The Trump Administration’s Iran Policy is a Mess
The Trump administration is a walking billboard for the value of nuclear weapons — and the most recent sanctions levied on the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps will further undermine any coherent American policy to grapple with the spread of nuclear technology in the Middle East. Nuclear technology is 76 years old, and many countries have the requisite capabilities, or access to a coterie of suppliers, to overcome key bottlenecks and develop nuclear weapons. Iran is no exception and had plans to build five nuclear weapons in secret until the government made the political decision in 2003 to halt coordinated weapons related work (albeit with continued centrifuge development) and make the necessary concessions to verify this decision through agreements with the international community.
At its core, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), dubbed the Iran “nuclear deal” for short, put in place monitoring mechanisms to verify the Iranian government’s pledge not to build nuclear weapons. To ensure an agreement with Iran, certain elements of the JCPOA’s inspection regime will remain in place throughout the 25-year agreement, while others are set to expire at different times. Eventually, Iran would be treated like a “normal” nuclear state in 2040, when the extra inspection provisions will end. After 2040, Iran would still be subject to monitoring by the International Atomic Energy Agency, the safeguards regime the United States and the rest of the world relies on to ensure the peaceful use of nuclear technology.
The Trump administration’s policy of ending the inducements given to Iran for its decision to allow for more robust inspections and a pledge of peaceful nuclear intent could have a negative effect on regional nonproliferation norms. Beyond this, it is unlikely the unprecedented move to label an element of the Iranian government a terrorist group would bring about the collapse of the Iranian regime — the intended end-goal of the current American policy. Sanctions are intended to impose an economic cost on countries to change behavior. However, when implemented independent of any inducement or a positive enticement to change the policy choices of an adversarial regime, there is little evidence to suggest a “sticks only” approach leads to policy change.
The problem with the Trump administration’s sanctioning of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps is that it severely complicates any current or future effort to offer the Iranian government a “carrot” to alter or amend military or foreign policy in the Middle East — a region where the United States remains heavily engaged, with no plans to leave in the foreseeable future. Worse, the decision to sanction a uniformed military unit as a Foreign Terrorist Organization risks establishing a new (and negative) global norm, whereby governments can simply choose to label adversarial armed forces akin to non-state actors, and therefore make them legitimate military targets. Indeed, this has already been the case with the Global War on Terror and the legitimization of a country’s right to target groups in third countries in the name of combating terrorism. The risk, now, is that the goalposts have moved regarding who and what is a terrorist group and how to use military force against a uniformed adversary that politicians have labelled as a terrorist.
For a country like the United States, which has escalation dominance over any potential adversary, this may not be too concerning (although, for troops deployed in Iraq, the stakes are different than for the country as a whole). However, for American allies and partners embroiled in disputes with irregular forces that receive support from uniformed military personnel, many of which are engaged in low-intensity conflicts with neighbors, the precedent could lead to outcomes the Trump administration has not accounted for. One potential negative outcome could be other countries following the Trump administration’s lead and deeming foreign militaries it disagrees with as terrorist organizations deserving of targeting for acts of “terror” committed in the name of a foreign armed service’s uniformed branch.
Beyond this, the broader efforts to link American sanctions with efforts to deepen partnerships with key Gulf states, including more pronounced cooperation on arms sales and even civil nuclear technology with the aim of deepening support on countering Iran, risks the further undermining of regional and global nonproliferation norms. The two issues may not seem connected. However, there is a clear linkage between open-ended American support for Saudi Arabia as a means to combat Iranian influence and ensure continued access to regional airbases. This outcome may risk further eroding American national security because the United States will not have received any real tangible benefit for its alliance-building efforts and instead will have suffered overwhelming negative consequences that undermine broader foreign policy concerns.
The Trump administration is on the precipice of undermining the JCPOA, which verifies that Iran continues to abide by its pledge to not seek out nuclear weapons, and undercutting efforts to include language that bars enrichment and reprocessing in countries that sign nuclear cooperation agreements with the United States. All of this could stem from interlinked decision-making to pressure Iran for long-halted past activities, and to use sanctions to prevent future American concessions to Iran (which would to induce real political change in the country). This approach, all in the name of the “maximum pressure” strategy, is not working and is now being implemented so as to tie the hands of future American administrations —in ways that undermine America’s relationship with Europe and erode trust in international organizations. The outcome, of course, is a weaker Washington, independent of any notional changes in Iran. This isn’t a smart strategy; in fact, it is counter-productive and harmful to American interests.
Regime Change via Sanction: Maximum Pressure and Economic Coercion
From the outset of his time in office, President Donald Trump has sought to dismantle the JCPOA, arguing incorrectly that the agreement needs to be “fixed” to enshrine the inspection provisions in the nuclear agreement forever. Brian Hook, the Trump administration’s special representative for Iran, incorrectly asserted that nations should demand that Tehran “end the pursuit of nuclear weapons,” an assertion at odds with American intelligence estimates. In a more nefarious way, the Trump administration is moving the goal posts, claiming that Iran’s harboring of Al Qaeda operatives after the October 2001 invasion of Afghanistan toppled the Taliban is proof that Tehran supports Al Qaeda. Therefore, a U.S. military strike would be legal under the Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF), which authorized military action against nations and actors linked to the 9/11 attacks.
The administration’s goals are twofold. First, Trump’s national security team is using the media to reinforce a narrative about Iran’s relationship with Al Qaeda to keep options to circumvent the congressional check on the use of force, no matter how flimsy that has become since 9/11. Second, this effort signals to Iran that “all options” remain on the table to bolster sanctions and to pressure the regime. In the case of the latter, Mark Dubowitz, the head of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, made the case directly in an op-ed, where he argued that the United States should pair sanctions with clandestine support for Iranian labor unions to foment unrest similar to the labor strikes in 1980s era Poland that eventually led to the end of communist rule in 1989.This unrest, then, would either lead to the toppling of the regime, or a country so weak that it would capitulate to American demands and modify its foreign policy. Iran’s demonstrated track-record would suggest that the regime would react violently to any mass protest, and recent lessons from the Middle East suggest that even weak regimes are capable of using overwhelming force to ensure that the regime survives. American tools, in cases where the regime does choose to stand and fight, are quite limited.
The Trump administration’s heavy use of sanctions to compel changes in Iranian policy does not have the necessary support from key American allies (Europe), is opposed by American adversaries (Russia and China), and is beyond U.S. capabilities to unilaterally implement. These three factors, in combination, will ensure that the self-declared “maximum pressure” effort will fail. In a vacuum, the failure of an American foreign policy is not that big of a deal. Policy fails. Leaders change. New policy is enacted.
However, the legacy of this particular screw-up will outlive the Trump administration and further undermine nonproliferation norms. For decades, the United States has been able to rely on a policy of technology denial and inspection to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons. Ironically, the Islamic Republic of Iran is a nonproliferation success story. This may seem counterintuitive, given that the Islamic Republic made the choice to clandestinely build nuclear weapons in the 1980s and eventually managed to develop enrichment technology in the early 2000s. The regime tried to keep this secret and failed. U.S. and allied intelligence detected Iran’s nuclear developments and made the decision to publicly reveal the existence of key nuclear facilities in 2002, just as the regime was preparing to expand enrichment capacity.
In a tranche of documents and in a presentation that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave to the world and then laundered through friendly U.S. think tanks —including the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Institute for Science and International Security — Tehran sought to build five 10-kiloton nuclear warheads for delivery by ballistic missile. The development of nuclear weapons would, no matter what the scale and scope of Iran’s ambition, change security dynamics in the Middle East and severely constrain American and allied policy options. However, the documents suggested Iran intended to pursue the South Africa model, which built a small number of bombs in secret, and only planned to use them if the country was invaded and the regime threatened. This approach is, at its core, defensive and indicative of a leadership that felt fundamentally insecure and willing to absorb considerable cost to ensure that it would have the tools to prevent regime collapse. This is obviously a problem, given that continued coercion could re-ignite these concerns, empowering the elements within the Iranian government that lobbied to develop nuclear weapons in the first place.
The JCPOA, in this sense, also had the secondary political outcome of signaling that American military intervention to prevent Iranian nuclear development was decidedly off the table. The United States, along with Germany, France, the United Kingdom, Russia, and China, reached agreement with the Iranian government as an equal and imposed a set of criteria for Tehran to meet in return for reciprocal actions from these world powers. To date, Iran has met its obligations, only to be repaid with a U.S. withdrawal and, now, the imposition of sanctions beyond those that were in place before the American violation of its own agreement. With the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps now under further American sanctions, Iranian policymakers would be unwise not to consider the case of North Korea, a partner in the development of Iranian ballistic missiles, and the country that provided Iran’s ally, Syria, with a reactor to build nuclear weapons in secret. In contrast to Iran’s “bomb in the basement” approach followed by President Hassan Rouhani’s acceptance of key U.S. demands, North Korea loudly developed nuclear weapons and the capabilities to target American cities with long-range missiles (both in defiance of U.S. and global pressure) — and was rewarded with two high-profile summits with the American president and Trump’s personal intervention to roll back sanctions. In essence, Chairman Kim Jong Un was rewarded for building the bomb, while Iran was punished for giving it up.
The Gulf Connection: Alliance Management and Shared Nonproliferation Goals
Amidst the Trump administration’s efforts to enact its maximum pressure policy against Iran, the United States has also pursued a nuclear cooperation agreement with Saudi Arabia. During these negotiations, Riyadh has resisted American demands to forego enrichment and reprocessing. According to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, “[Saudi Arabia] has said they want a peaceful nuclear energy program, and we have told them we want a gold-standard Section 123 Agreement from them, which would not permit them to enrich. That is simply all I’ve asked of Iran, as well.”
If the United States caves and either omits enrichment and processing language from any civil nuclear cooperation agreement with the Kingdom, or skirts the issue by keeping any Saudi pledge in the non-binding preamble (as was the case with Vietnam), it will have a reciprocal impact in the United Arab Emirates. This is because the Emiratis agreed to “voluntarily forego any enrichment or reprocessing of nuclear material within its territory,” so long as other regional states are not accorded a different set of standards [emphasis added by author].” This conditional pledge, then, means that what the United States and Saudi Arabia agree to will then impact the United Arab Emirates and likely lessen a hard-won concession for a nebulous benefit only tangentially linked to Iran.
The issue, of course, is that Saudi Arabia does not actually need to reach agreement with the United States to develop nuclear power. And herein lies the problem: One outcome of the maximum pressure policy is that the Trump administration has decided that the alliance with Riyadh is sacrosanct and imperative to pressure Iran. Therefore, it is in the United States’ best interests to provide political cover for Riyadh, even after the country’s leader ordered the murder Jamal Khashoggi, a columnist for the Washington Post, and committed war crimes in Yemen.
The United States now finds itself in a bind. One the one hand, Washington has signaled to the Kingdom that its support is critical and that it will retain Trump’s backing even when the leadership defies international law. And yet, on the other, Saudi Arabia has refused to accept the U.S. demand to replicate the United Arab Emirates’ pledge to suspend reprocessing and enrichment. Instead, Riyadh has signaled that it would like to retain the right to enrich uranium. Iran makes the same argument, using the same legal rationale, arguing that Article 4 of the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons allows for signatories to “develop research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes without discrimination.” This is an uncomfortable position to wind up in.
Given this reality, it would be wise to ensure that the United States retains leverage over Riyadh and demands the Saudis conform to certain American foreign policy aims. The history of the Trump administration, however, signals just the opposite.
Beyond Pageantry: The Long-Term Damage to Nonproliferation Norms
The Trump administration’s sanctioning of a uniformed military service is a bold step and in line with the self-described maximum pressure policy. As has become common in this administration, Trump ignored the advice of the military. The military is now having to grapple with changes to force protection guidelines in the Middle East and the Trump administrations normative changes to U.S. policy without much thought for either the ramifications of American actions, the negative repercussions of these actions, or how — in combination with policy choices in the Gulf — they could undo bipartisan nonproliferation consensus.
The short-term risks are clear. Iran has retaliated and placed sanctions on U.S. Central Command, an action that could presage the start of an effort to target U.S. soldiers in Iraq. Tehran could also make the political choice not to target U.S. forces. In either case, it sets the tempo, leaving American military forces in a position of reacting to aggression from a hostile power — and not the other way around. Only time will tell how Iran chooses to respond, but the reality is the United States will remain in a reactive position and is not actually dictating much of anything.
Beyond this narrow concern for U.S. troops, the broader effort to destabilize the Iranian regime is undermining the nonproliferation institutions and norms the United States depends on to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons. This is classic short-term thinking, made worse by how nakedly political and partisan this entire effort is. If the real goal of this effort were to bottle up Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions, then the mixture of pressure and inducement that resulted in the JCPOA was proof that diplomacy could work. Iran’s bomb program was halted and placed under inspection. All the United States had to give up to get this outcome was to lessen sanctions and allow Iran access to international markets without the threat of secondary sanctions on countries that choose to engage economically with Tehran.
Stepping back, as Mark Fitzpatrick argued in War on the Rocks, Americans should look inwards and ask introspective questions about the country’s Iran policy: What is the point? What are sanctions designed to do? In the past, it was clear: Sanctions were leverage to be traded for Iranian concessions on the nuclear issue. This policy worked once the United States agreed to certain key Iranian demands, and a compromise was made. With the end of that political bargain reached, even the most stringent sanctions the United States could impose remain aspirational in intent, designed only to inflict pain and to bring down a government. Absent any acceptance that sanctions only create leverage when they can be removed, the room for compromise is so tiny that no Iranian government could ever make the necessary concessions to address the long list of U.S. concerns.
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is four years older than the average life expectancy of a male Iranian and, independent of the quality of his healthcare, is statistically likely to die well before the terms of the JCPOA expire. Given this statistical reality, one could deem the JCPOA a regime change policy because, assuming that American malfeasance and efforts to undermine it don’t force a change to Iranian policy, the inspection regime is almost certainly going to outlive the Iranian leader . His replacement — and how he will make policy vis-a-vis the United States — remains a mystery.
The nuclear deal decided to manage a solvable problem and, in its own way, hope for positive change. The maximum pressure policy seeks a similar outcome but is dependent on fomenting an internal, American-backed uprising. The assumption that it is the only way to effectively manage Iran’s defunct nuclear weapons program is fallacy. In fact, what is happening is only serving to undermine key institutions that the United States relies upon to verify Iran’s non-nuclear pledge while underscoring how valuable Iran’s nuclear program once was. A South African “bomb in the basement,” coupled with long-range missiles similar to those in North Korea, does not invite more American pressure. Just the opposite. Indirectly admitting to past weapons work and allowing the International Atomic Energy Agency to inspect a pledge of peaceful intent is what results in more pressure to give up more in return for an American pledge to not make things worse economically — and not a U.S. offer to make things better.
The incentive structure is off. The lesson, of course, is that missiles and bombs can win even the nastiest regime on earth the respect of the world’s superpower. This will be the legacy of the Trump administration’s nonproliferation policy. It may feel good to sanction the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps and talk loudly about pressure, but this only matters if the United States turns that pressure into a tangible policy outcome. Thus far, there is no evidence to suggest the Trump administration is any closer to its goal of Iranian regime change. Just the opposite. The American pursuit of maximum pressure has eroded tools to counter proliferation, and lessened pressure on allies to acquiesce to American hard asks in support of decades-old efforts to limit the spread of enrichment and reprocessing. These twin failures, and the broader inability to accept that Washington cannot topple the Iranian regime without severely damaging itself, is bad for the country. What is worse is that the ongoing efforts to entrench this bad policy has put U.S. troops at risk (again) and made it harder for more rational policymakers to fix nonproliferation policy in the future. The Trump administration’s efforts to topple Iran is just making the United States weaker.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article stated that Khamenei is four years older than the average male Iranian. He is four years older than the average life expectancy of a male Iranian.
Aaron Stein is the director of the Middle East Program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.