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Comprehensive U.S. Strategy Toward Iran After the JCPOA

Download the full reportDownload the full reportJINSA’s Gemunder Center Iran Task Force
Co-Chairs Ambassador Eric Edelman and General Charles Wald, USAF (ret.)

The Trump Administration potentially is opening a new chapter in America’s relationship with Iran. In withdrawing from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) on Iran’s nuclear program, it has discarded its predecessor’s misplaced hopes of moderating Tehran’s increasing aggression through engagement, in favor of a set of demands that, if realized, could significantly roll back Iran’s nuclear program and regional aggression and possibly hasten the end of the regime.

A sea change indeed is required. For too long the United States has been self-deterred from confronting the Iranian regime, out of concern to empower purported moderates in Tehran or an overriding desire simply to wash its hands of the Middle East. This retrenchment has only encouraged the regime’s inherently malign behaviors, including its periodic testing of the limits of the nuclear deal, continued progress on advanced centrifuges and ballistic missiles, regional expansion, support for terrorism and propagation of virulent anti-American ideology. Paradoxically, many of these actions make the regime increasingly unpopular at home and overextended in the region.

The United States needs a forceful and clear policy to roll back the growth of the Iranian threat. To secure the administration’s demands that Tehran abandon its pursuit of nuclear weapons and regional hegemony as well as its continuing support for terrorism, the United States must develop a comprehensive strategy utilizing all elements of American and allied power – diplomatic, economic and military – to apply maximum leverage over the Iranian regime, including by targeting its underlying vulnerabilities. The administration’s formation of an Iran Action Group to manage government-wide policy and coordinate with allies is a potential step in the right direction. As part of this strategy, American policymakers must be prepared to deter or thwart a range of responses by Iran intended to counter these new pressures.

This new approach entails more than returning to the pre-JCPOA focus on sanctions, even as the administration re-imposes these measures. With Tehran already facing persistent and widespread domestic protests, sanctions appear better poised now than before the deal to starve the regime of precious resources for maintaining control at home and exporting its revolution. This in turn could magnify internal opposition to the regime and reinforce its abiding fear that the United States actively seeks its overthrow.

Yet it would be a mistake to expect even robust sanctions, on their own, to deter or deny Iran’s nuclear weapons progress, arrest its aspirations for Middle East dominance, and convince the regime its very survival could be at stake if its aggression persists. Instead, such economic measures should be supplemented by other forms of pressure that will maximize the coercive impact of U.S. policy against Tehran, including credible options for use of force.

Currently U.S. regional allies provide the most credible and ready options for compelling Iran to roll back its regional presence, given the uncertainties about President Trump’s willingness to remain engaged in the Middle East past the defeat of ISIS. Always proactive in self-defense, Israel shoulders the burden of pushing Iran out of Syria and interdicting its military supplies to Hezbollah, while Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.) are taking it upon themselves to confront Iranian influence and weapons proliferation in Yemen. The United States also has partners on the ground in Syria and Iraq, chiefly the Kurds, who present real obstacles to Tehran’s ambitions of dominating both countries.

It is squarely in the U.S. interest to shore up its allies as they lead the fight on the front lines against Iran. This includes providing them both the tools to defend themselves, and explicit U.S. backing for their efforts to diminish Iran’s destabilizing regional footprint. By strengthening and supporting Israel and other Middle Eastern allies, American policymakers can improve their chances of reducing Iranian aggression and avoiding major regional conflict.

A separate U.S.-Israel Security Task Force at JINSA’s Gemunder Center earlier this year issued recommendations to ensure Israel has the proper tools to defend itself by itself against Iran, and thereby also defend U.S. security interests. The proposed measures – which include elevating Israel’s official standing as a U.S. ally, frontloading the 2016 bilateral Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on U.S. defense assistance to Israel, prepositioning advanced munitions in Israel and driving Israel-Arab security cooperation – mutually reinforce the recommendations laid out below to bolster U.S. and allied pushback against Iran.

Regionwide, the United States should step up its own efforts and bolster those of its allies to interdict Iranian arms transfers. It should provide Israel with critical military capabilities and unmistakable official support for Israeli redlines in Syria and Lebanon. American policymakers also should capitalize on growing coordination between Gulf allies against Iran by promoting integrated regional missile defense and providing explicit military backing for Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates against direct Iranian attack, among other measures.

Support for allies against Iran is essential, but should not be viewed by American policymakers as an adequate substitute for credible U.S. commitments to confront Iran. The United States should leverage its own presence, as well as that of its partners, in Syria and Iraq, the two flashpoints which play a central role in Middle East stability and where Tehran is most deeply committed. Given its support for brutal sectarianism, and the roadblocks posed by U.S. forces and their partners on the ground, Iran also is most vulnerable to counterpressure in these two countries.

To address threats from both Iran and ISIS – whose persistence only increases Iran’s leverage and influence in these countries – the United States must make clear it will maintain a limited force presence in Syria and Iraq, primarily special operations forces. It also should bolster military support for its Syrian and Iraqi partners, first and foremost the multi-ethnic, Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), and update rules of engagement to appropriately defend its forces, the SDF and other partners on the ground. In tandem with a more concerted policy of blocking land routes via Iraq and Syria, these measures will constrain Iran’s entrenchment in the heart of the region.

A concerted U.S. political warfare campaign can reinforce these measures by targeting the growing fissures in the very pillars of the regime’s domestic power and exploiting the regime’s fear that the United States is making progress in undermining its security and longevity. Borrowing from successful Cold War-era policies and building from Secretary Pompeo’s speech at the Reagan Library in July, this campaign would seek to counter the regime’s anti-American propaganda, curtail its repressive powers and bolster the Iranian people and their demand for change by exposing the rampant corruption of the theocracy and the costs of its imperial adventures abroad.

Diplomacy also has a vital role in any strategy to coerce Iran. The United States should explore areas of cooperation with European, Asian and Middle East allies to isolate Tehran and mitigate fallout from leaving the JCPOA. At the same time, proactive public diplomacy can expand on the strategic rationales already provided by the Trump Administration in announcing its new approach to Iran, and can highlight Iran’s legally-binding non-proliferation obligations regardless of the nuclear deal.

Last but certainly not least, the United States must rebuild direct military leverage over Tehran. By updating contingency plans against Iran’s nuclear program and military forces – including its ballistic missile program – American policymakers can strengthen their hand in pursuing the other elements of a comprehensive strategy of coercion. With the potential for Iran to leave the JCPOA and resume its nuclear enrichment activities, such military preparations are also vital to deter and if necessary prevent Tehran from advancing toward nuclear weapons capability.

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