It won’t get the banner headlines of the latest outrage in the Russia investigation or North Korea’s most recent missile test, but we have entered perhaps the most consequential week for American policy toward Iran since implementation of the nuclear deal more than a year ago. As the Trump administration’s May 17 decision to extend sanctions waivers related to Iran’s nuclear program clearly attests, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) is working – even in the eyes of its harshest critics. But several upcoming events—including the Iranian presidential election, Trump’s first overseas trip and potential Iran-related action in Congress—could change this picture. In isolation, each has the potential to stress, or even unravel, the multinational agreement that has successfully constrained Iran’s nuclear program through diplomacy and without recourse to war. Together, they risk creating a perfect storm.
On Friday, Iranian voters will head to the polls in the first round of a presidential election widely viewed as a referendum on the nuclear deal and the economic benefits President Hassan Rouhani pledged it would deliver. This is perhaps the most consequential event– and the one furthest from U.S. control. Polls have consistently favored Rouhani; while all current candidates, including the hardliners’ favorite Ibrahim Raisi, have endorsed the JCPOA, Rouhani would be the most committed to preserving it. But the electoral outcome is not a foregone conclusion; the hardliners have been frantically mobilizing support for Raisi in recent days, his most serious conservative rival has dropped out, massive rallies have been held in his support, and the regime might well decide to rig the outcome in Raisi’s favor. Raisi’s election would, at a minimum, complicate efforts to preserve the JCPOA, particularly if it were met with escalation by Washington.
The same day, President Trump heads to Saudi Arabia and then on to Israel, for meetings that will almost certainly focus on those countries’ deep and justified concerns about Iran’s destabilizing activities in the region and steps to counter them. As the recent visit by China’s President Xi Jinping and countless other encounters demonstrate, Trump is highly impressionable—and he is likely to return from his Middle East trip determined to escalate pressure on Tehran and provide Saudi Arabia with a blank check to conduct its war in Yemen. This could well shape the outcome of the Trump administration’s “review” of the U.S. approach to Iran, including how aggressively to confront Tehran and whether to maintain the nuclear deal.
There are good and important reasons to push back against Iran’s activities in the region, a policy approach that has remained consistent for several administrations. Iran’s support for destabilizing proxies in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen or Bahrain is beyond dispute, and Trump will surely get an earful about these concerns in his meetings this week. The important question is how the United States and our partners can push back effectively without further inflaming the region’s conflicts or playing into Iran’s hands. We can expect Saudi Arabia and the UAE to seek a freer hand and more U.S. assistance, including through weapons sales and perhaps even the commitment of U.S. military forces in their war in Yemen, which Riyadh and Abu Dhabi see as the primary front in a regional conflict with Tehran.
In this, the details matter. It would be one thing to increase support for securing the Saudi border and preventing illegal Iranian weapons shipments; it would be another entirely to offer Riyadh’s coalition more leeway or deeper U.S. military involvement inside Yemen. This paradoxically would give Iran the opportunity to exact a heavy price on our allies through its Houthi partners while making a minimal commitment of its own, further embroil the kingdom and its partners in a quagmire, and provoke even more devastating suffering for the Yemeni people. And as long as the conflict continues, our most pressing national interest in Yemen—preventing Al Qaeda and ISIS terrorists from taking advantage of the chaos to solidify their safe haven—will remain unaddressed.
The better way to help Saudi Arabia, Yemen and U.S. interests would be for the administration to launch an intensified diplomatic effort to end this conflict, which has lasted far too long and has left the impoverished country on the brink of a devastating famine.
Finally, Congress may step into this debate. Next week, the Senate is expected to begin marking up its latest sanctions bill on Iran’s ballistic missile program, which could fuel the administration’s inclination to escalate and poses a direct threat to the nuclear deal.
Increasing sanctions pressure on Iranian activities outside the scope of the nuclear deal—such as the routine new designations the administration announced on Wednesday—make sense. An extensive web of legal authorities and executive orders provide the administration with a robust tool kit to disrupt Iran’s support for terrorism, its ballistic missile program and human rights violations. But, here too, the details matter. The benefit of new sanctions legislation that adds to this arsenal must be weighed against the risk of failing to uphold our obligations under the nuclear deal, especially as new legal language is interpreted and implemented. Experts reviewing the Senate legislation suggest it is likely to have modest, if any, benefit. Under such circumstances, why take the risk? At a minimum, as we have previously written, the legislation must be revised to minimize any risks to the deal.
But, of course, there is a larger question: Members of Congress considering legislating toughness on Iran should carefully consider the tools they are putting at the disposal of a president whose intentions remain unclear, some of whose advisers appear eager for a confrontation, and whose domestic politics may lead him to favor a diversionary foreign crisis. Indeed, President Trump, who already has lived up to the wildest—and darkest—predictions, and is enmeshed in a serious domestic political crisis of his own making, might well have learned from last month’s missile strike in Syria that nothing helps change the conversation so much as military escalation overseas. Bolstering this administration’s instinct to confront Iran—encouraged by leaders Trump meets on this first foreign trip—risks isolating the United States, not Iran, and replaces a stable equilibrium on Iran’s nuclear program with the renewed prospect of escalation. Congress should not play with matches.
It is important to keep our priorities straight. Under the nuclear deal, Iran has dismantled its centrifuges and heavy-water reactor and has committed never to build or acquire a nuclear weapon—with international inspectors deployed throughout Iran to ensure that remains the case. In the meantime, we face the urgent task of addressing Russia’s ongoing attempts to undermine democratic institutions here and in Europe. We also face a genuine nuclear crisis in North Korea, where sustained diplomacy and increased sanctions pressure could help address a direct threat to U.S. security. And we need to finish the fight against ISIS. With all these uncertainties—in Iranian politics, in the region and here at home—one thing that is certain is that the JCPOA is working to constrain Iran’s nuclear program. We should not jeopardize that source of stability—or risk an unnecessary military confrontation with Iran.
Authors: Antony J. Blinken, Jon Finer, Avril Haines, Philip Gordon, Colin Kahl, Robert Malley, Jeff Prescott, Ben Rhodes, Wendy Sherman.