The Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security

Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign must not be curtailed before Iran’s leaders truly have no choice but to capitulate to Western demands.

Until now, the Trump administration has acted with wisdom and tenaciousness against Iran, crashing the disastrous nuclear deal that President Obama signed with the ayatollahs in 2015 and forcefully sanctioning Iran’s terror apparatus and oil exports.

Alas, there are signs that President Trump is getting ready to ease the pressures and bargain for a new deal with Iran. But this is not the time to back away from the press-ganging of Iran. Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign must not be curtailed before Iran’s leaders truly have no choice but to capitulate to Western demands.

Because of American sanctions, Iranian oil exports have fallen by at least 400,000 barrels per day (bpd) since May of this year, and by two million bpd since April 2018, leading to a whopping drop of $50 billion in regime income.

The Ayatollahs are feeling the strain, which explains their recent threats and provocations. These include the downing a US drone in the Gulf, the seizing of a British oil tanker and the targeting of other ships, renewed uranium enrichment at forbidden levels, and ballistic missile launches in violation of UN Security Council decisions.

It seems that Iran can no longer afford to “wait out Trump” on the assumption that he will be replaced as US president in 2020 by a more accommodating Democratic leader. Ayatollah Khameini needs to get Trump to lay off, now.

Trump mustn’t do so. There is much more that can and must be done to truly bring Iran to its knees. Dr. Udi Levi, a former Israeli government practitioner and top expert on financial sanctions, last week published a JISS study which details the necessary next steps. This includes blocking Iran’s sanction-busting export routes through Turkey and Qatar, and hitting at Iran’s foreign currency reserves by enforcing civil court rulings that award terror victims billions of dollars in damages.

The goal is to force Iran to relent on all five key issues in dispute: 1. A complete end to the Iranian nuclear military program, including all uranium enrichment and plutonium production – with no sunset, ever. 2. A truly intrusive international inspections regime (not the jokingly weak to non-existent regime stipulated in the JCPOA). 3. An end to Iran’s ballistic missile development program. 4. An Iranian retreat from the forward bases in Syria it is building to challenge Israel. 5. Complete cessation of Iranian financing of Hamas and Hezbollah military capabilities.

Short of this, a deal with Iran will be dangerous and unsustainable. Yet, the Iranians already are playing their usual games, offering up-front phony concessions (like an end to oil tanker interceptions) in exchange for up-front American concessions (like an end to most oil export sanctions).

“This how the Iranians play the game,” warns Iran expert Dr. Emily Landau of the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS). “This is how they twist things, making it seem there are concessions when there are absolutely no concessions at all.”

But Trump has been so solid in confronting Iran and in support of Israel, you might object. Why suspect softness on Iran now?

Because the music being played lately in Washington is off-key. First, Trump backed-away from responding militarily to Iran’s downing of that top-notch US surveillance drone. Then he authorized Senator Rand Paul to talk to Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, in what seems to be a pre-negotiation. The super-isolationist Rand Paul, of all people!

Now, Trump has extended five critical sanction waivers from the Obama era. These waivers allow Russia, China and European countries to continue civilian nuclear cooperation with Iran, in the most problematic places: the underground Fordow enrichment facility, the Busheir plant, the Arak complex, and the Tehran reactor.

(To understand the enormous significance of these waivers for Iran, and the complicity of European and Obama establishment elites in Iran’s sanctions-busting strategy, read the shocking expose on this by Dr. Michael Doran of the Hudson Institute).

Trump seems to be shying away from conflict that might imperil his re-election chances, such as heightened confrontation with Iran. (The other conflict that could most harm his re-election campaign is a trade war with China which tanks the US economy. Here too, Trump may demur because of the election).

Worse still: Trump’s neo-isolationist instincts and abhorrence of foreign wars, alongside his penchant for grand deals that prove his greatness, suggest that he could be tempted into a settlement with Iran that falls far short of what’s necessary.

In fact, there is a pattern in Trump’s management of American policy towards China, North Korea, the Palestinians, and now perhaps also with Iran. First comes economic pressure, then the offer of quickie talks in pursuit of a “historic” agreement; an agreement that could be knottier and more nebulous than valuable.

The soft signals and indulgent musical notes coming from the White House today have been heard before. In 2013, a top American diplomat, Ambassador Thomas Pickering, showed up in Israel asking for understanding of a “nuanced” and “sophisticated” view of Iran. Iran is emerging as a significant regional and global actor that must be engaged and accommodated, he argued. And there were “moderates” in Tehran, he nonsensically postulated, that needed to be “bolstered” by a deal with the West.

Then Washington wags close to the Obama administration like the Center for a New American Security and the Atlantic Council began seeding diplomatic and political discourse with messages of capitulation to Iran, paving the way for a climb-down from Obama’s declared policy of halting Iran’s nuclear drive. They outlined “a comprehensive framework to manage and mitigate the consequences of a nuclear-armed Iran.”

In other words, stopping the Iranian nuclear effort already had become a passé discussion. The symphony was playing from different sheet music all-together.

The intellectual music of capitulation grew throughout 2013 and 2014 and rose to a crescendo in 2015, legitimizing Obama’s sell-out of Western and Israeli security interests in the JCPOA deal with Iran.

Could we be looking at a repeat musical performance now? Hopefully not.

Trump has earned the benefit of Israel’s doubt with his stalwart stance against Iran to-date. Still, Israel must be wary, and counsel steadfastness and caution. Trump should ramp-up the pressures on Iran, not dial them down.

And when he starts talking to Tehran, he should send National Security Advisor John Bolton with some hard-nosed New York Persian taxi drivers or Shas-style negotiators at his side – not Rand Paul.

Published in The Jerusalem Post 02.08.2019

JISS Policy Papers are published through the generosity of the Greg Rosshandler Family.

photo: Bigstock