Tag: Iran

Bad Policy Begets Insecurity

The New York Times is reporting a major spike in aggressive cyber attacks by Iran and China against businesses and government agencies in the United States. “[S]ecurity experts believe,” the Times reports, that the renewed cyber attacks “have been energized by President Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal last year and his trade conflicts with China.”

Chinese cyberespionage cooled four years ago after President Barack Obama and President Xi Jinping of China reached a landmark deal to stop hacks meant to steal trade secrets.

But the 2015 agreement appears to have been unofficially canceled amid the continuing trade tension between the United States and China, the intelligence officials and private security researchers said. Chinese hacks have returned to earlier levels, although they are now stealthier and more sophisticated.

…Threats from China and Iran never stopped entirely, but Iranian hackers became much less active after the nuclear deal was signed in 2015. And for about 18 months, intelligence officials concluded, Beijing backed off its 10-year online effort to steal trade secrets.

But Chinese hackers have resumed carrying out commercially motivated attacks…

In other words, the United States has been the target of major cyber attacks from both Iran and China as a direct consequence of two Trump administration policies, neither of which were justified.

Last year, against the advice of his own top national security officials and the US intelligence community, as well as US allies, President Trump withdrew from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal (JCPOA). That deal rolled back Iran’s nuclear program and imposed strict limits on it for the foreseeable future. To this day, it remains one of the most robust non-proliferation agreements ever negotiated and Iran continues to comply with its stringent controls and invasive inspections regime. Trump’s withdrawal, which lacked a national security rationale (at least one that had any relation to reality) resulted in the automatic re-imposition of harsh economic sanctions against Iran. Although the sanctions have hurt the Iranian economy, the regime in Tehran has kept to its obligations anyway, even amid threatening and overtly hostile rhetoric from the Trump administration that strongly suggests it is seeking regime change.

Many predicted withdrawal from the JCPOA would pressure Iran to unburden itself from the deal’s restrictions and restart its nuclear enrichment program in earnest, the exact opposite of the White House’s stated aim. Thankfully, this has not happened (yet). But what has happened is that Iran has ramped up aggressive cyber attacks against us.

Likewise, Trump’s determination to initiate a trade war with China, arguably America’s most important trade partner, cannot be justified on either economic or national security grounds. China’s immediate response was to retaliate with its own tariffs against US imports. Both the US and Chinese economies have consequently suffered an economic hit worth billions of dollars. We can add to these costs the apparent revocation of the arrangement Obama and Xi secured in 2015 not to engage in commercial cyber espionage. 

As I see it, we can draw two lessons from this. First, countries are likely to retaliate if we punish them for engaging in cooperative diplomacy with us. Second, Trump’s policies have made America less safe.

For those who think the proper response to intensified Iranian and Chinese cyber attacks is to adopt a more aggressive, offensive cyber posture (in retaliation for the retaliation), I recommend reading this Cato Policy Analysis we published last month which demonstrates the dangers, and low utility, of such a path.

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.”

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