A boy poses in front of a model of Simorgh satellite-carrier rocket during a ceremony marking the 37th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, in Tehran, February  2016.
A boy poses in front of a model of Simorgh satellite-carrier rocket during a ceremony marking the 37th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, in Tehran, February  2016.
Raheb Homavandi / REUTERS

U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration has put Tehran “on notice.” Earlier this month, Washington imposed fresh sanctions on Iran in response to its latest ballistic missile test, which defied the UN Security Council resolution tied to the July 2015 nuclear agreement. “The days of turning a blind eye to Iran’s hostile and belligerent actions toward the United States and the world community are over,” said Michael Flynn, then U.S. national security adviser. Although the full contours of Trump’s Iran strategy still remain unclear, this long overdue measure marks an important first step in resuscitating a chief casualty of the landmark deal: U.S. deterrence.

The ongoing debate surrounding Trump’s Iran policy—should the president enforce the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, tear it up, or renegotiate it?—poses the wrong question and, in so doing, misconstrues the challenge facing Washington. For Tehran, the JCPOA now functions as an instrument of leverage that Tehran can rely upon to pursue its broader regional ambitions. By repeatedly threatening to abandon the accord if Washington reimposes sanctions for any reason, Tehran deterred the administration of former President Barack Obama from enacting meaningful economic penalties for the regime’s regional aggression, human rights abuses, ballistic missile tests, and, most troubling, violations of the JCPOA.

Trump must seek to reverse this dynamic by raising the costs for Tehran’s misbehavior so dramatically that it is Iran, rather than the United States, that will seek a new deal aimed at relieving those costs. Washington can then use its regained leverage to negotiate new terms more conducive to its interests. Put differently, the best way to advance the JCPOA’s objective of nonproliferation may lie in shifting the debate over its survival from Washington to Tehran.


After negotiating the JCPOA, the White House explicitly pledged that nothing in the agreement would prevent Washington from challenging Iran for its regional aggression, human rights abuses, and ballistic missile tests. “Critically,” Obama stated, “I made sure that the United States reserved its right to maintain and enforce existing sanctions and even to deploy new sanctions to address those continuing concerns, which we fully intend to do when circumstances warrant.” In fact, Obama argued, “it will be a lot easier for us to check Iran’s nefarious activities, to push back against the other areas where they operate contrary to our interests or our allies’ interests, if they don’t have a bomb.”

But the opposite occurred: Obama failed to anticipate that Tehran would use threats of leaving the JCPOA to deflect consequences for its malign behavior throughout the Middle East. Consequently, the JCPOA facilitated the very nefarious activities that Washington aimed to check. Over the past 18 months, Tehran’s drive for regional hegemony dramatically intensified as U.S. influence in the Middle East progressively diminished.

The JCPOA facilitated the very nefarious Iranian activities that Washington aimed to check.

For example, Tehran, aided by Moscow and billions of dollars in sanctions relief, boosted its military deployments in Syria, helping the regime of President Bashar al-Assad preserve its grip on power and prolonging the country’s bloody civil war. In December 2016, as soldiers backed by Iran, Russia, and Syria perpetrated a massacre in Aleppo, representatives from Tehran, Moscow, and Ankara met in Beirut to discuss the conflict while pointedly excluding Washington, offering a potent symbol of the United States’ leadership vacuum.

Beyond Syria, Iran’s influence grew in nearly every other regional conflict. Among other provocations, Tehran tightened its control of Baghdad by boosting its support for Iraq’s Shiite militias, which played a key role in last year’s campaign to retake Fallujah and in the ongoing battle to liberate Mosul. It continued to support Hezbollah in Lebanon, which recently elected Iranian ally Michel Aoun as the nation’s president. It shipped boatloads of arms to its Houthi proxies in Yemen. It funneled money to the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas and backed violent Shiite proxies in Bahrain.

Iran also targeted U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf. Iranian boats repeatedly harassed U.S. warships by maneuvering and firing rockets nearby. Tehran’s Houthi proxies in Yemen launched missiles directly at the USS Mason. And after ten U.S. sailors, in early 2016, accidentally strayed into Iranian waters owing to a navigational error, Iranian forces seized their ship and broadcast their surrender on national television in a transparent attempt to humiliate Washington.


Faced with an emboldened Iranian regime wreaking havoc across the Middle East, the Obama administration routinely argued—notwithstanding its earlier suggestion that the deal might spur Tehran to moderate its policies—that the JCPOA was never intended to stop such behavior. Rather, it claimed the deal constituted a narrow arms control agreement aimed exclusively at curtailing the single greatest Iranian threat to U.S. interests: its nuclear program. In this sense, Obama contended, the accord had gone exactly according to plan: the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), after all, has repeatedly certified Iranian compliance with its JCPOA obligations.

The truth is more complicated. Rather, the same fear that deterred Obama from punishing Iran for its regional aggression also deterred both Obama and the IAEA from insisting on full transparency and accountability as part of the JCPOA’s implementation. Similarly, Obama and the IAEA advanced the misleading idea that the JCPOA itself actually eliminates the threat of Iran’s nuclear ambitions. As Obama claimed in a January 17 statement marking the first anniversary of the accord’s implementation, the JCPOA “has rolled back the Iranian nuclear program and verifiably prevents Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.”

In fact, in its eagerness to reach an agreement, the Obama administration stepped away from virtually every redline it publicly articulated during the negotiations—from dismantling Iran’s nuclear infrastructure to ensuring anytime-anywhere inspections. The resulting accord, with its key provisions beginning to expire in 2023, overwhelmingly favored Tehran, offering the regime a patient pathway to nuclear weapons as well as multiple loopholes that limit the IAEA’s ability to monitor Iran’s nuclear facilities.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaks at a news conference near the United Nations General Assembly in New York, September 2016.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaks at a news conference near the United Nations General Assembly in New York, September 2016.
Lucas Jackson / REUTERS

After the JCPOA’s finalization, news emerged of a confidential side deal that enabled Iran to self-inspect the Parchin military complex, where the regime has pursued efforts to weaponize nuclear material. Another confidential arrangement allowed Tehran to evade key JCPOA obligations in order to hasten the arrival of the deal’s formal implementation and accompanying sanctions relief. In late 2015, after Tehran stonewalled the IAEA’s investigation into the possible military dimensions of its nuclear program, Washington joined its partners on the 35-nation IAEA Board of Governors in voting unanimously to remove discussion of such investigations from its agenda. In June 2016, The Wall Street Journal reported that the Obama administration had concluded that uranium particles found by inspectors during one earlier visit to Parchin were likely connected to its covert nuclear weapons program.

Notwithstanding its affirmations of Iranian compliance, the IAEA has acknowledged that Iran violated the JCPOA twice by exceeding its limit on heavy water, a key material for the production of a plutonium bomb. German intelligence has stated that Iran may have violated the JCPOA by attempting to procure illicit technology for its military nuclear program. The Institute for Science and International Security has reported Iranian attempts to obtain advanced carbon fiber, a key component of centrifuge production, and other nuclear technology, and to weaken the JCPOA’s procurement channel tasked with monitoring Iran’s acquisitions.

Despite Obama’s repeated claim that the deal would provide “unprecedented” insight concerning Iran’s nuclear activities, the IAEA’s four quarterly reports in 2016 certifying Tehran’s JCPOA implementation omitted key data that would enable independent verification of Iranian compliance. The IAEA’s reporting, noted the institute in an analysis of the latest report, “is so sparse as to confirm suspicions that compliance controversies are being deliberately omitted from the report.”

Finally, as Flynn noted this month, Iran has defied the UN Security Council resolution tied to the JCPOA, which nonbindingly calls upon Tehran to halt ballistic missile development and bindingly prohibits the transfer of arms to the regime. Tehran has tested ballistic missiles as many as 14 times since the agreement was reached, violating the resolution’s spirit. It has also pursued negotiations with Moscow for the purchase of advanced military hardware, including Sukhoi-30 fighter jets and T-90 tanks. In December 2016, a UN report stated that Iran may have violated the arms embargo by supplying weapons to Hezbollah. Nevertheless, Obama failed to retaliate with meaningful consequences.


Obama’s willingness to overlook or accommodate Iran’s nuclear and non-nuclear provocations conveyed the message that Tehran could violate its international obligations with relative impunity. The immediate task facing the Trump administration lies in persuading Iran that those days are over.

In this sense, any strategy should focus on the restoration of U.S. deterrence. Instead of abrogating the JCPOA, Trump should strictly enforce it by insisting on greater transparency and accountability in its implementation. At the same time, he should make clear, in both word and deed, that Washington will no longer allow the accord to impose a straitjacket on broader U.S. policy in the Middle East. By exacting robust penalties on Iran for the full range of its transgressions, the United States should aim to persuade Tehran that a renegotiation of the JCPOA would advance its own self-interest.

Trump should make clear that Washington will no longer allow the accord to impose a straitjacket on broader U.S. policy in the Middle East.

First, Congress and the Trump administration should immediately impose a wide range of non-nuclear sanctions on Iran for its ballistic missile tests, human rights abuses, and support for international terrorism. In particular, new penalties should target Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which manages the regime’s regional aggression and ballistic missile program and controls as much as 20 to 30 percent of the country’s economy. In addition, the United States should reimpose key nuclear-related sanctions for Iran’s JCPOA violations to date in a manner proportional to their severity.

Second, as part of its efforts to enforce the deal, the United States should mount a public pressure campaign aimed at highlighting Tehran’s past JCPOA violations and increasing the nuclear program’s transparency. Washington should demand complete IAEA reports that enable independent verification of Iranian compliance. It should urge the IAEA Board of Governors to reopen its investigation into the Iranian nuclear program’s possible military dimensions and insist on full access to the regime’s military sites. If Iran resists these efforts, Washington should state that Tehran’s intransigence manifestly aims to conceal noncompliance with its obligations and reimpose additional nuclear-related sanctions. In addition, Trump should immediately publicize any remaining side deals that remain confidential.

Third, the United States must repair and strengthen its alliances with Israel and the Sunni Arab states opposed to Iran and partner with them to combat Iran’s growing influence in the region. In particular, it must work to resolve Syria’s civil war in a way that results in Assad’s removal from power, increase its military commitment in the Middle East, and work to undermine Tehran’s alliance with Moscow.

Fourth, the Trump administration must articulate a credible military threat. Tehran must harbor no doubt that, if all else fails, the United States has the resolve to do what is necessary to dismantle Iran’s nuclear facilities. In this context, Trump can burnish U.S. credibility and deterrence by adopting a stronger posture against Iranian naval aggression in the Persian Gulf. If an Iranian boat harasses U.S. warships again, Trump should direct U.S. forces to sink the offending vessel.

As the United States implements these steps, it should explicitly highlight Iran’s record of bad faith in order to demonstrate that the onus lies on the regime to demonstrate its commitment to its obligations. In so doing, Washington can ensure that its international partners remain committed to enforcing their own sanctions, thereby increasing their deterrent impact. A united international front—backed by the threat of U.S. force and a robust American leadership role in the region—also makes it less likely that Tehran would react by covertly executing a nuclear breakout.

In the near term, Tehran may seek to counter the United States’ strategy by making good on its long-standing threat to withdraw from the deal. In response, Washington should not project anxiety or suggest that it values the JCPOA more than Iran does but instead should double down on economic pressure. As Trump, the consummate dealmaker, surely understands, achieving a good deal sometimes requires a tactical willingness to walk away from the negotiating table. In this sense, much as sanctions brought Tehran to the table in the first place, a renewed sanctions campaign combined with other forms of military and diplomatic pressure stands the best chance of ensuring Iran’s return to the table.

For the past 18 months, Tehran has set the terms of U.S.-Iranian diplomacy by exploiting the Obama administration’s determination to preserve the JCPOA at all costs. At this juncture, an unwavering defense of U.S. national interests and prerogatives stands the best chance of fulfilling the core goals of regional stability and nonproliferation that the nuclear talks had set out to achieve.

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