President Trump’s threat on Friday to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal and reimpose economic sanctions on the Islamic Republic if it doesn’t renegotiate the agreement could cause big headaches for the United States.
While the president stopped short of withdrawing from the nuclear pact with Iran and other world powers, he threatened to withdraw from the deal in 120 days if Iran does not agree to renegotiate it. In particular, the president said he wants 10-year limits on Iranian nuclear development made permanent.
But Iran’s government said Saturday that it would refuse to renegotiate the deal and threatened to retaliate against the U.S. after President Trump imposed more limited sanctions not connected to the nuclear agreement against 14 Iranian individuals and entities.
Some Americans are applauding President Trump’s strong stance, particularly in light of recent anti-government protest demonstrations held in some 80 cities across Iran.
Many foreign policy hawks, like former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton, have called for regime change in Iran and advocated imposing additional economic sanctions to achieve that result and bolster the protesters. If President Trump pulls out of the nuclear deal in four months, these hawks will cheer.
But in reality, imposing harsh and broad economic sanctions on Iran would be a mistake and play right into the hands of the hardliners in Tehran who pose the greatest threat to the United States.
The right way to support the protesters and squeeze the Iranian regime is by helping the Iranian people communicate more freely with each other and the outside world.
If all this sounds a bit confusing, well … that’s understandable. Just about all Americans find the Iranian regime detestable. The Iranian government is virulently anti-American and anti-Israel, it provides military and financial support for Syrian dictator Bashar Assad and for terrorist groups, it denies its own people basic freedoms, and it places especially severe restrictions on women.
It’s been exhilarating to see Iranians marching in the streets, demonstrating against their corrupt government, and demanding change since the end of December. There’s no question that the United States should do whatever we can to help them.
OK – so then wouldn’t new economic sanctions on Iran be helpful? No, they would not.
In truth, there’s a right way and a wrong way to encourage the protesters in Iran – and the wrong way is by imposing additional crippling economic sanctions, especially if it’s an attempt to force quick regime change.
The recent protests, which started because of economic concerns and have expanded to a broader political rebuke of the Iranian government, exposed just how brittle and weak the regime is.
But applying more economic pressure on Iran from the outside is likely to stir up nationalism. This would help the regime, rather than encourage a pro-democratic revolt.
Just look at Russia, where President Vladimir Putin has skillfully used economic pressure from the West as a scapegoat to effectively rally his base and shore up his power. The Iranian government has been adept at doing this in the past, and it will jump at the chance to do it again.
To date, anti-government protesters in Iran have blamed skyrocketing prices of basic staples, including food and fuel, on their own leaders. But if the United States is responsible for driving the price up, Iranians will blame us instead – letting the ruling clerics off the hook.
In addition, applying pressure on Iran without the international community behind us makes successful regime change less likely. If America imposes additional economic sanctions against Iran we will be doing so alone, since it would be in breach of the nuclear agreement.
Few other countries would support such an approach – certainly not the Europeans. Russia and China show no interest in joining us either, as evident from their recent lack of support for even a strongly worded statement at the U.N. about the protests. The United States – not Iran – would become the international pariah.
What’s more, recall that before the nuclear deal was reached, the international community imposed some of the harshest economic sanctions in history against Iran. But even that wasn’t enough to bring down the regime. America acting alone is unlikely to yield a different result.
Finally, the United States has a terrible track record when it comes to imposing regime change in the Middle East. We failed to get the results we wanted in Iraq, Libya and Syria. There’s no reason to think we can do better in Iran.
For all these reasons, the Trump administration should take a different tack. The right way to support the protesters and squeeze the Iranian regime is by helping the Iranian people communicate more freely with each other and the outside world.
The United States government should try to improve the communication and social media tools available in Iran. It should work with technology companies to ensure they have the necessary exemptions from sanctions to do business in the country.
For example, when reporters asked what steps the Trump administration was taking to coordinate with Google so that it could provide its encrypted communication application called Signal in Iran, the State Department had no answer. This is just one of several tools the U.S. government could be deploying right now to help the protesters better communicate and organize.
More broadly, an increasingly open society, which allows more free-flow of information and goods, would undermine the closed theocracy the ruling clerics want to maintain in Iran. The sanctions relief promised in the nuclear agreement helped move the country in that direction. Squandering that opening now would only help the hardliners.
That’s why Congress should use this window to amend the law so that President Trump doesn’t have to decide every 120 days whether to waive economic sanctions for Iran, or decide every 90 days whether to certify the 2015 nuclear agreement.
The nuclear deal is working because it is keeping Iran from following in the footsteps of North Korea and going nuclear. Granted, the deal hasn’t turned Iran into a peace-loving, religiously pluralistic, progressive Jeffersonian democracy where all men and women are treated equally. But no one with any knowledge of the Iranian regime ever believed that would happen.
We should leave the Iran nuclear deal in place. Instead, Congress should look at individuals committing human rights violations and further sanction them, which would be in keeping with the nuclear agreement.
There is a right way and a wrong way to respond to the Iranian protests. Yes, Iran is a menace. Yes, we should all be glad to see this regime go. But additional economic sanctions will not get us that result we want. Let’s focus on the tools that will.