David Adesnik: To halt Iran’s aggression, Trump must do more to win support for global sanctions

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President Trump missed a golden opportunity to mobilize nations around the world against the grave danger posed by Iran when he spoke to the United Nations General Assembly Tuesday.

The president was right to condemn Iran’s recent devastating attack on a major Saudi Arabian oil facility and oil fields; its virulent anti-Semitism and threats to wipe Israel off the map; its support for terrorist forces; its continued efforts to develop nuclear weapons and long-range missiles; and its oppression of women and many human rights violations against all its people.

But President Trump should have gone beyond his critical comments. He should have called for a unified Security Council condemnation of Iran, along with severe economic and diplomatic sanctions against the Islamic Republic by all U.N. members that would stay in effect until Iran takes responsibility for the recent attacks and agrees to change its behavior.

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To be sure, Russia or China might have vetoed such a proposal, but their opposition would show that Europe cannot pretend the U.N. will be able to curb Iran’s malign conduct. And Russian and Chinese action to block tough worldwide sanctions against Iran might convince European leaders that they must apply sanctions of their own instead.

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The purpose of European sanctions would be more diplomatic than economic. American sanctions have already plunged Iran into a deep recession, combined with high inflation and a currency crisis. But Iran has resisted any compromise because Europe’s hesitation gives it hope.

Iran’s refusal to compromise almost worked. Just a few weeks ago, French President Emmanuel Macron proposed a $15 billion line of credit for Iran, and Trump seemed ready to go along.

Then-National Security Adviser John Bolton apparently warned Trump that rewarding Iran for its bad behavior was sure to backfire. Bolton was soon out of his job, but Iran quickly proved how right he was.

Only by insisting that Europe finally get serious about pressuring Iran can Trump put an end to the merry-go-round of well-meaning proposals that never actually push Iran to change.

In addition to global sanctions against Iran for its attack on Saudi Arabia, Trump should have called for the other nations to kill the deeply flawed deal designed to stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons and restore all previous sanctions, unless Iran returns to full compliance very soon – say within 60 days.

The nuclear deal is set up in a way that any one of the parties can trigger its collapse. Trump pulled the U.S. out of the deal but did not pull that trigger.

Again, the purpose of killing the deal would be more diplomatic than economic. For as long as the nuclear deal exists, there is a chance for Iran to get what it really wants, which is for Trump to lose the 2020 election and be replaced by a president who will revive the nuclear deal and lift all U.S. sanctions. Take that possibility off the table and Iran will have no way out of the grinding pressure it now faces.

While Trump’s U.N. speech might have been the best opportunity to point the way forward, the door is not closed. Iran’s actions – most recently its attack on Saudi Arabia – have brought the Middle East dangerously close to war. Trump needs to make it clear to our allies that the only way to protect the peace is to unite against the Iranian aggressor – not to be paralyzed by fear.

Earlier this month, Trump gave Iran a chance to come in from the cold. He suggested he was ready to meet with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and left open the possibility of easing some sanctions to encourage Iran to negotiate.

History shows that Iran makes real concessions only when it faces overwhelming and relentless pressure.

But instead of accepting Trump’s good-faith invitation, Iran launched its wave of attacks on Saudi Arabia’s oil fields. The damage cut Saudi oil production in half, sending oil prices almost 20 percent higher when markets opened.

Iran denied responsibility. Journalists challenged the Trump administration to present evidence of Iranian guilt. Foreign leaders stayed on the sidelines.

The old playbook seemed to be working for Iran. It was breaking all the rules, but no one seemed ready to hold it responsible. Then things started to change.

First, the price of oil started to come back down. Next, as Trump prepared to address the U.N., the leaders of France, Britain, and Germany said Iran was lying about the attack on Saudi oil fields.

“It is clear to us that Iran bears responsibility for this attack,” the leaders of the three nations said, in a statement. “There is no other plausible explanation.”

No less surprisingly, former Secretary of State John Kerry – who negotiated the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran – said Iran’s denials of its attack on Saudi Arabia were nonsense.

The leaders of France, Britain and Germany said they still want to rescue the 2015 nuclear deal, but started to add conditions that sounded a lot like the ones the Trump administration has been asking for.

“The time has come for Iran to accept negotiation on a long-term framework for its nuclear program,” the three European leaders said. That was their very polite way of saying it was a very big mistake for the nuclear deal to impose restrictions on Iran that would only last for around 10 years – even though Iran has been pursuing nuclear weapons for three decades.

The Europeans also said the nuclear deal has to address “regional security,” which means Iran should stop funding terrorist organizations like Hamas and Hezbollah and stop bankrolling the war crimes of Syrian dictator Bashar Assad. That is exactly what the U.S. has been saying, but critics at home and abroad insisted it was simply too much to ask from Iran.

Boris Johnson, the new British prime minister, went even further than his French and German counterparts. He criticized the many flaws of the nuclear deal, and then added: “I think there’s one guy who can do a better deal … and that is the president of the United States. I hope there will be a Trump deal.”

For all these reasons, the wind was clearly at President Trump’s back when he got up to address his fellow world leaders Tuesday morning. He did not mince words when it came to Iran.

“The regime’s record of death and destruction is known to us all,” Trump said. “They conduct ritual chants of ‘Death to America’ and traffic in monstrous anti-Semitism.”

“Hoping to free itself from sanctions, the regime has escalated its violent and unprovoked aggression,” Trump added, referring to the assault on Saudi Arabia, which followed multiple Iranian attacks this summer on targets in the Persian Gulf.

But what comes next?

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“All nations have a duty act. No responsible government should subsidize Iran’s bloodlust,” Trump told his fellow leaders. That much is true, but Trump should have used his address to be more specific about how others can add to the pressure on Iran.

Without prodding, European leaders are likely to return to their passivity on Iran. Speaking after Trump, President Macron said it is time for the U.S. and Iran to resume negotiations, so the next provocation does not lead to war.

Yet if Iran cannot admit what it did in Saudi Arabia and what it has done elsewhere, there is no point to negotiations.

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History shows that Iran makes real concessions only when it faces overwhelming and relentless pressure.

Trump should have expected the kind of bad advice he received from Macron, which is typical at the U.N. And he should have made clear that unless other nations make Iran pay a price for its aggression and threats, Iran will have no reason to change its behavior.

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