The United States’ Confused Iran Policy

This week, Sigal Mandelker, the Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence at the Department of the Treasury, took to the podium at the Center for Strategic and International Studies to answer the question, “are sanctions working” on Iran? Mandelker outlined the robust sanctions regime that the Trump Administration has instituted since withdrawing from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and reiterated the administration’s talking point that sanctions are imposed simply to prod the Iranians to join the negotiating table.

This tactic is not foreign or unusual; Iran’s desire to be free from robust US and international sanctions was arguably the single greatest factor that precipitated the successful negotiation of the JCPOA. But current US policy is confusing and inconsistent—not just to the Iranians but even to traditional US allies in Europe. Consider that the Trump Administration has repeatedly offered to negotiate with Iranian diplomats, only to take the remarkable step of sanctioning Tehran’s foreign minister. As the administration simultaneously calls for diplomacy but impedes nearly every potential avenue for talks and negotiations, one has to doubt whether there is any cogent strategy behind its purported “maximum pressure” campaign, aside from pressure for the sake of pressure.

Mixed Signals

The incongruity in current US policy toward Iran was perhaps best illustrated the very same day that the administration announced its sanctions on Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. While it was taking the punitive step of blacklisting Tehran’s most senior diplomat, the Trump Administration renewed, for 90 days, five sanctions waivers that allow foreign countries to cooperate with Iran to manage civilian nuclear power operations.

In addition, President Donald Trump has tapped two Republican senators to attempt a kind of diplomatic outreach to the regime, though the two—Senators Lindsey Graham (South Carolina) and Rand Paul (Kentucky)—have drastically different approaches. Senator Paul, as noted in a previous report, met with Foreign Minister Zarif to proffer the opportunity to meet with the president personally. Graham, on the other hand, has reportedly been asked to lead the pursuit of an alternative to the JCPOA, though the administration wants something more robust that extends beyond Iran’s nuclear energy program. But even with this more informal outreach to Tehran, the administration appears Janus-faced, as neither senator’s propositions appear to have been offered in good faith. According to Zarif, the regime’s decision to decline the meeting in the White House prompted the US designation of sanctions against him. Furthermore, Graham has been outspoken about his motivations. The senator has urged the administration to offer Iran a “123 agreement”—the premier nuclear cooperation framework that looks to limit the development and proliferation of nuclear weapons—but has insinuated he has done so in the hopes that Tehran would refuse. If the administration offered that agreement at this time, of course Iran would decline, as it now sees no reason to believe the United States would uphold any deal. To offer it now, as Graham has proposed, would spoil a legitimate opportunity that should be pursued in the future.

Multiple Camps Lobbying President Trump

Much of this confused policy is born from the simple fact that multiple competing interests are lobbying the president to take contradictory actions. Senator Paul, who has worked to become a confidant of the president, is lobbying for straightforward diplomacy. Others, like Secretary of the Treasury Steve Mnuchin and Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, are not as dovish on Iran as Paul but are nonetheless urging restraint and a pursuit of easing tensions. But these individuals are competing against a virulently anti-Iran camp led by National Security Advisor John Bolton, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and a number of members of Congress including Senators Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas).

What Is the End Goal?

One does not have to sympathize with the ruling elites in Tehran to understand their interpretation of the Trump Administration’s strategic goals. To negotiate a deal, both sides are going to have to compromise as well as deliver on requests that may be uncomfortable or distasteful. To this point, President Trump and the anti-Iran hawks in his administration have been reluctant to offer anything of substance to Tehran in order to build trust and entice the regime to negotiate. Officials in the administration believe that they can carry on with crushing sanctions and that Iran, sooner or later, will capitulate and offer everything Washington is looking for in exchange for relief. The administration continues to assure the world that its maximum pressure campaign is weakening Iran—anecdotes disputing that assessment aside—and that eventually Tehran will capitulate and negotiate a deal favorable to Washington. But this strategy is unrealistic without offering Tehran a good faith effort and trust-building incentives. If the US administration is unwilling or unable to take that step, what are the goals of the maximum pressure campaign other than inflicting harm on the Iranian people?

Also Happening This Week in Washington

I. Congress

1) Legislation

Saudi Arabia Human Rights and Accountability Act. Senators Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) and Chris Coons (D-Delaware) teamed up to introduce their version of the Saudi Arabia Human Rights and Accountability Act (S. 2351), one nearly identical to H.R. 2037, which passed overwhelmingly in the House. Should the Senate version pass, members of the Saudi royal family found to be connected to the murder of Jamal Khashoggi would be subjected to US sanctions.

Providing Defense and Security Assistance to Ensure the Survival of Israel. On August 2, Rep. Mark Meadows (R-North Carolina) introduced H.R. 4156 to allow for the United States to provide Israel with more defense and security assistance largely without any meaningful financial constraints.

2) Nominations

UN, Egypt, and Libya Ambassadors Confirmed. On July 31 and August 1, the full Senate voted to confirm Kelly Craft, Jonathan Cohen, and Richard Norland to ambassadorial positions at the United Nations and in Egypt and Libya, respectively. In addition, President Trump nominated Alina Romanowski, who has worked throughout the US government including at the Departments of State and Defense, to serve as ambassador to Kuwait.

3) Hearings and Briefings

Senator Graham Discusses US-Israel Defense Pact. On July 30, Senator Lindsey Graham participated in a discussion that focused on crafting a “narrow US-Israel defense pact.” The Jewish Institute for National Security of America (JINSA), the organizer of the discussion, has crafted language that could eventually become a treaty that would legally commit the United States and Israel to ensure each other’s mutual security in the face of “existential threats.” Senator Graham has taken a lead on this issue, discussing it with officials in both the US administration and the Israeli government. Ultimately, the senator envisions a mutual defense pact akin to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s Article 5 commitment—ensuring that an attack on one member will prompt retaliation from all members—that would only apply in a narrow set of circumstances. In his vision of such a treaty, he cited a potential Iranian use of weapons of mass destruction as an example of an existential threat that would trigger the United States’ defense commitment. But others note that the treaty, as JINSA has written it, could also call the United States to Israel’s defense if, for instance, an Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities elicited retaliation from Iran.

4) Personnel and Correspondence

CODELs Visit Israel and the West Bank. Now that August has arrived and lawmakers have an extended recess, many members will use the time to participate in congressional delegation (CODEL) trips to Israel and the occupied West Bank. The annual American Israel Public Affairs Committee-affiliated trip will commence this week, as will a smaller CODEL comprised of freshman Republican members of the House. Lawmakers are expected to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

II. Executive Branch

1) White House

Kushner Meets with Arab, Israeli Leaders in Follow-Up to Bahrain Workshop. Over the last week, senior Trump Administration officials, including Jared Kushner, Special Envoy for International Negotiations Jason Greenblatt, and Special Envoy for Iran Brian Hook, were on a tour of the region as a follow-up to the economic workshop that was held in Bahrain in June. The delegation traveled to Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Morocco. They met with officials of every state they visited and, in Morocco, they also met with leaders of the United Arab Emirates and Oman. Administration officials originally hoped to secure funding commitments from the wealthy Arab states—which is the crux of Kushner’s economic development plan for the occupied Palestinian territories—and invite Arab leaders to a Camp David summit (which the White House denies). However, it seems the trip was less than successful as at least one report notes that Kushner had to return to Washington to brief the president and reconsider their plan of action, indicating that perhaps the delegation did not receive positive feedback.

In addition, Brian Hook and Jason Greenblatt penned an op-ed for Fox News asserting that peace between Israelis and Palestinians would be “Iran’s worst nightmare,” arguing that Tehran benefits politically and economically from the lack of a negotiated solution.

DNI Nominee Withdraws from Consideration. Rep. John Ratcliffe (R-Texas) has already withdrawn from consideration to serve as Director of National Intelligence. Shortly after his nomination, reports began to circulate showing that the congressman grossly overstated his national security experience as a US district attorney. Even in a GOP-held Senate, Ratcliffe’s dearth of meaningful experience would have probably been a disqualifier.

2) Department of State

Ambassadors Jeffrey and Sales Discuss Efforts to Counter IS. On August 1, Special Envoy for the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, Ambassador James Jeffrey, and the State Department’s Coordinator for Counterterrorism, Ambassador Nathan Sales, gave a joint press conference to provide updates about US efforts to combat the Islamic State (IS) in Syria, Iraq, and around the globe. The two reinforced the point that aside from IS losing territorial control of areas in Iraq and Syria, the group remains a threat to US interests and may have as many as 15,000 fighters in the fields of Iraq and Syria (a separate report by the Defense Department expands on the IS threat). However, the pair noted that the threats posed by IS are evolving and the US response to those threats must reflect that evolution.

Assistant Secretary Ford Discusses Establishing a WMD-Free Zone in the Middle East. On August 2, Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Nonproliferation Chris Ford spoke at an event on “Weapons of Mass Destruction in the Middle East.” Only a portion of Ford’s discussion was on the record and he used that time to outline his and the State Department’s vision for the establishment of a “nuclear weapons-free zone” in the Middle East. In Ford’s vision, the only way to create a successful and lasting weapons of mass destruction-free zone in the region will depend on the ability of regional actors—ranging from the already nuclear Israel to aspiring weapons acquirers like Iran and Saudi Arabia—to negotiate an agreement among themselves. Up to this point, Ford argued, past efforts to establish such a security zone have failed because members of the Arab League have weaponized international institutions like the United Nations to try and coerce Israel into agreeing to nonproliferation standards that, as Ford stated, “Israel would never agree to.”

Under Secretary Hale Travels to Somalia, Sudan; Ambassador Sales to Egypt. During August 5-7, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs David Hale made a trip to three countries in the Horn of Africa, including Somalia and Sudan. Hale met with officials in both countries, including Sudan’s transitional military council, to discuss the security situations in both states as well as in the Horn of Africa more broadly.

At the same time as Hale’s trip, Ambassador Nathan Sales visited Egypt to discuss bilateral counterterrorism cooperation, particularly when it comes to threats posed by IS and al-Qaeda.

Warsaw Process Working Groups. This week, the State Department released a finalized list of working groups that the United States and Poland have organized to advance security coordination in the Middle East. These working groups are expected to meet in specific countries in October and November to discuss regional concerns. The groups are intended to complement the Warsaw Ministerial to Promote a Future of Peace and Security in the Middle East that took place in February 2019.

3) Department of Defense

Secretary Esper Meets with Egyptian Counterpart Regarding Sinai. In his first bilateral meeting since being confirmed as secretary of defense, Mark Esper met with Egyptian Defense Minister Mohammad Zaki to talk about Egypt’s long-running efforts to defeat extremist groups in the Sinai Peninsula. Many in Washington have been skeptical of Cairo’s efforts in the fight specifically because the Egyptian and American governments disagree on the effectiveness of counterinsurgency warfare. Esper and others in the Pentagon are pushing the Egyptians toward embracing a population-centric counterinsurgency approach to defeat the armed groups they are battling.

4) Department of Homeland Security

Temporary Protected Status Extended for Syrians. On August 1, the Department of Homeland Security announced that it would be extending the temporary protected status of Syrians in the United States. This comes just two weeks after senators wrote to the acting head of the department urging him to extend the status that benefits some 7,000 Syrians who cannot return to their homes.

Marcus Montgomery is a Junior Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Marcus and read his previous publications click here