​The Iranian Nuclear Challenge - Options for American Policy and the Implications for Israel


By Col. (res.) Udi Evental | May 17, 2020

Ali Khamenei and Donald Trump
Photo: Khamenei.ir | The White House


The United States is the only superpower that holds the clout necessary to create effective pressure and leverage—political and military—to rein-in Iran's nuclear program and restrain its detrimental policies in the region.


This document presents three basic options for American policy (the current one and two other possibilities). The alternatives reflect three different logics for dealing with the growing challenge that Iran presents. This is particularly so in the face of Iran's expansion of its nuclear program, while narrowing the breakout time for weapons-grade uranium, in a worst-case scenario where Teheran decides to carry this out.


The document is not an attempt to assess how the United States will act; rather, it is designed to enrich and open up thinking about ways to deal with Iran, and the relevant implications for Israel.



Maximum Economic Pressure (Present Policy)


The Option in a Nutshell: To increase economic pressures on Iran, while taking advantage of unprecedented distress wrought by the Coronavirus crisis. This, while deterring Iran from provocative power plays in the region, and retaliating militarily in the event of American casualties. The next stage emerging in the pressure campaign is an attempt (next fall) to re-impose international sanctions against Iran ('snap-back').


The official objectives of "maximum pressure" that are very broad (Pompeo's 12 Points) include: Demand that Iran waive entirely the right to enrich uranium; cease its support for terror organizations; and withdraw its forces and its proxies from other countries in the region. On a declarative level, the objectives of the United States are more ambiguous, reflecting a willingness to negotiate around them: To cause Iran to act like a 'normal country' and to reach a new nuclear deal.


Analysis of the Option: In contrast to all the assessments that the sanctions would collapse following the United States' withdrawal from the nuclear deal, the American administration has succeeded, though a rigid system of secondary sanctions, to inflict an unprecedented economic blow to the Iranian regime and to create very significant leverage vis-à-vis Iran.


Despite this, to date the heavy pressure has achieved just the opposite. Iran refuses to return to negotiations until the sanctions are lifted, and since the summer of 2019 Teheran has become more aggressive in the region, particularly in the Gulf, as well as in the nuclear front, embarking on gradual expansion of its nuclear program, while increasing the breaches of its commitments under the original nuclear agreement.


The dominant assessment is that Iran is waiting for the results of the elections in America, in the hopes of a victory by the Democratic candidate who will return to the original nuclear agreement and lift the sanctions. Until then, Iran is building its leverages, and will not return to the negotiating table. Nevertheless, the regime is under tremendous pressure that has dramatically increased in the shadow of the Coronavirus crisis; and will be forced to withstand the sanctions at least until mid-2021 even in case Democrats win elections and take the helm.


The 'maximum pressure option' suffers from inherent tensions that erode its effectiveness. The maximalist opening objectives of the American administration—in terms of scope (nuclearization and regional issues) and depth (zero enrichment, for example)—are unrealistic and create an 'overload' on the sanctions as an instrument, that undermines its chances of convincing the Iranian regime to comply with Washington's demands. Beyond this, these broad objectives seem to be perceived in Teheran as a tangible expression and cover-up for a policy that seeks regime change (despite Washington's denials) and this only reinforces the outlook of senior Iranian officials that a dialogue with the United States is hopeless.


Prominent in this option is the lack of a credible military threat tied to Iran's progress towards nuclearization. Notwithstanding the targeted killing of Soleimani, the reluctance of the administration and President Trump personally to employ force against Iran is clearly evident (this, as long as Iran doesn't harm American service personnel). Dependence on the leverage of sanctions without integrating it with a credible military threat undermines the effectiveness of the entire strategy and the prospects of success.



'Carrots and Sticks'


The Option in a Nutshell: Increasing 'the stick' by maintaining and expanding sanctions while taking advantage of the Coronavirus crisis to intensify the impact, parallel to integrating this with a credible military threat, tied at least to Iran's progress in the nuclear project.


The 'carrots' - Refocusing sanctions exclusively on the nuclear realm, while continuing the push-back against Iran in the region on the ground, through deterrent and operational steps (military presence, coercive measures, retaliation to provocations). Confining sanctions relief to the objective of amending the dangerous flaws in the nuclear agreement, top among them the sunset clauses and the shortcomings regarding the ability to monitor Iran's nuclear weapons related activities. Lastly, to consider the possibility of an economic 'gesture' that would bring Iran back to the table.


Analysis of the Option: The main logic is returning to focus on the nuclear threat, at the expense of the regional challenge. This rests on understanding that the threat of the Islamic regime gaining nuclear capability is far more significant in magnitude than the challenge of Iran's military entrenchment in the Middle East, and the force build-up of its proxies.


This option reflects a retreat from an approach based on 'maximum pressure' to achieve 'maximum objectives' ('grand bargain') and an 'all or nothing' policy - that might lead to a dead end. Instead of this, the United States chooses a 'differential strategy' that includes priorities, combination of 'sticks' and the 'carrots'; steps to block Iran's moves and incentives; and partial or temporary arrangements that will improve the overall strategic balance vis-à-vis Iran.



Regime Change


The Option in a Nutshell: The United States arrives at the conclusion there is no way to bring about change in the detrimental policies of the regime in Teheran, deriving from ideological, religious and revolutionary motivations—short of regime change. The administration decides to formulate a broad program backed up by resources (that doesn't exist today) to strengthen opposition forces in Iran.


Analysis of the Option: embarking on a full-blown effort to advance regime change will be recognized by Teheran and this can be expected to strengthen the regime's determination to acquire nuclear capabilities as a guarantee for its survival, while further entrenching its refusal to return to negotiations.


Undoubtedly, a policy of regime change in Iran will take a long time to materialize, if at all. Until then, it seems this option does not provide a solution to Iran's nuclear progress. Consequently, the main question is whether parallel to striving for regime change, the United States will be willing to take all the steps necessary, including military ones, to stop the nuclear program? Or whether this option harbors an undeclared readiness to avoid the need to immediately address the nuclear problem, since it would in any case be solved when the regime is toppled in the longer run, and until then, one can suffice with containment.



Implications for Israel


Israel needs to urgently establish a robust dialogue with the American administration to together arrive at complete coordination on a comprehensive strategy for stopping Iran's nuclearization and dealing with its growing challenges.


On one hand, such a strategy needs to take advantage of the unprecedented weakness the Iranian regime faces, and domestic pressures it is grappling with that are likely to break out after the Coronavirus crisis passes. On the other hand, the strategy must maximize the effect of the system of pressures by integrating economic tools (sanctions), military tools (a credible military threat) and diplomatic tools (focused demands from Iran, while harnessing European nations behind them).


The United States and Israel need to again present the Iranian nuclear challenge as the first priority. There is the feeling that in both countries the nuclear issue has been pushed off the top of the list of political-military priorities and replaced by focus on pushing back Iran in the region (in Syria and in Iraq). In contrast with Iran's moves in the region -- which one must continue to thwart by operational means, the nuclearization process is the one that is liable to be a game-changer for the Middle East.


It is important that Israel initiate a similar dialogue with the foreign policy team of the Democratic candidate Biden, who seems to be willing to return to the nuclear deal despite its dangerous flaws.


Israel and the United States need to strive to stop the nuclear program as soon as possible, while seeking to avoid a deadlock that could narrow their freedom of maneuverability and gradually take them back to a situation where the military option (whose perils and costs are heavy) becomes the only alternative left.


At the same time, Israel needs to prepare for a contingency where Iran seeks to take advantage of circumstances in the United States to accelerate Iran's nuclear program: focus on 'circling the wagons' to deal with the Coronavirus crisis parallel to an election year, and a growing consensus in America surrounding the need for the United States to extricate itself from the Middle East and its 'unending wars'. In this framework, Israel needs to return to focus on the military option as a last resort.




Authored by Col. (res.) Udi Evental



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