Trump’s Iran Strategy – One bird in the hand is worth two in the bush

By Col. (res.) Udi Evental | May 10-19, 2019

Khamenei and Trump; White House


This week's events demonstrated that Trump's "maximum pressure" policy is indeed producing pressure. Iran's announcement that it is suspending certain commitments it undertook as part of the 2015 nuclear deal, its inflammatory threats, and its possible involvement in attacks on oil tankers in the Gulf – reflect real growing pressure in Teheran.


Assuming that neither Iran and nor the U.S. are after violent escalation and will refrain from strategic miscalculations that will deteriorate the situation unintendedly, the question is – what will Washington do with the leverage it has created vis-à-vis Teheran?


In its current form, the American strategy is riddled with internal contradictions and it appears heading towards a dead-end and the Iran's eventual abandonment of the nuclear deal. It is not expected to bring the Iranian regime back to the negotiating table to fix the serious shortcomings of the nuclear deal (Teheran will not call anytime soon the telephone number Trump left with the Swiss mission.). Furthermore, recent intelligence reports exposing Iran's plans to attack American interests prove that the U.S. has insofar failed to block Iran's malign activities across the region.


The Trump administration correctly identified one of the key shortcomings of the nuclear deal – permitting Iran to conduct destabilizing policies across the region with impunity. The nuclear deal removed the "biting" financial and energy sanctions and precluded their re-imposition in response to Iran's malign activities without violating the deal.


In response, and following its withdrawal from the deal, the U.S. administration set far-reaching demands for Iran as a condition to remove the new round of sanctions. These demands included completely forfeiting its right to enrich uranium and to develop missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads, ceasing its support to terror organizations in the region and around the world, respecting Iraq's sovereignty, removing the forces it commands from Syria, stop threatening states in the region and more.


In so doing, the U.S. administration created a new problem – overburdening the sanctions as a tool to the point that harmed its chances to push the Iranian regime to comply with these demands.


Lumping together the nuclear issues with Iran's regional activities could turn out to be counterproductive for the U.S. should Iran decide to return to the negotiating table if only to try and break sanctions' pressure. Beyond the complicated and far-reaching bargaining regarding complex regional issues that will last long, Iran could leverage purported concessions in the region in return for demands in the nuclear realm. Such bargaining will be even more problematic if Iran decides to completely withdraw from the nuclear deal and will resume expanding its nuclear program. In previous negotiation rounds, therefore, the U.S. (and Israel) objected to Iranian requests to combine both issues and reach a "grand bargain", considering the request no more than "feet dragging" to allow Iran to expand its nuclear program during the negotiations.


Furthermore, the American maximalist demands are perceived in Iran as a cover for the real objective of the U.S. administration – regime change in Teheran. Under these circumstances, and from the regime's perspective, there is no use in engaging Washington and the chances that Iran will agree to renegotiate the nuclear deal are low.


The absurdity is that the U.S. administration has no concrete plan backed with sufficient resources to topple the Ayatollahs' regime even if there is hope that the mounting pressure will undermine the stability of the regime. This policy of "having your cake and eating it too" is not expected to advance regime change in the foreseeable future. This is particularly the case as the regime maintains a dual policy at home – keeping a narrow opening for public venting and protests and brutal oppression when necessary – a policy shown to be highly effective in weakening opposition.


Against this backdrop, Israel must be ready to face several problematic scenarios, including the expansion of the Iranian nuclear program and a growing potential threat from Iran and its proxies against the interests of the U.S. and its regional allies (including Israel).


These challenges will require elevated intelligence readiness to detect Iranian measures in the nuclear realm and on the ground across the region. It will also require formulating policy responses vis-à-vis Iran under the new circumstances.


Israel ought to try and recruit Europe to threaten joining the American sanctions to dissuade Iran from expanding its nuclear program; and to conduct a discreet dialogue with the American administration to influence its policy.


A more coherent and effective "maximum pressure" policy will require the American administration to link it to one of two strategic alternatives. First, "go into high gear" in a real effort to advance regime change in Teheran by recruiting all the required economic, diplomatic, intelligence, and military resources. Second – the recommended and more realistic alternative – refocusing the sanctions on the nuclear realm.


This refocusing would include amending the shortcomings of the nuclear deal ("sunset" clauses and improved IAEA's ability to verify weapons dimension) and limiting development of nuclear-capable missiles.


Confining sanctions to the nuclear program would require operational measures to deal with Iran's malign activities in the region just as Israel is dealing with Iran's military entrenchment in Syria. These measures should aim, for example, at preventing the transfer of Iranian arms to terror group and proxies, including enforcement measures if necessary. The problem however, is that the U.S. is reluctant to use military force and has therefore opted to extend the sanctions to deal with blocking Iran's regional influence. Moreover, Washington is seeking to drawdown its deployed troops in the Middle East and is demonstrating deep concerns regarding their safety, which Iran perceives as weakness.


It remains unclear whether re-focusing the sanctions on the nuclear program will eventually persuade Iran to renegotiate the nuclear deal and agree to amend its serious shortcomings. Without American willingness to tackle head-on Iran's regional destabilizing efforts, the chances of getting Iran to renegotiate are even lower. As we have learned in the past, sanctions alone – debilitating as they may be – are insufficient for reaching the required objectives vis-à-vis the Iranian regime.


The "maximum pressure" strategy without a military component is incomplete and doomed to fail – as long as the U.S. does not increase its military signature in the Gulf, is not ready to tackle Iran's moves on the ground, and is not placing a credible military threat against the Ayatollahs in Teheran.




Authored by Col. (res.) Udi Evental



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