Foreign policy experts to President Trump: Get a real Iran policy

Washington Post | Jennifer Rubin: Last year President Trump “decertified” the Iran nuclear deal (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA), and threatened to pull the plug entirely if Congress did not act to improve the deal. (How Congress was supposed to do this, and why Iran would even consider such a thing, were mysteries.) The Europeans objected and, to date, Congress has done nothing. In essence, Trump had his bluff called.

Conservative critics of the JCPOA, retired Gen. Charles Wald and Eric S. Edelman, the former U.S. ambassador to Turkey, have chided the president for his ill-conceived gambit:

President Trump’s latest quick-fix approach to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action on Iran’s nuclear program creates an untenable policy dilemma. Because the deal sacrificed significant U.S. leverage upfront, right now there is currently little Congress can accomplish singlehandedly in trying to strengthen it, and much the administration would place at risk in abruptly leaving it. To truly fix the JCPOA, the United States should stay in it for the time being, so Congress and the administration can focus on rebuilding pressure on Iran to negotiate a better agreement.

Wald and Edelman recognize that “expecting Congress unilaterally to reconfigure the deal is unrealistic” and that we lack the leverage to accomplish that. They recommend a “comprehensive strategy that prioritizes rebuilding U.S. positions of strength before trying to fix the deal — starting where costs can be imposed most effectively and credibly on Iran’s malign behaviors. In pushing back on Tehran’s threatening activities, the United States would also develop bargaining leverage to eventually renegotiate the JCPOA along the lines envisioned by the president and Congress.”

That would require stepping up our presence, Wald and Edelman wrote, and supporting the “Syrian Democratic Forces holding strategic territory liberated from ISIS.” Unfortunately, doing so is made more difficult because Trump gave Russia a green light to move in with an ill-advised truce. The critics also encouraged “demands for more robust inspections, and threats to reimpose sanctions if breakout time falls below one year, will have much more force if the administration announces the Pentagon is updating contingency plans to neutralize Iran’s nuclear facilities.”

In keeping with the views of nuclear-deal critics who, nevertheless, see the lack of a coherent game plan, Wald and Edelman recommended that Trump “turn the screws on those inside Iran with the most equities in the nuclear program — the Supreme Leader, Revolutionary Guard and even President [Hassan] Rouhani,” and that Congress and the administration “should expand sanctions against Iran’s human right violations, support for terrorism and ballistic missile activities. A more coherent strategic communications campaign can also hold a mirror up to the regime’s hypocritical, purely rhetorical support for anti-corruption, human rights and the economic betterment of its people.”

In the future, advice from those who pushed for Trump’s stunt — Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), etc. — should be viewed skeptically. Encouraging or rationalizing short-sighted gambits that fail and then erode the credibility of the United States do not help the country or improve international respect for the president.

Trump’s advisers keep saying that “America First” doesn’t mean “America Alone.” Unfortunately, when Trump pulls a maneuver like decertifying the Iran deal, and threatens to pull out without coordination with our allies, he demonstrates that his blunderbuss “America First” foreign policy is, in practice, characterized by erratic, unilateral pronouncements, as well as excessive favoritism toward Russia, neglect of allies, and insufficiently serious and capable diplomacy. The end result is a weaker, less respected America — and a less stable Middle East.