Hillary Clinton, who is in the course of a fierce struggle for the affection of the Democratic base, is not about to disown the JCPOA, President Obama's signature second-term accomplishment. The administration considers the Iran agreement the foreign policy equivalent of Obamacare. Whether Clinton, who opened up the back channel to Iran, thinks it is a great deal or the product of her weak successor's cluelessness, she is having to walk a fine line.
She calls the deal a good start, but then has departed from the president in advocating sanctions to respond to Iran's illegal missile tests. She appears to advocate a policy that would seek to check Iran's regional aggression -- something the administration said it would do, but plainly will not for fear that Iran would walk away from the deal.
If Clinton is elected, she'll have three choices: Continue Obama's string of endless concessions and indifference to its regional aggression; pull out of the JCPOA and, if need be, unilaterally impose an array of sanctions; or look at the JCPOA the way the Iranians do, namely as the start, not the end of the negotiations.
The first will perpetuate a split with our Sunni allies and risk Iranian domination of the region, both of which Clinton says she wants to avoid. The second is not even supported by all the GOP presidential contenders and comes with risks Clinton likely will not want to take on. That leaves the third, intriguing option. That option is championed by Mark Dubowitz, the sanctions guru from the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. At a public forum last week, he explained: "I think it's completely unrealistic to shred this nuclear agreement. And I think to do so, particularly early on, would backfire on the United States."
It would only, Dubowitz says, do for Iran what they want to "do for themselves, which is they are trying to legitimize themselves globally, in order to attract significant economic benefits."
That does not mean, however, continuing Obama's policy. Dubowitz argues that "the Iranians since the agreement was reached continue to negotiate greater and greater concessions. And so, good. Let's -- let's continue to negotiate. And, in fact, I mean there's a long history in the U.S. arms control of us continuing to negotiate, additional agreements, side agreements, better agreements." He recalls that the "Soviet Union had thousands of nuclear-tipped missiles aimed at U.S. cities. And yet, both Democrats' and Republicans' administration of -- on both sides of the aisle, members of Congress, people like Scoop Jackson, for example, insisted that despite the threat the Soviet Union represented, we were not going to live with deeply flawed nuclear deals."
He sketches out how that would work:
And so to use tough non-nuclear sanctions to go after Iran's missile activities, their support for terrorism, their vast system of domestic repression, their continued elicit financial activities. Use those non-nuclear sanctions."
If Iran threatens to walk away, Dubowitz says we should call their bluff. If they go so far as to abandon the JCPOA, it would be Iran, not the United States that would be "internationally isolated. We'll have a greater predicate for -- for stronger action." If, facing threat of non-nuclear sanctions, they agree to sit down, the negotiations in essence begin anew, but with a president willing to impose, not give relief from, additional sanctions. In fact, the Iranians themselves may provide an opening to return to the table:
"I actually predict that there's going to be an opportunity for a future U.S. president, because there are - there are key provisions in the agreement where if the IAEA certifies under what's called a broader conclusion that Iran's program is for peaceful purposes only, the Iranians are going to come back in and try to renegotiate the agreement to get these sunset restrictions lifted more quickly.
"So I think there's going to be opportunities for a future president, that may be one, there may be others where we'll have an opportunity to use coercive power, sanctions and - and other mechanisms, and look for the opportunity because [Ayatollah Ali] Khamenei is continuing to negotiate and renegotiate this agreement, that the United States should look for those opportunities to do so."
This may be an approach Clinton can live with, and which would finally get the legislative and executive branches to work in concert. Unlike Obama, who took Iran's side in pressuring Congress not to act, Clinton could use the threat of congressional action to pressure Iran.
In addition to all of the above, Clinton can start to do what Obama was entirely disinclined to do, namely highlight and condemn Iran's human rights record. Ronald Reagan did precisely that in the Cold War, while also negotiating with the Soviets. We should adopt the same long-term objective he did ("We win, they lose"), namely regime collapse/change.
This does not mean we go to war with Iran. Reagan did not launch World War III, but he did align our diplomatic and military policies with the goal of weakening and eventually breaking the back of the Evil Empire. Denying Iran legitimacy, championing the cause of Iranian dissidents and adding Iranian leaders to an expanded list of human rights violators under new legislation that would expand the Magnitsky Act globally would be part of a concerted effort to weaken and create friction within the Iranian regime.
Republicans may not find this ideal, but if Clinton is elected it is certainly preferable to the disastrous string of concessions they have seen. Denying additional sanctions (e.g. access to dollar transactions), imposition of new sanctions, passing human rights legislation to target members of the regime and using coercive diplomacy to force changes to the deal (or provoke Iran to walk away) would represent a significant course correction in U.S. policy. And finally, a return to Clinton's own policy of removing Bashar al-Assad, Iran's closest ally, would bolster our Sunni alliances, check Iran's regional ambitions and signal that Iranian detente is not the policy of the United States.
Don't expect Clinton to say any of this in the course of a campaign. If she is elected, however, critics of the JCPOA should do what they can to help redesign our Iran policy. Clinton might just be amenable.