Belfer-Center|Ephraim Kam: A key foreign affairs issue for the Trump administration will be its policy on Iran, as was the case also for the Obama administration. But we have no idea what approach it will take, an uncertainty amplified by the fact that Trump has no experience whatsoever in foreign policy, and no idea whose input he will accept in shaping it. It’s not as if we have no information about his attitude – during the election campaign, Trump made his intention on Iran very clear – but, as with other topics, it is unclear how he will act when once he is forced to translate his intentions into action and realizes that reality is far more complicated than he imagined.
Trump spelled out his intentions on Iran at that AIPAC conference in March 2016 where the nuclear agreement was at the core of his address. According to him, the highest order of priority was to cancel the agreement because it was catastrophic to the United States, Israel, and the Middle East. The worst problem with the agreement is that, even if Iran honors it, Iran will attain nuclear weapons, because after all limitations on the nuclear program are lifted after a few years, Iran will be able to develop a military nuclear program. Moreover, Iran continues to develop ballistic missiles, a clear violation of the Security Council resolution on the matter. It also maintains a terrorist network throughout the world, undermines the stability of the Middle East, is expanding its involvement in the affairs of regional states, and increasing the risks to Israel from Lebanon, the Golan Heights, the Gaza Strip, and the West Bank.
This approach differs from that of the Obama administration. While the Obama administration acknowledged the gamut of threats Iran represents, it tended to downplay them, hoping that the nuclear agreement would lead to greater Iranian moderation. Trump’s declarations, however, don’t tell us much about how he intends to tackle these threats, if at all. Above all, it is highly doubtful he will cancel the nuclear agreement or even seek to modify it, for several reasons. The agreement involves additional five of the most important governments in the world that will certainly oppose its cancellation. Iran is still at the stage where the nuclear agreement is having a positive impact, mainly the delay in the timeframe for its attainment of nuclear arms. If, in general terms, the agreement is negative, at this point it makes sense to wait as long as its positive aspects still exist. Moreover, the cancellation of the agreement will cancel the limitations on Iran’s nuclear program, and there is no doubt it would immediately return to function on an accelerated timetable to rebuild its nuclear capabilities. In such a case, it is doubtful that Trump would have an effective response, and there is no guarantee that the other world powers would agree to re-impose severe sanctions on Iran.
Moreover, a demand to reopen the agreement for further negotiations designed to try to force Iran to accept more limitations on its nuclear or missile programs is problematic: such a demand would meet with Iranian refusal or, alternately, with willingness – but in exchange for significant removal of the sanctions still in place, i.e., damage to whatever is left of the United States’ ability to exert pressure on Iran. The problem is that without amending the agreement there is no legal way to prevent Iran from developing a huge program of enriching uranium, which could lead Iran to nuclear weapons after 8 – 10 years, once the limitations on the program are removed.
But even if Trump avoids cancelling the agreement or opening it up for renewed negotiations, there are other issues linked to Iran that need to be tackled. First, while the Middle East turmoil has exacerbated Iran’s problems, especially because of the state of Assad’s regime in Syria, the troubles in Iraq, the war with ISIS, and the tensions with Saudi Arabia, Iran is still managing to exploit the regional shocks to strengthen its influence and status in the region, while making it clear that it intends to continue its radical policy: it is involved on a large scale in the fighting in Syria to help Assad’s regime survive; it is deploying Hizbollah and armed Shiite militias from other nations in Syria; it is also deploying its own Quds Force of the Revolutionary Guards in several regional nations, and is deeply involved in Iraq, Lebanon, and Yemen; Iran’s status is gaining also because of its cooperation with Russia in the fighting in Syria; and there is international recognition of Iran’s importance in stabilizing the situation in Syria and Iraq and the war against ISIS. The nuclear agreement plays into Iran’s hands, because it provides it with the aura of a civilized nation; the removal of the sanctions allowed Iran access to funds that had long been closed to it – enabling it to transfer additional funds to its allies.
Moreover, Iran recently announced that it intends to expands its naval presence far beyond its shores, to which end it may construct naval bases in Syria and Yemen; these bases will create new threats against Israel – and Saudi Arabia – as they will allow Iran to transfer arms to Hizbollah directly and increase its ability to gather intelligence about Israel (though it would also expose its bases to Israeli attacks).
Because of Iran’s conduct, there is bipartisan agreement in the United States that it is necessary to contain the threat to regional stability emanating from Iran. Because of Iran’s growing influence in the region, it is important that a Trump administration renews the United States’ deterrence against Iran and enhances the security of its regional allies, especially Saudi Arabia, against Iranian encroachment. The Obama administration was perceived as weak and conciliatory towards Iran, and preferred to ignore minor violations of the nuclear agreement by Iran and to define them as insignificant ones. More importantly, in practice the administration took the military option against Iran off the table in recent years, while not making it clear what the United States would actually do should Iran violate the agreement. It is important that the new administration makes it clear that the military option is back on the table in case Iran violates the agreement. The conditions for a rigid approach on Iran might be more convenient since some of the senior members of the next administration promote a harder line, while the Republican majority in Congress supports meaningful steps against Iran. Iranian statements made after the U.S. election show that Iran’s leaders are worried about a Trump administration. It should be possible to capitalize on that fear to deter Iran from making flagrant moves, both regionally and in the context of the nuclear issue.
Second, the Obama administration failed to stop the Iranian missile program. Because of Iran’s refusal to discuss the missiles, the program was not included in the nuclear talks or the final agreement, and since the signing of that agreement Iran has carried out several flashy missile tests indicating improved missile performance. Over the years, Iran has managed to extend missile ranges and accuracy, which will make it possible for Iran to strike even small targets. As Trump has pointed out, Iran’s missiles threaten not only Israel – which has been within Iranian strike range since the beginning of the previous decade – but also parts of Europe and, in the future, even the United States. The sanctions against Iran linked to the missile program are still in place but are not severe enough to force Iran to downsize the program.
And, third, a large arms deal between Iran and Russia, worth more than $10 billion, is about to be concluded, despite the Security Council resolution forbidding arms supplies to Iran until 2020. The completion of the deal will improve the overall quality and capabilities of the Iranian air force, which is still relying on 30- and 40-year old U.S., Russian, and Chinese planes. Obviously, such an upgrading will strengthen the Iranian air force’s capabilities vis-à-vis Iran’s rivals in the Arab world, as well as Israel and the United States, and the supply of new weapons will allow Iran to pass additional qualitative weapon systems on to Hizbollah. Stopping the deal must be effected by bringing pressure to bear on Russia and offering it incentives.
What tools will the Trump administration have at its disposal to restrain Iran? It is important that the new administration rids itself of the Obama administration’s notion that the nuclear agreement can lead to an expanded dialog with Iran about regional issues and that it is then possible to achieve regional cooperation with Iran and make Iran a positive element in the region. This notion has been shown to be unrealistic, particularly because the radical wing of the Iranian regime, headed by spiritual leader Ali Khamenei, has made it amply clear that it continues to view the United States as it principal enemy (the Great Satan), which is seeking to use the nuclear agreement as a mean to penetrate the Iranian system and destabilize the Islamic regime from within. It therefore has no intention whatsoever of expanding a dialog or cooperating with the U.S. administration in any way.
Clearly, the key to a fundamental change in Iran’s regional approach, including the nuclear issue, is regime change, because as long as the current regime is in charge there will be no change in Iran’s policies. But the U.S. administration lacks the ability to generate regime change in Tehran, and if and when such a change happens in the future it will be the result of internal processes rather than that of external influence or intervention. In the foreseeable future, Khamenei will step down, but it is unclear who will succeed him and the extent to which his successor will reflect continuity or change. Nonetheless, it is very clear that the radical wing of the regime, currently controlling Iran, will do everything it can to prevent any change in the nature of the regime.
Given these murky data and absent the ability to affect that nature of the Iranian regime, one may assume that the Trump administration will be able to impact Iranian policy on the region and the nuclear question primarily through creating deterrence and exerting pressure, and even this is questionable. In the era prior to the nuclear talks, it emerged that the Iranian regime is sensitive and vulnerable to harsh, painful sanctions, because Iran’s economic situation is already shaky; its worsening due to sanctions is liable to create internal turmoil that can threaten the regime’s stability.
But the re-imposition of heavy sanctions on Iran is not simple. On the one hand, Trump himself and some of those who’ve already been slotted into key administration positions are, for now, showing a rigid stance on Iran. The Congress decision of November 2016, which passed with an overwhelming majority, to renew the sanctions still in place on the trade, energy, security, and banking sectors for another ten years – with outgoing President Obama refusing to cast his veto on the decision – should worry Iran, because it is indeed worrisome. Khamenei even said that extending the sanctions is a violation of the nuclear agreement and that Iran would respond to this violation. The decision gives the new administration a strong card to play against Iran.
On the other hand, for additional sanctions to be effective, they must be painful and involve real participation by other nations. The U.S. administration imposed sanctions against Iran almost since the start of the Islamic regime, but these failed to change Iran’s conduct in a fundamental way until they were made extremely painful in 2012-2013. But today it is doubtful that other nations will be willing to join in imposing new sanctions against Iran unless Iran flagrantly challenges them do so in the context of the nuclear agreement – all the more so because, in the meantime, Russia and Iran have forged closer relations. Absent such participation, there seems to be nothing in the U.S. arsenal to help apply real additional pressure on Iran, because it already used up its main pressure levers in the nuclear talks.
Furthermore, stopping Iran regionally is also not simple. Iran has gained regional achievements and influence because it has good cards to play: Shiite organizations help it in various other nations; the force it constructed on the model of the Quds Force; military capabilities currently based mostly on its array of missiles; the use it makes of terrorism; control of the east coast of the Persian Gulf and its ability to affect shipping there, using combat vessels, mines, rockets, cruise missiles and artillery; the fact that other players in the region, such as the Assad regime, seek its help; strong economic potential that helps it finance the parties linked to it; and its success in building significant deterrence vis-à-vis its enemies. In tandem, we must mention its enemies’ weaknesses: the United States is seen as broadcasting weakness even to its allies; Iraq’s military power was dismantled by the United States, and it cannot balance or contain Iran as it did in the past; and the Arab world is busy with its various internal crises and is incapable of standing up to Iran’s growing influence.
Still and all, alongside these strengths there are also weaknesses that the Trump administration can exploit. Iran has no real allies. Iran and Russia have common interests and a shared concern in cooperating in certain areas, such as helping the Assad regime and providing it with arms, but there is also notable mutual suspicion and their objectives ultimately differ. Iran’s only true ally is Syria, but it is in the throes of a profound crisis of its own and is currently only a burden on Iran. By contrast, Iran has many enemies; from its perspective, the most dire among them is the United States, the world’s greatest superpower. Even in those states where it has managed to create influence, such as Iraq and Syria, many have reservations about the Iranian connection. Iran is in deep economic trouble, despite the potential for riches it has in its oil and natural gas reserves. And Iran’s military capabilities are limited, because of the high proportion of obsolete weapons in its arsenals.
What this means is that the U.S. administration has the means to reduce Iran’s influence and importance in the Middle East using two approaches. One is to present a harder line towards Iran on issues important to the United States and its allies, especially the nuclear issue, the construction of its ballistic missile array, and its use of terrorism. It is always worth remembering that the last thing the Iranian regime wants is a real showdown with the United States because the balance of power between them is clear. The other is to enhance the strength and security of the states worried about Iran’s rising power and influence, especially Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt, and Israel. These states showed their disappointment with the Obama administration’s Middle East policy, including its handling of Iran. The Trump administration will do well to clear the air in its relationship with these U.S. allies and strengthen their deterrence capabilities vis-à-vis Iran.
When it comes to Iran, Russia’s position will be important, especially in terms of the possibility of imposing renewed sanctions on Iran, and certainly in terms of the impeding weapons deal between the two. It is important that the new administration will try to drive a wedge between Russia and Iran, while exploiting the disagreements between the two. In the 1990s, the Clinton administration managed to reach an agreement with the Russian government about stopping Iranian arms supplies for several years. And in the preceding decade, Russia itself supported the Security Council’s resolution to impose sanctions, albeit softened ones, on Iran on several occasions. The possibility that Russia will again join in taking steps against Iran will greatly depend on the nature of the relationship that will develop between the United States and Russia during a Trump administration, also with regard to issues other than Iran. It can be assumes that developing cooperation between the U.S. and Russia will require accepting some of Russia’s demands. At the same time, the fact that both Trump and his new Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, have good relations with the Russian leadership could help to achieve understanding between them with regard to the Iranian issues.
To the extent that Iran does not change its approach to the nuclear issue and on regional matters, relations between the United States and Iran during the Trump administration can be expected to be tenser than they were during Obama’s presidency. A Trump administration will have several means at its disposal to harden the line against Iran: it can ramp up the sanctions connected to the Iranian missile program; it can demand that the supervision and enforcement regime over Iran’s nuclear facilities be made stricter, especially if Iran’s conduct arouses suspicions: it will not attempt to give Iran further relief from the sanctions as the Obama administration did; it may spell out the steps the United States will take, including putting the military option back on the table, should Iran violate the agreement; and it can demand that Iran curb its regional conduct.