Perhaps Iran has done the Trump Administration a favor by announcing that it has moved to enrich uranium at five percent, thus violating the terms of the 2015 nuclear agreement (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, JCPOA). In the wake of that decision, the White House—and President Donald Trump in particular—faces greater pressure to decide between two very different approaches to Iran: to find a way to work with a regime that the US government and many US friends in the Middle East see as a dangerous threat, or alternatively, to sustain a policy of economic warfare and regime change designed to push the Iran question, in all its complex dimensions, to some kind of resolution. The first choice would require a mix of both containment and engagement; in effect, it would echo key features of Barack Obama’s Iran policy. The second choice would risk falling into the black hole of war but without any guarantee that the administration would achieve its key objectives. Indeed, if the White House hitches its policy horse to a strategy of regime change, Tehran’s leaders might very well eventually embrace a nuclearization strategy that they have so far abjured.
The conventional wisdom in Washington is that a powerful coalition of domestic and international forces is pushing Trump toward war. This assessment, however, might prove premature. Many Middle East states fear war, even if they hope that the threat of US military action might force Iran’s compliance. Now that this wager has been dealt a severe blow by Tehran’s defiance, Israel, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia will probably watch to see where the administration’s Iran policy is moving. On the US domestic front, the only White House advisor who has clamored for an attack on Iran appears increasingly isolated. As one New York Times columnist noted, National Security Advisor John Bolton has been embarrassed by a president whose political instincts incline him to be skeptical of steps that could produce a full-fledged war, as his last-minute June 20 decision to call off a US air attack on Iran suggests. Moreover, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stated on June 2 that the administration is ready to talk to Tehran “with no preconditions,” thus abandoning his insistence that Tehran comply with 12 US demands, not one of which any Iranian leader could possibly accept—as Pompeo knew from the outset.
The conventional wisdom in Washington is that a powerful coalition of domestic and international forces is pushing Trump toward war.
But this shift is far from sufficient. Trump must make a basic choice or circumstances beyond his control will choose for him. His recent move to directly sanction Ayatollah Ali Khamenei adds to the bad news because, while it will have zero economic consequences for Iran’s leader, Tehran will read Trump’s measure as a clear signal that US policy is ultimately based on regime change in Iran. Still, it would help if Trump would finally appoint a defense secretary with the political acumen and security credibility to coax the president toward a more rational policy.
The chances for this would increase if efforts by Western Europe to forge a mechanism to sustain Iran’s oil sales would succeed sufficiently to convince Iran to keep complying with the JCPOA. Backed into a corner, Tehran has chosen to violate one key clause of that pact in the hope that this carefully calculated move will force Europe to create such a mechanism. In short, Tehran’s actions are designed to save rather than destroy the agreement. The fact that France and Britain have already denounced Iran’s actions highlights the uphill battle Iran faces as it tries to breathe life into the basic policy choice it made when Tehran signed on to the nuclear agreement.
Iran’s Fundamental Choice in 2015
The decision to sign the JCPOA was dictated by one overriding goal: regime survival. While the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) is vital to that strategy, regime survival also depends on reviving an oil and gas sector that has suffered decades of sanctions, not to mention the intrinsic inefficiencies (such as pervasive corruption) that come with a massive and sprawling state-owned industry. The income from that industry has been distributed through myriad institutions—including the parliament—that provide arenas for negotiating and competing over the allocation of rents. To cut off that income is tantamount to undermining the multifaceted political mechanisms that are part and parcel of politics in the Islamic Republic of Iran.
This elemental connection between regime survival and the oil and gas sector helps to explain Iran’s decision to sign on to the JCPOA. In fact, whether defined in purely energy terms or through the prism of a military strategy, “nuclearization” has never offered Iran a dependable or, more importantly, safe path to regime survival. On the domestic front, the evidence suggests that Iran could be better off relying on conventional energy programs rather than trying to build a nuclear one that is unlikely to mitigate critical problems such as electricity shortages. It is true that Iran’s leaders have claimed that their decision to move toward five-percent enrichment was dictated by the needs to sustain fuel for the Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant. But a far more expansive nuclear power program must be built if Iran is to have any chance of making a serious dent in meeting its domestic power needs. More significantly, because the state budget depends on oil and gas sales, it makes no sense to divert scarce resources to a nuclearization strategy, especially if such a strategy leads to the predisposition of sanctions.
On the domestic front, the evidence suggests that Iran could be better off relying on conventional energy programs rather than trying to build a nuclear one that is unlikely to mitigate critical problems such as electricity shortages.
As to the potential geostrategic and military benefits of nuclearization, Iran’s leaders have evinced a keen grasp of the costs and dangers that would come with such a choice. The dangers stem from the fact that if Iran is to have anything close to real nuclear deterrence, it requires an array of nuclear weapons sufficient to threaten a “second strike.” Any effort to move farther in this direction would require a much more ambitious enrichment and testing program, one that could not be accomplished in the open without inviting a massive Israeli or US attack. Iran’s leaders might try to anticipate or deter such an attack by trying to create a secret program. But then the challenge of testing would still exist, quite apart from the scope of the program required to build anything similar to the capacity of North Korea.
Rather than go down this dangerous path, in the early 2000s Iran’s leaders used an enhanced enrichment program as a bargaining chip to drive the removal of sanctions. The country’s push to produce enough uranium for one bomb was thus a diplomatic rather than military strategy designed to open the door to revitalizing the state-owned oil and gas industry. Whatever its possible faults, including perhaps the absence of any agreement on ballistic missiles, Iran’s signature on the JCPOA signaled a decisive choice dictated by its own economic factors—not to mention the resolve of a unified global community to embrace a pact that would hopefully open opportunities for foreign investment in Iran’s oil and gas sector.
Whatever its possible faults, including perhaps the absence of any agreement on ballistic missiles, Iran’s signature on the JCPOA signaled a decisive choice dictated by its own economic factors.
Khamenei and his hard-line supporters in the IRGC warned from the outset that the United States could not be trusted to adhere to the agreement. Nonetheless, they reluctantly agreed to a strategy that President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif argued—with good reason—was the best of the worst alternatives. What these two leaders could not predict (along with the rest of the world) was the election of a US president who would abandon the JCPOA and, in so doing, rip apart the foundations of a diplomatic strategy that, with all its limitations, provided the best path to encouraging Iran to avoid the perils of nuclearization.
Tehran’s New and Difficult Choice in 2019-2020
It is painfully obvious that for Iran, there is no going back to trying to use a carefully calibrated enhanced enrichment program to reestablish a basic bargain, one that the Trump Administration has now repudiated. Nevertheless, this fact has not prevented Tehran from trying to get the attention of Western European states by exceeding the enrichment levels spelled out in the JCPOA. The goal, at least for the moment, is not to set the stage for pursuing nuclearization. Rather, Tehran is gambling that once it takes steps that could be seen as jeopardizing the JCPOA, Europe will create the trading mechanism Iran needs to keep its original strategy alive. While the elements of such a mechanism have reportedly been assembled, it depends on a complicated set of arrangements and tools that Zarif has described as insufficient. As a result, the leaders in Tehran are under greater pressure to consider the very strategy they had previously abjured and that Khamenei still seems to oppose.
Because Trump’s actions have confirmed in the eyes of all Iranian leaders that the United States will always violate its word, the chances that any US president would find the diplomatic space to negotiate any agreement with Iran are slim.
This does not mean that Iran’s leaders will try to move toward nuclearization at warp speed. On the contrary, they will advance slowly to avoid further antagonizing European governments, several of which have already denounced Iran’s step toward five-percent enrichment. They will probably also move cautiously in the hope that Trump will lose the 2020 election, thus opening the door to finding a way back to the JCPOA. But because Trump’s actions have confirmed in the eyes of all Iranian leaders that the United States will always violate its word, the chances that any US president would find the diplomatic space to negotiate any agreement with Iran are slim. With their stance on the agreement now fully validated, Iran’s hard-liners—with Khamenei’s blessing—will likely oppose any talks with Washington. Indeed, they are pushing for a policy of “resistance” that could snowball into the war that Trump apparently wants to avoid.
Trump’s Choice in 2019-2020
It is far from clear if Trump ever understood the wider security and political implications of his decision to abandon the JCPOA. It was, he insisted, a “terrible agreement” that needed to be replaced by a better one. Treating Iran in a manner very similar to the way he had previously browbeat businesses that had not complied with his dictates, he simply reneged on the nuclear agreement. Trump seems to see that the threat of force is part of a bullying strategy that will force Iran’s compliance with little more than a quick street brawl conducted by his enforcers.
What he does not seem to understand is that coercive diplomacy only works if the party that threatens force also offers its adversary a politically viable option to economic war or military conflict. This was the premise of President Obama’s approach to Iran. Having based his domestic and foreign policies on repudiating all of the key choices that Obama made, Trump perceives offering incentives to Iran as humiliating. An imperfect policy of carrots and sticks, one that both engages and tries to contain an Iranian regime that will not give up its efforts to project power in its immediate neighborhood, may be a choice that Trump cannot swallow without losing face on the front that counts most for him: the US political arena.
Blessed are the Negotiation Makers
If the prospects for Trump making the better of two choices are slim, they might be improved by some critical steps. To begin with, Trump would do well to fire Bolton. Past experience with others indicates that the president will not do so unless Bolton makes statements or takes actions that Trump sees as violating his trust. Thus far Bolton has preferred the option of keeping his job over his desire to wage war with Iran. But if Trump again blocks such an action, Bolton may eventually resign rather than endure further humiliation. Such a development could open up space for Pompeo to define precisely what he means when he claims that the United States will now talk with Iran “with no preconditions.”
Appointing a well-respected and permanent secretary of defense would also help. The issue is not only finding someone who can advance a broadly supported hawkish realism; the bigger point is that such a defense secretary might be in a position to communicate the expert judgments of a defense department whose leaders in the Pentagon and in the field are best placed to assess the potentially uncontrollable risks of war. Trump may have his doubts about the Central Intelligence Agency, but as he reminded the country during his July 4 speech, he sees the military as the mainstay of American power.
Appointing a well-respected and permanent secretary of defense would also help. The issue is not only finding someone who can advance a broadly supported hawkish realism.
Prospects for inching toward an engagement/containment strategy would also be improved by signaling, in a consistent manner, to US Middle East allies that Washington is not looking for a fight. On that score, it is worth emphasizing that Emirati and Saudi leaders have both underscored their preference for diplomacy over war. As for Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is fighting for his political life. Rather than support a war that could unleash Hezbollah rockets, which may have the capacity to reach the Israeli nuclear installation at Dimona in the Negev Desert, Netanyahu might welcome working with a US administration which, after all, has pretty much given up the two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
The biggest hurdle may be finding common ground with Western European leaders. Although they have made clear their displeasure with Iran’s recent enrichment decision, they will sustain their efforts to find a way to bypass US sanctions. But this is a very weak stick given the complex task at hand. What Europe needs is some carrots. For example, European states might indicate their readiness for an international dialogue on Iran’s ballistic missile system if and when Trump signals that he is as ready to seriously consider talks with Iran.
Even if Trump eventually reaches out to a regime that he insists continues to be “ready to make a deal,” this may be a case of too little, too late. Stung by a major case of buyer’s remorse, Iran’s leaders will avoid any measure that gives credence to the White House. Moreover, Iran’s leaders may have already concluded that the only reason Trump took the historic step of meeting Kim Jong-Un on North Korean soil is that Pyongyang possesses the kind of nuclear weapon system Iran chose not to pursue. Still, any bid by Tehran to emulate North Korea’s nuclearization strategy will be fraught with danger, thus underscoring the nearly impossible dilemma that Trump has foisted on Iran without grasping the costs that Washington—and Tehran—might one day pay for his rash action.