What Trump Should Do Post-Nuke Deal
By Michael Singh
May 17, 2018
President Donald Trump's decision to withdraw the United
States from the Iran nuclear agreement was predictable. The road ahead is
The president's decision to pull out of the nuclear accord
was well telegraphed and had its roots both in politics and in policy.
Politically, Trump committed himself during the 2016 campaign to scrapping the
deal, which he variously described as "insane,"
"ridiculous," and the "worst deal ever."
Yet the decision to withdraw goes beyond politics. The
nuclear accord stoked controversy when the Obama administration introduced it in
2015—not merely because of its association with former President Barack Obama.
Critics such as myself felt that the deal did too little, for too little time,
to restrict Iran's nuclear activities. We believed that the deal was one-sided,
granting Iran broad sanctions relief for its restraint in just one area, albeit
a vital one. And we believed there was an alternative: not war, but waiting, for
sanctions to bite harder.
The allure of reneging on the deal and reinstating
sanctions is thus clear. Iran's economy is already reeling—the Iranian rial
has lost significant value, forcing the regime to impose capital controls, and
widespread protests over economic conditions and other matters have roiled the
country. The Iranian regime appears vulnerable, at just the time that U.S.
policymakers are searching for ways to counter its aggression across the Middle
East. The Trump administration hopes not just to revive but to increase the
pre-nuclear deal pressure on Iran and bring Tehran back to the negotiating
table, with the White House's "maximum pressure" campaign against
North Korea as a model.
But in policy as in life, it's not so easy to turn back the
clock. Critics lost the argument over the nuclear agreement in 2015, and since
then, the deal has been embraced by much of the world. As a senior U.S. official
responsible for Iran policy from 2006 to 2008, I know from personal experience
that even when the United States was strategically aligned with its diplomatic
partners, sanctions required relentless diplomacy in order to be effective. The
United States secured United Nations resolutions as a foundation for a broader,
ad hoc sanctions regime, which gave others cover to cooperate—and balanced the
pressure campaign with a diplomatic process, which kept even the likes of China
and Russia on board.
Conducting such diplomacy today will be difficult. U.S.
allies in Europe will be upset that the United States abandoned the nuclear
agreement. Even more so, they will be nonplussed that Washington has forsaken
the U.S.-European negotiations to fix the deal, which was the Trump
administration's own initiative. And their first priority in the wake of the
U.S. announcement may be to mollify Iran, preserve the agreement despite the
U.S. withdrawal, and head off further escalation of the crisis. Russia and
China, for their part, are in a different place altogether—U.S. relations with
both have deteriorated in the past decade.
This will be the United States' first effort to erect a
secondary sanctions regime amid such a sharp divergence with allies. In previous
cases—Russia, North Korea, and Iran the first time around—the United States
often disagreed with its partners on tactics, but largely agreed on the nature
of the threat and the need for action.
European firms and other multinationals will respect the
renewed U.S. sanctions, facing the prospect of the loss of access to the U.S.
market. Indeed, many refrained from re-entering the Iranian market due merely to
the possibility of the return of sanctions, along with other barriers endemic to
Iran. But the inevitable cheating and workarounds, and resistance from
state-owned firms and governments, will offset those firms' compliance.
Diplomacy, not just market signals, will be required to
amplify whatever pressure the United States can generate alone, and translate
that pressure into policy outcomes.
Diplomacy will also be required to manage the policy
tradeoffs looming on the horizon. Two of Iran's biggest oil customers are China
and India; the former is embroiled with the United States in talks over trade
and North Korea, requiring the prioritization of U.S. policymakers. The United
States eyes the latter as a key partner in the country's Indo-Pacific strategy,
which calls for expanding our network of Asian alliances.
Perhaps most important, the United States has not put its
withdrawal from the nuclear deal in any broader policy context. The country
lacks a strategy for countering Iran, and partners with whom to share the
effort. While Washington has been debating the nuclear deal, Iran has been
expanding its power across the Middle East, and the prospects of an Israel-Iran
or Saudi-Iran war have been rising.
Going forward, the Trump administration should have three
First, the United States should finally devise a
comprehensive Iran strategy that not only addresses Iran's nuclear activities,
but also seeks to repulse Iranian gains across the Middle East and push back on
its production and proliferation of missiles. The administration should be ready
to explain to allies how the nuclear deal decision fits into a larger strategy
for Iran and the Middle East, rather than talking about sanctions in isolation.
Second, the White House should continue to pursue a
U.S.-European agreement to strengthen the nuclear accord and should be willing
to hold back on sanctions upon reaching one. The tenor of these talks will
inevitably shift, from merely supplementing the nuclear deal to perhaps devising
a joint roadmap toward reaching a new understanding. But the United States
should not throw away the good work it has done over the past few months. Any
such accord could be considered a first step and a diplomatic foundation for a
new negotiation with Iran and others, which is a more distant prospect.
Finally, senior U.S. officials should engage in an
intensive diplomatic roadshow to explain the path ahead to international
partners beyond key European allies and to foreign firms, and begin the hard
work of limiting diplomatic rifts that adversaries will be keen to exploit. The
United States may not find allies terribly receptive to the renewed sanctions
push, but listening to the concerns of friends, presenting them with specific
requests, and ensuring that the measures do not endanger their security and
economic interests can help limit the diplomatic fallout.
However they feel about Trump's decision earlier this month, his critics both foreign and domestic share his desire to prevent Iran from making nuclear and regional gains. Translating that shared desire into a favorable policy outcome will now take all of the diplomatic savvy the president's new national security team can muster.