What’s Next for Trump’s Iran Policy?
So far, the “maximum pressure” strategy has succeeded. If Trump wins a second term, expect it to continue.
President Trump’s withdrawal of the United States from the 2015 nuclear deal struck by the Obama administration with Iran appears to be a significant success.
This success is seen in several ways: The withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) has isolated Iran and has denied the mullahs the revenue they had been spending on their military, missile development, and the nuclear program. U.S. sanctions reinstated as a result of the withdrawal are also denying the Iranian regime funds to support terrorists and proxies, and may be forcing Tehran to pull its troops from Syria. Further, U.S. withdrawal has given the administration leverage to negotiate a new agreement that addresses the full range of threats Iran poses to the Middle East and the world. While Iran is currently refusing to discuss a new agreement, mounting evidence of Iranian cheating on the JCPOA plus a surge in regime-sponsored violent provocations against U.S. forces in the region have driven once-panicky European states closer to Trump’s approach.
Contrary to the evidence, the president’s critics insist his JCPOA withdrawal has been a failure. They do so on the grounds that there has been no movement on negotiating a better deal and that Iran’s belligerent behavior worsened after the U.S pulled out of the agreement. Many critics, already apologists for the mullahs, have become more open about it, claiming that the regime was in compliance with the nuclear deal and blaming Trump for provoking the ayatollahs to ramp up their nuclear program after the U.S. withdrawal.
Claims that Iran has complied with the JCPOA are inaccurate and false. Moreover, the regime’s reactions were expected consequences of Trump’s decision and do not discredit the withdrawal.
Donald Trump’s claim during the 2016 presidential campaign that the 2015 nuclear deal was “the worst deal ever” reflected strong opposition to the agreement by many Americans and most Republicans. By design, the Obama plan allowed Iran to continue to perfect its nuclear-weapons-related technologies by permitting the regime to carry on with its enrichment of uranium, to develop advanced enrichment centrifuges, and to operate a heavy-water reactor while the agreement was in place. The Obama team’s justification for letting the mullahs keep their nuclear-weapons production technology was that the JCPOA would serve as a carrot to keep the regime one year away from actually building operational nuclear weapons. But the deal’s weak verification provisions made it easy for Iran to cheat, not to mention the refusal by major powers and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to enforce the accord.
The Trump administration had expressed deep concern about other problems with the agreement. Weak to begin with, the agreement contained “sunset” clauses that allowed most of its major provisions to expire within five to eight years. Obama officials claimed the deal would constrain Iran’s ballistic-missile program. In fact, not only did the JCPOA have no provisions on Iranian missiles, but UN Security Council Resolution 2231, which endorsed the JCPOA, actually weakened UN sanctions against Iran’s missile program.
And not least, there was the matter of financially enabling the mullahs: President Trump has often slammed the nuclear agreement for providing Iran with over $150 billion in sanctions relief plus $1.7 billion in cash from the United States, which Iranian leaders used to enhance their military and nuclear capabilities and in their various efforts, including terrorism, to destabilize the Middle East. The Iran deal contained no provisions to rein in Iran’s belligerent behavior.
Pairing Maximum Pressure with Flexibility
Trump’s alternative to the JCPOA is a policy called “maximum pressure” — a strategy of tough U.S. economic sanctions to counter Iran’s belligerent and destabilizing behavior and force it to negotiate a new agreement. The strategy also includes increased U.S. forces in the region and the president’s willingness to use military force in response to Iranian provocations.
In a May 28, 2018, speech at the Heritage Foundation, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo listed twelve U.S. requirements for a new agreement with Iran, including the cessation of uranium enrichment and an end to Iranian belligerence and provocations in the region. Although the U.S never dropped these requirements, President Trump has on several occasions expressed flexibility on talks with Iran. This included agreeing to French president Emmanuel Macron’s fall 2019 plan to hold multilateral talks with Iran, some additional restrictions on its nuclear program, and lifting U.S. sanctions. The Macron plan failed because Iran insisted that Trump must lift U.S. sanctions before any talks would begin.
Not all of Trump’s advisers were happy about his willingness to compromise to start negotiations with Iran under the Macron plan. Former national-security adviser John Bolton strongly opposed the easing of U.S. sanctions toward that end, and reportedly it was this that led to Bolton’s departure in September 2019.
In the main, the maximum-pressure strategy has succeeded even though Iran continues to stubbornly refuse to participate in negotiations on an agreement to replace the JCPOA. Iran’s economy is suffering under unprecedented economic pressure from U.S. sanctions, leading to protests against the regime in Iran. Protests against the Iranian government have also taken place in Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria, as U.S. sanctions have denied Tehran funds for pro-Iran militant groups and political allies in these countries. This includes members of Hezbollah, Iran’s terrorist proxy in Lebanon, going without paychecks.
Confirming Iranian Cheating
While there have long been accusations of Iran’s cheating on the JCPOA, revelations by Israel in 2018 leave no doubt of this. The impasse between Iran and the international community over the regime’s cheating vindicates President Trump’s rejection of the nuclear agreement.
Credible reports of Iranian cheating provided evidence before the U.S. withdrawal. The IAEA conceded in December 2015 that Iran failed to provide a thorough and honest accounting of its nuclear program, a prerequisite for it to receive sanctions relief under the JCPOA. German intelligence agencies issued several reports over the last few years of Iran’s secretly acquiring nuclear equipment in violation of the agreement. In July 2017, Senators Ted Cruz, Tom Cotton, Marco Rubio, and David Perdue wrote a letter to then secretary of state Rex Tillerson in which they pointed to Iran’s “consistent violations of the deal.”
JCPOA supporters dismissed these accusations, noting that the IAEA repeatedly declared Iran in compliance. However, the IAEA assessed Iran’s compliance only concerning its declared nuclear program at nonmilitary facilities and declared supply chain. The IAEA also refused to ask to inspect military facilities (which Tehran declared off-limits) even though they are the likely locations of covert nuclear-weapons work.
Iran’s JCPOA cheating was definitively exposed in the spring of 2018, when Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu disclosed that Israeli intelligence agents, in a daring act earlier that year, had stolen a huge cache of documents on Iran’s secret nuclear-weapons program. The documents, called the Iran Nuclear Archive, proved that Iran violated the JCPOA by lying to the IAEA in 2015 on its nuclear-weapons-related activities. The documents revealed that Iran had withheld from the IAEA its plans to construct five nuclear-missile warheads and a secret underground-tunnel complex at the Parchin military base, where it was developing nuclear-weapons components.
At the U.N. General Assembly in September 2018, Netanyahu further revealed that the nuclear-archive documents included details of a secret atomic warehouse in the Turquzabad district of Tehran that may have contained 300 tons of equipment and 15 kilograms of radioactive material. The Iranian regime denied Netanyahu’s claim and said this building was a carpet factory. Although the Israeli government had informed the IAEA about the warehouse in the spring of 2018, IAEA inspectors did not gain access until March 2019. By that time, the “carpet factory” had been emptied. However, as IAEA officials announced last fall, IAEA inspectors detected particles of natural and manmade uranium in the building, proving that the Iranian government had been storing uranium there without informing the IAEA in violation of the JCPOA.
Iran’s refusal to explain the uranium particles found at the Tehran warehouse caused growing tensions with the IAEA and European states. In March, the IAEA called on Iran “to cooperate immediately and fully” on the origin of the uranium particles and permit access to three other possible sites where the Iran Nuclear Archive documents indicated undeclared nuclear activities had occurred. In April, Iran ceased cooperating with these inquiries, another clear violation of the JCPOA.
Iran Backs Out of Its Commitments
Iran’s defiance of the IAEA’s investigation of the Tehran warehouse was not its only flouting of JCPOA restrictions over the last year. On May 8, 2019, the one-year anniversary of President Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal, Iran announced that it planned to take steps every 60 days to back out of its JCPOA commitments. Iranian leaders hoped those steps would pressure European states to not cooperate with U.S. sanctions and mitigate the Trump policy’s crippling effect.
Shortly after its announcement, Iran took the first of those steps, allowing its stockpiles of enriched uranium and heavy water to exceed caps. Over the next eight months, Iran disregarded a limit on the purity of its enriched uranium, expanded the production of advanced enrichment centrifuges, and resumed uranium enrichment at its deep-underground Fordow facility. Finally, on January 4, 2020, Iran announced that JCPOA restrictions would no longer limit its nuclear program in any way.
Iran’s withdrawal steps failed to persuade European states to shield the regime from American sanctions. Instead, in January 2020, the UK, France, and Germany, along with EU officials, triggered a JCPOA dispute-resolution process that could in theory reinstitute international sanctions against Iran. In practice, however, the reason for this move by European leaders was to begin a dialogue with Iran toward persuading it to resume its JCPOA commitments.
There was an encouraging sign last January that at least one European leader had begun to see things Trump’s way. U.K. prime minister Boris Johnson suggested replacing the JCPOA “with the Trump deal. That’s what we want to see. . . . Let’s work together to replace the JCPOA and get the Trump deal instead.”
Iranian Provocations Backfire
Beginning in May 2019, Iran began another campaign to pressure the United States to reverse sanctions and induce the U.S. and Europe to support the JCPOA. This time the regime launched a series of violent provocations against U.S. forces and American allies, calibrated so as to get its way on the JCPOA without risking retaliation by U.S. forces or starting a war. Between May and December, the regime mined civilian merchant ships in the Strait of Hormuz, unsuccessfully tried to seize a British oil tanker in the Persian Gulf, heavily damaged Saudi oil facilities with a drone attack, and backed Iraqi Shiite militias with rocket attacks against American bases in Iraq.
When President Trump failed to retaliate for these actions, Tehran may have thought its strategy was succeeding. All the while, however, the U.S. was working on a proper response. Iranian leaders triggered that response on December 27, 2019, when Iranian-backed militias launched a rocket attack in Iraq that killed an American contractor. Two days later, the president ordered airstrikes against Iran’s proxy forces. Iran retaliated by sending thousands of Iraqi proxy militiamen to storm the entrances of the U.S. embassy in Baghdad on December 31. The militias penetrated and destroyed an outer building but failed to breach the embassy wall.
Tehran’s proxy attack on sovereign American territory gave President Trump what he needed to escalate in due fashion. In a move that shocked the Iranian regime and the region, the president on January 5 ordered a drone strike to kill Qasem Soleimani, a general of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force. The killing of Soleimani, a charismatic and extremely popular commander among Shiite militants who had been crucial to the regime’s regional strategy from Lebanon to Afghanistan, stunned Iran’s leadership and crippled its operations in Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere. The Trump administration justified eliminating Soleimani by showing that his hand was behind the attack on the U.S. embassy in Baghdad and the killing of hundreds of American and Coalition personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan, and revealing Soleimani’s plan for more attacks on U.S. citizens in the region. Trump defended his decision in a tweet, saying that if Iran struck any American person or target, the U.S. would respond quickly and “perhaps in a disproportionate manner.”
On January 7, 2020, Iran reacted to Soleimani’s death by firing about two dozen missiles against U.S. bases in Iraq, injuring 64 American troops. However, worried that the unconventional Trump would retaliate with a massive attack on Iran itself, regime leaders appeared to take steps to limit U.S. casualties: Tehran gave the Iraqi government 90 minutes’ warning of the missile strikes, and most of the missiles appeared to deliberately fall short of their targets. (Some U.S. officials, including Secretary of State Pompeo, disagree with this analysis of the Iranian missile attack and believe it was intended to damage U.S. bases and kill American troops.)
Stressing that no Americans were killed in these missile attacks, President Trump chose to deescalate tensions by only condemning the attacks and imposing more sanctions. The U.S. did retaliate for a March 12, 2020, rocket attack on a U.S. base in Iraq that killed one British and two American soldiers, launching airstrikes against five weapons-storage sites in Iraq run by an Iranian-backed militia. And on April 22, after Iranian gunboats attempted to harass U.S. ships in the Persian Gulf, Trump announced that the United States would “shoot down and destroy” Iranian ships that attempted this in the future.
But starting in late April, Iran began to take steps to deescalate, evidently out of concern that Trump would make good on his threat of a disproportionate military response if Iran’s actions killed any more U.S. troops. It ordered its proxies to cease rocket attacks on U.S. forces, supported Iraq’s new U.S.-backed prime minister, and proposed a prisoner swap with the United States. According to Israeli officials, Iran also began to withdraw its troops from Syria. Iranian officials have disputed this claim.
The Iranian regime’s behavior vindicated the maximum-pressure strategy. And given the dire state of Iran’s economy, the coronavirus pandemic, and a high level of domestic unrest, Tehran could not afford a war with the U.S. or major damage to its infrastructure.
Despite Iran’s apparent deescalation, the Trump administration announced on May 27 that it was ending the last waivers on U.S. sanctions against Iran’s nuclear program. These waivers were supposed to encourage the transition of Tehran’s nuclear ambitions from military to civilian use but also had weapons applications.
The Next Steps
Given the success of its maximum-pressure strategy, the Trump administration must keep up the pressure on Tehran and build international support for this policy.
The White House began this effort last month by pressing for the UN Security Council to extend international sanctions on conventional-arms transfers to Iran that expire in October. If Russia and China veto the extension of the conventional-arms sanctions, Trump officials said that the U.S. will use provisions of Security Council Resolution 2231 to “snap back” all pre-JCPOA sanctions because of Iran’s refusal to abide by its JCPOA commitments.
European authorities dispute whether the U.S. can implement a snapback of sanctions because it withdrew from the JCPOA. American diplomats maintain that the snapback provision is in UN Resolution 2231, not the JCPOA, and that the U.S. is still a party to the resolution. But even if this U.S. gambit fails, it puts European states once again in the uncomfortable position of not holding Iran accountable for its surge in violence over the last year and its violations of the JCPOA. This discomfort may give the United States leverage to pressure Europe to cooperate with the maximum-pressure policy and implement its own sanctions against Iran.
The U.S. gained even more leverage with a June 5 IAEA report raising concerns that Iran is violating all of its JCPOA commitments and refuses to permit IAEA inspectors to visit three sites where nuclear-weapons-related activities may have occurred. After the release of that report, Trump said that Iran should move to “make the big deal” on its nuclear program and dangled the possibility that Iranian leaders would get better terms if they negotiated before the presidential election. Iran immediately rejected that offer and appears prepared to wait until after November before making any new moves.
If Trump wins in November, given the continuation of maximum pressure in a second Trump term and the likelihood that the international community will judge the JCPOA as dead, it is possible that Iran’s ruling mullahs will finally agree to a more civil approach toward the United States. Trump’s national-security team needs to prepare for this possibility and press European leaders to encourage Tehran to pursue talks.
It is more likely, however, that Iran, despite the devastating effect of U.S. sanctions on its economy, which the pandemic has surely exacerbated, will stubbornly refuse to participate in negotiations with the U.S. and will continue its belligerent and destabilizing behavior. The maximum-pressure strategy is the best answer to such stubbornness and the full range of the Iranian regime’s threats. In a second term, President Trump would be certain to continue this strategy for as long as Iran’s leaders refuse to join the community of civilized states.
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.