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November 24th, 2017

Insight

Trump has leverage against Iran, but he needs a closer

Eli Lake

By Eli Lake Bloomberg View

Published October 3, 2017

Trump has leverage against Iran, but he needs a closer

Supporters of the Iran nuclear deal are in panic mode.

Obama administration alumni are warning that President Donald Trump's threats to not certify Iranian compliance next month will unravel a bargain that makes the world safer. European leaders and Iranian envoys say the deal cannot be renegotiated. Quietly, many career State Department officials, according to administration sources, are trying to figure out a way to at least delay Trump's plan to throw the deal into turmoil.

The alarm is understandable. If Trump decertifies Iranian compliance with what is known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, then it will be up to Congress to vote to impose the crippling sanctions on Iran's banks and oil exports that President Barack Obama waived as part of the nuclear deal. If Congress does that, it really would blow up the nuclear deal.

That said, Trump's threats have already gotten some results. Let's start with France. It's true that in his U.N. General Assembly speech, French President Emmanuel Macron emphasized the importance of staying in the Iran deal. "Renouncing it would be a grave error; not respecting it would be irresponsible," he said. And yet after that speech he told reporters: "Is this agreement enough? No, it is not, given the evolution of the regional situation and increasing pressure that Iran is exerting on the region, and given increased activity by Iran on the ballistic level since the accord."

Today, the position of France and the U.K. is that they oppose reopening the Iran deal, but they favor trying to pressure Iran to agree to supplemental fixes to it, such as removing the sunset provisions that limit Iran's stockpile of low-enriched uranium and the number of advanced centrifuges they can assemble, and addressing Iran's testing of ballistic missiles.

Now let's look at the Iranians. Western defenders of the nuclear deal will say that the agreement lifts only the sanctions on Iran related to nuclear proliferation. Therefore, the U.S. can still punish Iran for its testing of missiles, human rights violations and support for terrorism. The Iranians have never seen it that way.

Almost as soon as the deal was implemented in January 2016, Iran's envoys complained that America was not living up to its end of the bargain. Foreign Minister Javad Zarif for example told the New Yorker in April 2016 that the U.S. was obliged to assure European banks that there will be no penalties for doing business with Iran, even though the Treasury Department still maintains sanctions against working with Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps, which is Iran's main arm for supporting terrorists throughout the Middle East. Zarif at the time said the deal was still in place, but "if one side does not comply with the agreement then the agreement will start to falter."

In other words, part of the Iranian strategy was to use the nuclear deal as leverage to get further concessions.

Trump has undermined Iran's strategy by threatening America's exit from the deal. Iran's leaders still talk tough, but so far new U.S. sanctions have not prompted the Iranians to walk away. Iran's president, Hassan Rouhani, said this week at the U.N. that there is no renegotiating the deal struck in 2015.

Undermining Iran's scheme is a good start. Keeping Iran nervous about U.S. reneging is helpful. But what can Trump do with the leverage he has created? Is Secretary of State Rex Tillerson up to the task of squeezing the Europeans and Iran to address the nuclear agreement's flaws? He has enough on his plate already with North Korea and Syria. Also, Tillerson so far doesn't have much diplomatic success. Just this week, Russia flagrantly violated the "de-confliction" agreement Tillerson negotiated in May for Syria.

At this point Trump should consider appointing a special envoy for fixing the Iran deal. Ideally, this candidate should be a critic of the agreement who will not fall into the trap of Obama's negotiators who believed the rapport built with Iranian envoys would lead to a rapprochement with the regime. Finally, Trump's new envoy should be someone with years of experience in arms control and international law.

In other words, it should be someone like John Bolton, the former acting U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Unfortunately, Bolton has already made it clear that he opposes the nuclear deal altogether. He recently published his plan for withdrawing it.

The ideal candidate to negotiate for the Trump administration would be an opponent of the original deal: That stance gives a negotiator credibility.

Bolton himself has a reputation for not playing well with others. Again, to find someone like that would be an asset.

Obama's secretary of state, John Kerry, got along famously with his Iranian counterpart, Zarif. They would speak on the phone several times each week. In the end, all of that good will ended in a deal that expires between 2025 and 2030, allows Iran to research and implement more efficient centrifuges, is weak on inspections for military sites, and doesn't address delivery systems for the nuclear weapons the whole world doesn't want Iran to build.

We've tried the "nice guy" approach. Time for something tougher.

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Eli Lake is a Bloomberg View columnist who writes about politics and foreign affairs. He was previously the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast. Lake also covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI, and was a contributing editor at the New Republic.


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