Trump Is Setting America on an Unpredictable Course in the Middle East
It starts with exiting the Iran nuclear deal without a plan, and it could end with a messy, violent, and unnecessary conflict.
Iran hawks seem to be in pretty good spirits these days, with John Bolton having taken over as national-security adviser and Mike Pompeo as secretary of state. They are thrilled with the promotion of two high-ranking officials who want to tear up the nuclear deal, actively promote regime change in Tehran, and vigorously confront Iran throughout the region, just like many of them have been advocating for years—what’s not to like?
I get their enthusiasm—I even share many of their concerns about Iran—but I also know I’m not alone in worrying that an unbound President Trump, surrounded by these new advisers and under mounting domestic pressures, is about to set the United States on an unpredictable course in the region. It starts with exiting the nuclear deal without a plan, and it could end with a messy, violent, and unnecessary conflict. It’s been so easy for pundits like Bolton and others to denounce the results of recent U.S. policies, not just under President Barack Obama but under Trump while Rex Tillerson and H.R. McMaster were still around. Now we may find out what an alternative looks like.
It now seems likely that Trump will end U.S. compliance with the nuclear deal on May 12, when the next deadline for extending sanctions waivers comes up. It is of course still possible that Trump will take advantage of European gestures—like an agreement to sanction ballistic-missile activity, vigorously enforce inspections, and seek a follow-on agreement—to claim to have “improved” the deal thanks to his negotiating prowess, but that remains a long shot. It was always fanciful to imagine that the Europeans were going to agree to make fundamental changes to the nuclear deal (as if it were somehow in their power to unilaterally revise it without the support of the other parties to the agreement, namely Russia, China, and Iran), which is why that approach always seemed to me to be a ploy to kill the deal and blame others for its demise. It now seems pretty clear that Trump’s conditions for remaining in the deal will not be met (Bolton, in any case, has been explicit that he wants out regardless), which would mean that U.S. nuclear sanctions—including sanctions on third parties that do business with or buy oil from Iran—will come back into effect on May 12.
So what happens then? Reuel Marc Gerecht, a prominent critic of the Iran deal, recently wrote in The Washington Post that there’s no need for hysteria since Iran “still isn’t likely to run amok, ramping up its nuclear program and killing American soldiers in the Middle East.” This is true, but it’s also a straw man. None of the deal’s supporters—of which I am one, having helped negotiate it—thinks that if the nuclear deal collapses Iran will rush to produce a nuclear weapon, inviting justifiable international condemnation, isolation, and likely U.S. or Israeli airstrikes. Rather, without the deal in place, Iran will simply be free to reinstall some of the thousands of centrifuges it has dismantled, gradually expand its stockpile of low-enriched uranium (including potentially to more-dangerous 20 percent levels), resume unconstrained nuclear research and development, and recommence the construction of a heavy-water reactor capable of producing weapons-grade plutonium. All this in the absence of the 24/7 cameras and international inspections provided for in the agreement.
Iran will likely expand its nuclear program only gradually, just as it did steadily from 2003—when it had only a handful of centrifuges—until 2014, when it had over 20,000, and an interim nuclear agreement froze and set back the program for the first time. How is that a better world to live in than the current one, in which Iran cannot expand its low-enriched uranium stockpile or level of enrichment until 2030, is obliged to accept comprehensive inspections forever, and the United States has the support of the rest of the world?
There are scenarios being discussed in which Washington abandons the deal in May but it somehow survives. For example, Trump could refuse to sign the sanctions waivers up for renewal, but agree to go easy on implementation, or give exemptions to firms in European countries who have signaled a willingness to work on a new deal. I suppose anything is possible, but it’s hard to see how that works. Whatever public or private pledges Trump makes, few European companies are going to invest in Iran or buy Iranian oil if U.S. law requires them to be sanctioned for doing so, and it is hard to see Iran abiding by the deal indefinitely if it accepts all of its constraints but gets none of the benefits. There’s also the risk that countries like China or India—or even some in the EU—ignore the new sanctions and continue to buy Iranian oil, which would mean that we’d have to risk a major international trade clash to try to enforce them, at a time when potential trade wars are already looming. And even if Trump surprises us and extends sanctions for another few months and the deal survives on life support, we would soon be back in the same place we are today, faced with a binary choice between accepting an unchanged deal and blowing it up. If anyone thinks Iran will just come back to the table to accept a “better deal” after the United States, alone, walks away from the current one, they have more faith in Tehran’s political flexibility than I do.
One possible solution is that the credible threat of force can persuade Iran not to resume its nuclear program if the deal is killed. Bolton has of course explicitly advocated using military force to stop an Iranian bomb, and Pompeo as a member of Congress asserted it would not be difficult to take out Iran’s nuclear capabilities with military strikes. If Iran does resume its suspended nuclear activities or kick out inspectors, will they conclude the use of force is necessary? And what would the threshold for military action be? Installing, say, another 5,000 centrifuges? Kicking out inspectors? Conducting mechanical testing on an advanced centrifuge cascade? Resuming 20 percent enrichment? Expanding the low-enriched uranium stockpile from 300 to 1,000 kilograms?
These are difficult questions, but we need very clear answers internally, and also to convey those answers clearly and credibly to Iran. And of course we need to be willing to pull the trigger if whatever “red lines” the administration adopts are crossed. Many opponents of the nuclear deal take offense at the notion that abandoning it could lead to war, but that is a realistic possibility. I never understood how it’s possible to both insist that proliferation can be prevented through the “credible threat of force” but then to ridicule the notion that military conflict is a genuine risk. Bolton—and many Israelis I’ve spoken to—are at least honest enough to accept the potential consequences of their policy prescription, though it will be interesting to see if Bolton’s view changes when he is sitting next to the president in the Situation Room as opposed to at his think-tank computer or on a Fox News set. It will be even more interesting to see if the president who regularly denounces spending American blood and treasure in the Middle East as a colossal waste proves willing to run the risk of a regional conflict with Iran, including terrorist attacks on American troops in Iraq and Hezbollah missile attacks on Israel. But even if one’s preferred outcome might be a “better deal,” is setting back Iran’s nuclear program by a few years with military strikes really better than living with the current deal, which keeps it at least a year away from even producing enough nuclear material for one bomb for much longer than that?
Finally, there is the question of regime change, since that’s what many Iran hawks really think is necessary to solve not just the nuclear program but to ensure security in the Middle East. Gerecht has written that we should “want a different regime” in Iran, and that’s a reasonable wish. The current regime is an enemy of the United States, a threat to the region, a serial abuser of human rights, and a state sponsor of terrorism—and, as far as I can tell, disliked by a majority of the people of Iran. But how exactly does the U.S. plan to get rid of the regime? And is there realistically a chance to do so in time to prevent an Iranian nuclear-weapons capability if America abandons the nuclear deal next week? Would an American-supported effort to oust the regime even result in a new one more willing to abandon nuclear aspirations, or might it instead result in widespread chaos and conflict, as in so many other cases in the region where a regime was overthrown?
Gerecht advocates massive economic sanctions, rhetorical “moral clarity,” more U.S. troops in Iraq and Syria, and support for Iranian opposition groups as the means to that end, but that sounds like the sort of wishful thinking that has gotten the U.S. in so much trouble in the Middle East in the past. I’m hopeful that one day the Iranian people will find a way to get rid of the Islamic Republic, but I am skeptical about America’s ability to accelerate such a development without unintended consequences, and worried that some of what the hawks propose could make things worse. The Iran nuclear deal is far from ideal, as I and others have always acknowledged, but we live in a messy, complicated world, and sometimes the best actually is the enemy of the good. Early in the George W. Bush administration, Bolton opposed and undercut Secretary of State Colin Powell’s attempt to pursue a compromise with a still nonnuclear North Korea, advocating isolation instead. More than 15 years later Kim Jong Un has a substantial nuclear arsenal and long-range missiles, and will now negotiate with Trump from a position of strength. Are we about to repeat that play in Iran?
Last summer, Bolton wrote a memo to Trump on “How to Get Out of the Iran Nuclear Deal.” It’s 12 pages of prescriptions for reimposing sanctions, beefing up the military option, pressuring allies, and supporting the Iranian opposition, but Bolton never really describes what is supposed to happen when we follow his advice. Does the regime in Tehran continue to freeze its nuclear program? Come back to the table for a better deal? Stop interfering in Syria and Iraq? Collapse peacefully and give way to a democratic opposition committed to nuclear disarmament? I hope someone has better answers than he does.