President Donald Trump has sold himself as the consummate deal-maker. But while he has been clear-eyed about the Iran nuclear accord, he has perhaps been overly focused on its shortcomings. This risks not only losing sight of the deal’s one advantage and its true costs, but also replicating his predecessor’s mistake: reducing all Iran policy issues to the agreement.
President Barack Obama’s diplomatic perseverance made the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, possible, but it also became a restraint. During negotiations, and even after the deal was struck, the Obama administration did not confront Iran on other serious issues — its bloody involvement in Syria or the 2016 capture of 10 American sailors in the Persian Gulf — for fear of upsetting the accord.
As a result, the deal has given Tehran not only billions of dollars but also allowed it to fan conflict and chaos throughout the Middle East, undermining U.S. national security and interests.
Such restraint was unwarranted. The JCPOA is just a nuclear deal. It obliges the United States to lift sanctions tied only to Iran’s nuclear program. Nothing more. Everything else is fair game.
If he recognizes the deal’s limits, Trump has tremendous room to maneuver in dealing with Iran and the increasing danger it poses. Otherwise, he risks squandering that flexibility and falling into the same trap as Obama in unduly restraining U.S. policy options by making everything about the deal.
Consider Trump’s demand that the nuclear deal be fixed before May 12 when he must again decide whether to waive Iran sanctions, as required by the agreement. Of the three problems he has noted — the expiration of restrictions on enrichment, insufficient inspections, and a lack of ballistic missile limitations — at least the latter two can largely be addressed without any changes to the JCPOA. Meanwhile, despite promises last October of “a new strategy to address the full range of Iran’s destructive actions,” there has been little evidence of any such approach.
Instead of trying to solve non-nuclear issues through the JCPOA, or refraining from tackling Iran’s destabilizing regional behavior until the deal is fixed, Trump should move quickly and aggressively to address as many issues as possible outside the accord.
Ballistic missiles, for example, are not part of the JCPOA. Perhaps they should have been. But it is precisely because they are not that Trump has greater flexibility.
Congress can and should sanction Iranian companies tied to that country’s ballistic missile program and anyone found to be exporting sensitive technology to Tehran. United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley should stand up for a strong reading of Security Council resolution 2231 as forbidding Iranian ballistic missile activity and press for U.N. Security Council sanctions. France has already suggested its openness to an additional deal to constrain Iranian missile activity. And the United States can work with its regional allies to put in place a missile shield to defend against Iranian attacks. None of these actions need to be held up by attempts to renegotiate the JCPOA.
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While the deal’s inspections regime is suboptimal, more can be done to strengthen its implementation. The major obstacle so far has been the inspections body itself, the International Atomic Energy Agency, which has resisted calls to demand access to Iranian military facilities. Here, the United States could call upon two recent examples — Iran’s complicity in blocking international inspectors from examining suspected chemical weapons attack sites in Syria and the trove of Iranian documents recently released by Israel showing continued nuclear weapons research — to corral international opinion and pressure the IAEA to do its job.
Trump should also resist attempts to add even more issues to any potential new deal, such as French President Emmanuel Macron’s proposal to address all of the above and the Syrian conflict. Such a “grand bargain” makes sense if the intent is to gain nuclear concessions from Iran by yielding to and legitimizing its bloody and criminal actions in Syria. Otherwise, adding a multiyear international conflict to the agenda ensures negotiations stretch on for years while Iran remains unchecked.
The president should instead seek to impose costs on Iran for its regional aggression while also pursuing these other objectives. This is critical to preventing a potential Iran-Israel conflict, which would inevitably draw in the United States, or warding off missiles from raining down on Riyadh. But it also helps build pressure against Tehran to actually solve the JCPOA’s fundamental flaw — the sunset clauses that allow Iran to resume nuclear activity after a set period of time.
Sometimes the art of the deal is realizing that it is not all about the deal.
Blaise Misztal is director of national security at the Bipartisan Policy Center.
The Bipartisan Policy Center is a D.C.-based think tank that actively promotes bipartisanship. BPC works to address the key challenges facing the nation through policy solutions that are the product of informed deliberations by former elected and appointed officials, business and labor leaders, and academics and advocates from both ends of the political spectrum. BPC is currently focused on health, energy, national security, the economy, financial regulatory reform, housing, immigration, infrastructure, and governance. Follow BPC on Twitter or Facebook.