National Security & Defense

‘Putting Iran on Notice’ Means Restoring American Credibility

Iranian president Hassan Rouhani (Reuters photo: Lucas Jackson)
Trump should tear up the nuclear agreement.

After declaring that “Iran is on notice” for a recent ballistic-missile test and for missile attacks against a Saudi ship by Houthi rebels, and then announcing new U.S. sanctions against Iran on Friday, the Trump administration met with predicable criticism from Democrats and the foreign-policy establishment, who objected that the president was provoking Iran and risking war by threatening the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA).

In fact, it was President Obama’s Iran policy that made the Middle East much less stable, as his appeasement of Iran and “leading from behind” approach emboldened Tehran and did little to stop it from pursuing nuclear weapons and building ballistic missiles to carry them. The Obama administration did absolutely nothing in response to Iran’s sponsorship of terrorism and its backing of the Houthi rebels in Yemen. Even worse, Obama officials during the nuclear talks gave Iran a green light to expand its role in Iraq and Syria. It’s no accident that Iran sent ground troops into Syria shortly after the JCPOA was announced.

The Obama administration claimed that the JCPOA would lead to an improvement in Iranian behavior and in U.S.–Iran relations. This did not happen. Iran has conducted at least a dozen ballistic-missile tests over the past two years. Some of these missiles had the words “Israel must be wiped off the map” written on the sides. Iran captured ten U.S. sailors and held them at gunpoint on the day of President Obama’s last State of the Union address. There has been a sharp increase in Iran’s harassing and threatening ships in the Persian Gulf, including U.S. Navy vessels. Houthi rebels, probably with Iranian assistance, fired anti-ship missiles at American and United Arab Emirates ships in the Red Sea last fall. Iran also has taken more American citizens and green-card holders prisoner since the JCPOA was announced and after five U.S. prisoners were released in January 2016.

Trump’s initial moves on Iran mark the beginning of an effort to reverse Obama’s disastrous Iran policy. The administration, actually addressing the threats Iran poses to global security, is holding Iran accountable for its actions and reasserting American power.

It’s no secret that no one believed President Obama when he said “all options are on the table,” drew red lines, or issued ultimatums after belligerent acts by Iran, North Korea, ISIS, the Syrian army, and Russia. The world knew that the use of American military power was never on the table for Obama and that his words were just empty rhetoric. They knew that Obama would never back up his red lines and ultimatums. While the Obama administration sometimes responded to rogue state actions with sanctions, they were usually weak and in every case ignored.

The Trump administration’s recent warning to Iran indicates that all options really are on the table when it comes to America’s responding to actions by rogue states and actors that endanger our security and the security of our friends and allies. The sanctions imposed today against 13 individuals and twelve companies involved in Iran’s missile program are long overdue and make clear that America will not look the other way while Tehran develops nuclear-weapons delivery systems.

Iranian leaders do not know whether or when President Trump will order military action against their nation. This uncertainty, coupled with tough rhetoric against Iran by Trump and most of his national-security team, should give Iran’s ruling mullahs pause before approving future provocations.

Although President Trump does not want war with Iran, he and his advisers are probably weighing appropriate and limited military options. At a minimum, the Trump administration needs to consider military action if Iran continues to threaten the free flow of commerce and freedom of navigation in the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea.

Supporters of the nuclear deal often argue, in effect, that a bad deal is better than no deal. I disagree.

The Trump administration should also be weighing a broad set of international sanctions targeting Iran’s nuclear program and Iranian entities that sponsor terrorism. These sanctions should be imposed outside of the United Nations so that China and Russia cannot veto or water them down. The Trump administration should support several efforts by Congress to impose new sanctions on Iran, including the Iran Non-Nuclear Sanctions Act sponsored by Senators Todd Young (R., Ind.), John Cornyn (R., Texas), and Marco Rubio (R., Fla.). This bill would impose severe financial and economic sanctions targeting Iran’s ballistic-missile violations, human-rights abuses, and support for terrorism.

I regret that that President Trump has not torn up the JCPOA. I hope he still will — possibly when Prime Minister Netanyahu visits the White House on February 15. As I’ve explained here at NRO, that is the best way to deal with a fraudulent agreement that allows Iran to continue to pursue nuclear weapons: While the agreement is in effect, it permits Iran to enrich uranium, develop advanced centrifuges, and operate a plutonium-producing reactor. The JCPOA also has very weak verification provisions that Iran refuses to fully comply with.

I believe that the JCPOA was an American surrender to Iran’s nuclear-weapons program and that President Trump should renounce it. During the campaign, he sometimes indicated that he would tear up the agreement but usually said he would renegotiate it to get a better deal. I am okay with renegotiation, because I am confident that a Trump negotiating team making reasonable demands to “fix” the JCPOA would cause Iran to back out of this deeply flawed agreement.

The latest approach to the JCPOA being promoted by some Trump officials and outside experts is “strict enforcement” of the deal. Under this approach, Iran could be declared in noncompliance owing to several instances of failing to meet its JCPOA obligations or secretly cheating on them. I explained some of these concerns at NRO last July. The Institute for Science and International Security discussed recent compliance concerns in a November 2016 report.

There are several problems with this approach. First, under the JCPOA, the United States agreed to a process under which the parties to the agreement (U.S., U.K., France, Germany, Russia, China, and Iran) must vote to reimpose sanctions because of Iranian noncompliance. I see little chance that the United States could convince a majority of JCPOA parties to punish Iran for noncompliance, because they fear Iran would carry out its threat to withdraw from the agreement if nuclear sanctions were reimposed. Moreover, it would be hypocritical for the United States to unilaterally sanction Iran as part of a policy of strictly enforcing the JCPOA, given that the pact requires that sanctions must be reimposed multilaterally and only by a vote of JCPOA parties.

However, a more serious problem with a strict enforcement policy by the Trump administration is that it would be legitimizing President Obama’s fraudulent nuclear agreement with Iran. It is important for Trump officials to realize that the threat from Iran’s nuclear program is not due to current Iranian noncompliance. Iran can easily advance important aspects of its nuclear-weapons effort and still be in full compliance with the JCPOA. Iran also can engage in nuclear-weapons-related work that violates the agreement and go undetected because verification provisions of the JCPOA are so weak and Iran refuses to allow inspections of military facilities.

Supporters of the nuclear deal often argue that since it is the best agreement possible and its detractors have no alternative to replace it with, the United States must stick with this deal. What they are really arguing is that a bad deal is better than no deal. I disagree. No nuclear deal with Iran is far preferable to an agreement that legitimizes its nuclear program, allows it to continue to develop nuclear-weapons-related technology, and will result in Iran’s having an industrial-scale nuclear program in ten to 15 years. If Iran will not agree to a nuclear pact that actually prevents it from developing nuclear weapons, the Trump administration should work with America’s allies to impose strict nuclear sanctions, including barring all transfers of nuclear technology. This may not completely halt Iran from pursuit of nuclear weapons, but it would probably result in a much better outcome than the JCPOA.

With President Trump in office only two weeks, it is hard to foresee how his administration will ultimately come down on the nuclear deal with Iran and how aggressive it will be in responding to Iranian belligerence and provocations. Moreover, regardless of whether President Trump tears up the JCPOA, Iran may back out of it anyway, since the flow of additional concessions from the Obama administration has ceased.

Putting Iran on notice is significant because it signals the return to the global stage of a strong and decisive United States prepared to reinstate the successful national-security strategy of President Ronald Reagan: “peace through strength.” Such a jolt to the international order could convince rogue states such as Iran and North Korea to dial back their destabilizing behavior and possibly agree to talks to address regional concerns about their missile and weapons-of-mass-destruction programs. Let’s hope it does not take military action by the Trump administration to convince these states to recognize that Trump is changing the global order and that the days of U.S. appeasement of its enemies and “leading from behind” are over.

Fred Fleitz, president of the Center for Security Policy, served in 2018 as deputy assistant to the president and to the chief of staff of the National Security Council. He previously held national-security jobs with the CIA, the DIA, the Department of State, and the House Intelligence Committee staff.

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