s not clear that this overwhelming resistance to decertification will dissuade President Trump. But the American people should know that if Trump goes through with it, he’ll be doing it in defiance of the facts, the international community, much of his own cabinet, and at least some prominent members of his own party.

This may soon become Congress’s responsibility. According to legislation passed subsequent to the signing of the JCPOA, that requires the president to certify Iranian compliance every 90-days, decertification triggers a 60-day clock for Congress to decide by majority vote whether to re-impose nuclear-related sanctions on Iran. A decision to do so and join President Trump in his misbegotten scheme to unravel the Iran deal would be dangerous and irresponsible.

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