Iran’ Double Edged Sword: Renegotiation vs. Enforcement

Analysts and policymakers have been proposing options for the new president. A debate has begun to unfold – one side pushing to enforce the provisions of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action and impose sanctions, while the other argues to renegotiate it, calling it a bad deal. 

The lead sanctions expert for the Obama administration team, Richard Nephew, one of the negotiators of the deal with Iran, claims that a renegotiation of the JCPOA is nearly impossible, as the conditions that got the Iranians to the table are no longer applicable. 

Still others see enforcement” as a way to re-create the leverage that America lost when it signed the deal. 

An Israeli nuclear-arms expert and a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, Emily Landau, said the Trump administration should understand that from Iran’s point of view, the struggle between them continues. Now is not the time, nor is there any reason, to engage Iran in dialogue over the deal. The U.S. is bending over backward to play down Iran’s aggressive behavior and violations.The major thing that needs to be done now is to change the American approach. When Iran tests missiles, like it did last fall, Washington shouldn’t wait three months to react and then only impose minimal sanctions.”

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Smith writes that, “The two-track strategy—combining enforcement” with a new round of negotiations with Iran—has a number of high-profile supporters among those who opposed the Iran deal, like former Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, who, along with former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Mark Wallace, recently argued that Trump should ‘first try to aggressively enforce and then renegotiate the deal beyond the confines of the nuclear issue.’ That means, write Lieberman and Wallace, a Trump renegotiating team should secure ‘an agreement with Iran to verifiably curb its regional aggression, state sponsorship of terrorism and domestic repression of human rights. In exchange, Iran could be given broad-based sanctions relief and even normalization of relations.’  Lieberman and Wallace purport to be optimistic that renegotiations might lead to, among other things, Iran ending its support for Hezbollah. Yet, at the same time, the authors understand very well that such Iranian concessions are a fantasy. If a decade of harsh sanctions proved anything, it is that there are no circumstances under which Iran would be willing to trade away its support for the Lebanese militia. This is even truer now that Iran is flush with post-sanctions cash, the U.S. has withdrawn nearly all its forces from Iraq, and Hezbollah is engaged in a full-scale war in Syria on behalf of the Assad regime.” 

Lieberman and Wallace must believe that renegotiation would show the clerical regime, not the United States, to be intransigent. The problem is that what its authors may see as a clever PR strategy, incorporating Trump’s fondness for deal-making is that the two strategies cannot work on parallel tracks. Renegotiation preempts sanctions, while sanctions discourage negotiations. America needs to keep Iran happy, to keep them from walking away from the table. 

That President Barack Obama was stupid, or that his team were terrible negotiators was never the problem with the Iran deal. Obama believed that unless he de-escalated, there was no way to get the Iranians to negotiate. He paid them $700 million a month just to stick with the negotiations, and continues to pay them, such as the $1.7 billion ransom paid in cash to release Americans that the Iranians were holding hostage. 

Obama blocks nonnuclear sanctions for the same reason.  He was willing to pay Iran to sit at the table because the deal was the hinge for a larger geopolitical maneuver. The Obama administration effected The JCPOA for the purpose of a regional realignment that could extricate America from the Middle East by “turning the keys to the car over to Tehran”. Regional interests were re-prioritized, and traditional American allies, especially Israel and Saudi Arabia, were downgraded while Tehran was upgraded. 

“While the ‘realignment thesis’ has few doubters on the ground in the Middle East, where its deadly effects are visible from Aleppo to Mosul to Yemen, Americans have been slow to catch up to the reality of what Obama intended and did, in large part because of the deceptive way in which the Iran Deal was sold to the American public. As a result, many deal opponents are still chasing the mechanical rabbits that the Obama administration created for them to chase—as if the point of the Iran deal was simply to limit Iran’s ability to spin X amount of plutonium instead of Y amount at facility Z.” 

Renegotiation of the Iran deal begins with the president-elect’s own campaign rhetoric. In a USA Today op-ed last year, candidate Trump called for sanctions and promised to renegotiate the deal. A Trump presidency,” he wrote, will force the Iranians back to the bargaining table to make a much better deal.” 

Using the president-elect’s own words to lead him down a confrontational path with Iran must be tempting to those with experience and expertise, but may create a new lobby for endless negotiations with Iran, from the Republican side of the aisle this time. 

Still, there are many experts who favor this strategy.  “I think the right strategy is parallel paths,” said Mark Dubowitz, executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a leading expert on the JCPOA who assisted in the fight against what he believes is a weak agreement. The first track is to enforce the provisions of the existing deal and show zero tolerance for violations.” 

Dubowitz agrees that the Obama administration excused Iranian violations. The Iranians don’t cheat egregiously, but the sum total of their incremental cheating is egregious. If we tolerate it, Iran will keep pushing the envelope, and in anywhere from 6 months to a year we’ll see how far they’ve pushed,” he said. 

According to Dubowitz, enforcing the deal includes hitting Iran with non-nuclear-related sanctions, which the Obama administration blocked, to keep the Iranians from walking away from the deal. Such sanctions may include issues like human rights, ballistic missiles, support for Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.  The centerpiece of the sanctions campaign should be the IRGC,” Dubowitz said of the Iranian institution that is at the center of Iranian industry. Right now there are 25 IRGC-related companies, and that list should be increased by the hundreds, if not thousands. FDD has a list 575 IRGC companies that should be designated.” 

Smith writes, “It’s not hard to discern that the intent behind the enforce-and-sanction strategy that Dubowitz described—to make it so difficult for Iran to continue to pursue a nuclear weapon that it either has to give up its program or, much more likely, walk away from the deal. The purpose of renegotiation, then, is to underline the fact that it’s the Iranians who are the bad guys, not the new president. Politically speaking, the question is how to do that without making house and senate Democrats feel like they’ve sold out Obama’s signature foreign-policy initiative, or Europeans fearful that they’re being led to the brink of World War III.  But why, I asked, would deal opponents want to risk repeating the Obama administration’s errors?” 

Dubowitz answers, “Because the Trump White House would handle negotiations differently.  The Obama administration decreased pressure during negotiations, but now we increase it. Obama gave them $700 million a month to stay in negotiations, so the Iranians dragged out talks as their economy recovered. The longer they negotiated, the more their economy recovered and they avoided a crisis. So, we do the opposite and escalate pressure so they know that the longer they drag it out, the more severe the pain is. The incentive is for them to do a deal as quickly as possible.” 

The possibility for overt pressure mechanisms are endless with tough-minded Trump cabinet officials like Rep. Mike Pompeo, Gen. James Mattis, and Gen. Michael Flynn, who will be in charge of national-security policy under President Trump. 

Smith again questions, “Yes, but? What this analysis misses is that the key mechanism for regional realignment was the actual process of sitting down and talking with Iran. More talk with Iran, even with the idea of keeping the pressure high on the Islamic Republic, simply buttresses the regional architecture that Obama has already built—the point of which was to get America out of the Middle East by empowering Tehran. In practice, renegotiating the JCPOA means re-creating and empowering the same constituency inside the Beltway that supported talks originally. At the same time, every player on the board, from the Europeans to the State Department and congressional Democrats, will have reasons to fight against imposing sanctions. Every failure in negotiations will be an embarrassment to the new president—who will be depending on the last president’s allies at home and abroad to make him look good.” 

The Iran Deal is real, and there is no getting rid of the concessions given, other than by actually changing them. Iran has no interest in changing. The concessions that America has already made can’t be taken back through talk. Iran can simply walk away from the table, especially now that Iran has been propped up by the end of sanctions, and by more than a year of overt American political and military backing. 

According to Smith, Renegotiation” simply locks the deal’s opponents into the position that the Republican president ran against. 

“Renegotiation” legitimizes Iran’s right to right to have a nuclear program, as acknowledged by John Kerry. Worse, it fuses Iran’s hold on the Middle East, to which it has already brought death and destruction. 

The Obama administration’s deceptive marketing campaign has to be turned on its head to undo the effects of the Iran deal. The point of the Deal was Obama’s larger re-alignment strategy, the way to halt that strategy is to actually enforce the limited terms of the deal itself, and push back against Iranian encroachments, instead of supporting them as the current administration has. 

The Obama White House warned that the only option to the deal was war. The Trump administration has to convince European allies and domestic opponents that the only way to avoid military action is to enforce the deal that everyone has already agreed to. 

Given that Barack Obama’s goal was to re-align the United States with Iran as a means to getting the United States out of the Middle East and that the nuclear deal was simply a means to that larger end, he made a brilliant move. However, Obama left an opening that could undo the strategic deception he authored, which is that the nuclear deal with Iran is not a legitimate agreement.  It was never meant to stand on its own. The payoffs for sticking to the agreement exist outside the scope of the agreement itself. 

“Enforcing the actual agreement while refusing to cooperate with Iran on its other strategic goals—like destroying Syria, arming Hezbollah, buying billions of dollars’ worth of advanced jet planes for ferrying weapons and troops, and building ballistic missiles—will therefore most likely cause the agreement to collapse sooner rather than later. A deal collapse will, in turn, lead to much greater pressure on Iran, including the pressure of a possibly imminent military action, or military action itself. The stark, nearly binary nature of these alternatives is also a direct consequence of the deal that Obama structured—except, of course, that Obama never contemplated taking military action against Iran: His policy at all points was exactly the opposite. In fact, he believed that creating a choice between realignment and war would help him pass the deal and thereby lock in realignment,” writes Smith.  

Obama’s strategy may have actually been too clever. If Iran walks away from the deal after IRGC companies are designated, for instance, or because of their efforts on behalf of a genocide in Syria, or because they are developing banned missiles that can hit Europe, Tel Aviv, and the United States, that the next step is decided by Iran—not us.