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 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.”
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