by Dennis Ross*
President Trump has withdrawn from the JCPOA, the Iran nuclear deal. In doing so, he left open the possibility of renegotiating the deal with the Iranians, but even he acknowledged that was not likely in the near term. With the Europeans emphasizing their continuing commitment to the JCPOA and making clear they intend to open a credit line for the Iranians and provide blocking legislation to protect European companies that do business with Iran, the Trump administration, at least initially, will likely find it difficult to exert the kind of pressure on the Islamic Republic that might make a difference.
Collective pressure and isolation of Iran is what brought the Iranians to the negotiating table during the Obama administration. That is noteworthy because the Iranian leadership had claimed they would never negotiate on their nuclear program so long sanctions were being applied—and when the Obama administration greatly intensified the sanctions, the Iranians came and negotiated. One can argue whether the Obama administration eased the pressure too soon, but it is worth recalling that the financial sanctions that became more onerous because of UN Security Council Resolution 1929 are not what produced the Iranians at the table. It was the European Union decision not to buy Iranian oil that was decisive.
Will the Europeans, fearing American secondary sanctions and the threat they cannot do business with the United States if they are doing business with Iran’s central bank, lead to them boycotting Iran’s oil again? Unlike in 2012, when the Europeans made the decision to boycott Iranian oil, they did it because they believed it was the only way to pursue a diplomatic outcome and avoid a war. Today, they are focused on keeping Iran in the JCPOA and continuing to keep a limit on the Iran nuclear program as the way to avoid the march toward a war. The Trump administration correctly believes that the Europeans share the American objective of preventing the Iranians from acquiring a nuclear weapon; the problem is that they fear an Iranian walk away from the deal will be a resumption of the Iranian nuclear program with only the military option then being available to stop the Iranians.
The result is that they are already focused on the incentives they can give Iran to stay in the deal. Perhaps, the fear that the US will actually try to force a choice between doing business with Iran or doing it with America will move the Europeans away from their current posture. There can be little doubt that many European companies will decide not to run the risk of incurring economic penalties from the United States by doing business in Iran. But the critical question is whether it will stop Europe from buying Iran’s oil? That is not a given–nor is it given that the Trump Administration wants to trigger a trade war with Europe.
It is a given, however, that the Europeans as they try to entice the Iranians to stay in the JCPOA, particularly as the Iranians play on their fears of the consequences of Iran leaving the deal, will not join the US in trying to raise the cost to Iran of its de-stabilizing and threatening behaviors in the region. And, there is an irony: with all the flaws in the JCPOA, it deferred the Iranian nuclear threat. Unfortunately, the more immediate threat is what Iran in doing in the region. While the Iranians will play the victim on the JCPOA as a way of deepening the breach between the US and the Europeans, it is unlikely that they will lessen their threats in the Middle East. True, they will probably use their proxies rather than acting directly lest they make it harder for the European Union to justify its position of not joining the US in pressuring the Iranians. But by using the Shia militias and proxies like the Houthis and even Hamas, they can heat things up in the area. One can expect that they will do more to try to bleed the Saudis in Yemen; that they will do all they can to get Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza to try to breach the border fence with Israel and produce an explosion; and to press in Southern Syria along the Jordan border.
Because of Israel’s demonstrated willingness and ability to effectively attack Iran’s military infrastructure and missile deliveries in Syria, they are, for the time-being, likely to focus more on consolidation within the country. Moreover, in the near-term, they will probably try to learn the lessons from the effectiveness of the Israeli strikes before beginning to again to probe and expand their presence in Syria. Still, the danger of miscalculation of Israelis and Iranians will remain high, and that will become more acute when the Iranians inevitably test the limits of Israeli tolerance.
The point is that the Trump administration needs a “days-after” strategy for the post-JCPOA walkaway policy. Not only must there be an approach on the nuclear issue that tries to ensure there is collective pressure on Iran, but there needs to be a clear policy for countering the Iranians and their likely moves in the region. Indeed, if it wants the Gulf States to do more or it wants to give the Russians a reason to contain the Iranians in Syria, everyone must see what the US is prepared to do. What steps will it take? Will it do more to interdict Iranian arms shipments to the Houthis—shipments that violate two UN Security Council resolutions? Will its policy in Syria remain an ISIS-only one or will it focus on Iran’s expansion either by actively being ready to raise the costs to Iran or by seeking to work out a set of red-lines understanding with the Russians on the rules of the game in Syria?
The bottom-line is that the Trump administration needs a clear policy toward Iran that it does not simply talk about but actually carries out.
*American Middle East envoy Dennis Ross has served in the Administrations of Presidents Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama, and is counselor and Distinguished Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy in Washington.