According to Reuters, the U.S. government is planning to impose new sanctions on “multiple Iranian entities” in the coming days, possibly as soon as Friday. If, or when, this comes to pass it will be the first step of what appears to be a systematic effort by the Trump administration to abrogate the Iran nuclear deal (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA) while trying to maintain the fiction that it is living up to its obligations under the deal and these sanctions “will not violate” the agreement.
The number of policy issues on which Donald Trump has remained consistent since he began his campaign for president in 2015 is vanishingly small, but his hostility to the JCPOA has been one of them. At the same time, he has also maintained that he would not break the deal but would instead adopt a “tougher” attitude toward possible Iranian infringements and perhaps renegotiate the deal. But there is very little chance that the JCPOA could be renegotiated—Iran has flatly refused to consider the idea, and so far there’s been nothing to suggest that any of the other parties to the deal (China, France, Germany, Russia, and the United Kingdom) are in any way inclined to reopen it. And it’s already becoming clear that Trump’s “tougher” approach to enforcing the JCPOA amounts to a plan to leave the deal in place in name only while reinstating most or all of the sanctions against Iran that were lifted under the deal’s terms.
This tactic has been filtering through the anti-JCPOA echo chamber since Trump’s election in November. Four days before Trump’s inauguration, Politico reported that a number of JCPOA opponents were urging the incoming president not to scrap the deal altogether but instead to adopt a confrontational posture with respect to implementing it:
As the reality of Donald Trump’s White House win sinks in among nuclear deal opponents, some are insisting that pulling out of the agreement is unwise. Instead, they say, Trump should step up enforcement of the deal, look for ways to renegotiate it, and pursue measures to punish Iran for its non-nuclear misbehavior. Such a multi-pronged, get-tough approach may even give Trump cover to fend off any criticism he may get for keeping the deal.
It’s a remarkable moment for the anti-deal crowd, which includes Israel’s prime minister, Saudi princes and Republican lawmakers. Many tried to keep the deal from ever being reached, accused outgoing President Barack Obama of appeasing an enemy and used the agreement to knock Democrats during the 2016 campaign. Now that they have a shot at scuttling the deal they hate so much, they are urging caution.
If you dig into the rhetoric coming from the “don’t tear it up” crowd, however, what emerges isn’t a sense of caution so much as a plan for breaking the nuclear deal without taking the blame for it. The American public largely opposes pulling out of the JCPOA, as do the rest of the countries involved in its negotiation. So, for deal opponents the ideal political—and geopolitical—option would be to make the deal’s enforcement so intolerable to the Iranians that Tehran, rather than Washington, takes the formal step of breaking the deal. In that Politico piece, Mark Dubowitz of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies outlined this scenario—though without suggesting that the real goal would be to force Iran to pull out of the agreement:
Mark Dubowitz, executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, is a prominent critic of the deal who’s been in touch with Trump aides. Dubowitz has long maintained that the next president should not kill the deal but rather try to create conditions that could pressure Iran to renegotiate it with terms more stringent toward the Islamic Republic.
Dubowitz continued to push the same idea in a panel discussion held at the Atlantic Council on January 30, talking about “our way out from under the deal.”
From my perspective, I think that the Trump administration is adopting the right posture early out of the gate, which is not to abrogate the deal. I’ve been on record for many months now, saying that that would be a big mistake, that the deal should be kept, it should be vigorously enforced…we should be very strict in interpreting the ambiguities in the deal, and then we should do what President Obama and Secretary Kerry said we should do, which is use non-nuclear sanctions to deter Iran’s malign activities in the region. If you were to predict where Congress and this new administration were to go in the next 12 months, my guess would be that you’ll see non-nuclear sanctions being the centerpiece of any new sanctions effort. And there’s much to do on that front.
When panel moderator Barbara Slavin asked Dubowitz if the Republican Party’s goal was to force Iran to walk away from the deal, he dodged the question, reiterating his defense of non-nuclear sanctions as permissible under the JCPOA’s terms and invoking the Obama administration’s assurances in that regard. But while the Obama administration certainly left the door open to imposing new non-nuclear sanctions on Iran if necessary, the Trump administration seems to have come into office looking for any excuse it can find to justify new sanctions.
The Missile and the Attack
On February 1, National Security Advisor Michael Flynn told reporters that “we are officially putting Iran on notice,” the way one might do with a difficult employee or misbehaving student. The White House has since been unwilling—or unable—to clarify what that means, but the news that they are about to impose new sanctions on Iran would seem to be clear enough. The trigger for Flynn’s outburst was two-fold. First, Iran tested a medium-range ballistic missile on Sunday, challenging parts of U.N. Security Council Resolution 2231, which endorsed the JCPOA. Second, on Monday an alleged Houthi suicide attack struck a Saudi frigate in the Red Sea, killing two Saudi sailors.
As the Arms Control Association’s Kelsey Davenport and Daryl Kimball write about the missile test, Iran’s actions are “unhelpful and inconsistent with the spirit” of Resolution 2231 but do not justify “provoking a confrontation with Tehran.” For one thing, Resolution 2231’s language does not prohibit Iran from conducting missile tests but rather “calls upon” Tehran not to test “nuclear-capable” missiles. With such circumspect language, and with the definition of “nuclear-capable” left vague, Iranian missile tests don’t objectively “violate” the resolution. For another thing, there are, as Davenport and Kimball point out, several less provocative and ultimately more fruitful ways to address Iran’s missile program—for example, by targeting the networks by which it procures missile parts and by working to implement region-wide ballistic missile restrictions.
As to the Red Sea incident, here it seems very clear that the Trump administration is grasping for any justification it can find—or invent—to impose new penalties on Iran. Although Iran does have links to Yemen’s Houthi rebels, it’s not at all clear why the United States ought to retaliate against Iran because the Houthis attacked a Saudi naval vessel. The Saudis and Houthis, after all, have been at war with one another for nearly two years. The day after the attack, anonymous “defense officials” tried to raise the stakes by telling Fox News that they believed the Houthis had intended to strike an American vessel because one of the attackers was heard to shout “Death to America.” The phrase “Death to America” is part of the Houthi slogan, which the attacker recited in full according to audio of the attack. In other words, the attacker was reciting a typical Houthi war cry, not declaring that he thought he was attacking Americans. On Thursday, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer took things a step further and declared that Iran had attacked a U.S. vessel, which is complete fiction (Spicer later partially corrected himself, acknowledging that it had been a Saudi vessel that was attacked).
Flynn’s press conference touched off a back-and-forth between Tehran and Washington, with a close advisor to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei dismissing Trump as “an inexperienced person” and Trump tweeting “Iran has been formally PUT ON NOTICE for firing a ballistic missile. Should have been thankful for the terrible deal the U.S. made with them!” The reports of new sanctions are but the latest escalation. Despite administration assurances to the contrary, they are undoubtedly meant to put Iran in a position where it can either adhere to the JCPOA’s restrictions on its nuclear program—in return for very little of the sanctions relief promised by the agreement—or take its own steps to begin unwinding the deal.
The Trump administration’s belligerence will likely be a political gift to hardliners in Iran, who—like Trump and many other Republicans—opposed the JCPOA and prefer a confrontational approach to U.S.-Iran relations. With President Hassan Rouhani in a vulnerable position heading into an election in May, his chances for reelection will be weakened by exchanges like this, and perhaps totally imperiled if the United States does impose significant new sanctions. Rouhani’s defeat in May would benefit hardliners on both sides. Iranian hardliners would once again control the presidency, and American hardliners would once again have a clear foil in Tehran, as they did back when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was in office. At this point that seems like an outcome the Trump administration would welcome.