“History has shown that the longer we ignore a threat, the more dangerous that threat becomes.” It was with this principle that President Donald Trump opened and concluded his October 13 speech that presented his administration’s policy toward Iran. The speech reflected an important shift in the American approach, whereby Iran is not the solution to Middle East stability but rather the problem, and in the long term the nuclear agreement with Iran signed by the world powers is dangerous and must be amended. This is a positive change in approach, but the success of the strategy will depend first and foremost on the support it receives from Europe. If America’s determination to take action against Iran leads to rifts in US relations with Europe and the isolation of the United States, the result will be an even more dangerous reality that will allow Iran to increase its negative activities, and ultimately to produce a nuclear weapon.
The President’s speech contained a number of positive elements. First, it set the goal of amending the agreement without nullifying the existing one. The President refrained from announcing America’s withdrawal from the agreement or from calling on Congress to re-impose the sanctions pertaining to the Iranian nuclear program. This enables the President to leave the agreement in place and avoid providing the Iranians with justification for abrogating the agreement and producing nuclear weapons. Nonetheless, the goal of amending the agreement marks a significant change in American strategy, whereby adherence to the existing agreement is no longer a default. Instead Washington strives to reach a better agreement in order to rectify the existing agreement’s shortcomings, including: close supervision of Iranian military sites; extension of the restrictions on the Iranian nuclear program as long as Tehran continues to support terrorism, undermine stability in the region, and call for the destruction of Israel; limitations on the Iranian missile program; and continued sanctions against the Iranian economy in response to negative Iranian activity unrelated to the nuclear program.
The leaders of the European powers that signed the agreement – France, Britain, and Germany – have opposed this approach and called for maintaining the existing agreement. This is a dangerous message, since if the agreement’s flaws are not rectified, Trump is likely to cancel the agreement and move in the direction of military confrontation. European willingness to address the major problems of the agreement will encourage the President to preserve the framework of the agreement and undertake a diplomatic campaign to improve it.
Another positive aspect of Trump’s speech is the emergence of a dual-policy vis-à-vis Iran: upholding the nuclear agreement on the one hand, and on the other hand, combating non-nuclear Iranian threats in the region that are not covered by the agreement, such as the support of terrorism, subversive activity, the proliferation of arms in the Middle East, and the development of ballistic missiles. This is a change from the Obama administration’s policy, which limited US strategy regarding Iran to the nuclear angle and allowed Iran to increase its efforts to expand its influence in the region in order to preserve the nuclear agreement. This new American strategy is highly constructive, as in the coming years, while the agreement seriously limits Iran’s ability to develop an advanced nuclear program, it is important to address the other threats emanating from Iran and build a capacity to contend with the nuclear threat after the major restrictions on the Iranian program are lifted.
In order to amend the agreement and curb Iran’s non-nuclear activities, Trump will need to secure the cooperation of the US Congress, which is authorized to re-impose sanctions on Iran, as well as international support from the other powers that signed the agreement. Instead of working to assemble a united coalition to replace the agreement (which would include Washington’s European partners and the largest importers of Iranian oil: China, India, South Korea and Japan), Trump has preferred to threaten abrogation of the agreement in the event that he is unable to secure the necessary cooperation. This is somewhat of a risk, as the President is attempting to force his European partners to act in a manner that contradicts their support for the existing agreement. If he is unable to achieve his goal, the President publicly pledged to terminate the agreement, which would isolate the United States at the very time when Iran has a clear path to a nuclear bomb. In such a situation, the United States will be required to stop Iran on its own, without international legitimacy. Trump’s gamble could also result in a rift between the US administration and Congress and invite challenges to the President at home at the very moment that he is in need of support and political flexibility in order to take action against Iran.
By January 12, 2018, President Trump will need to decide whether to continue authorizing the suspension of the sanctions against Iran that were lifted in accordance with the nuclear deal. It will be important for the President to refrain from sanctifying this date and be patient until the diplomatic efforts to annul the agreement mature. European willingness to put pressure on Iran will play a critical role in convincing him to delay his cancellation of the agreement.
At the end of the day, the strategic aim is to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, not to preserve or revoke the nuclear deal. A haphazard measure that isolates the United States and limits its ability to stop the Iranian nuclear program could result in a greater threat to the international community than the threat posed by the agreement, just when Washington’s attention and resources are focused on a more urgent nuclear threat in the Korean Peninsula.
Major General AMOS YADLIN is former Chief of the Israeli Defense Forces Military Intelligence Directorate and Director of the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv.
Dr. Avner Golov is the Director of Research Programs at Institute for National Security Studies. He previously served at Israel’s National Security Council.
This op-ed was first published in French daily Le Monde.