Pushover or Push Beyond? Rebeccah Heinrichs on the US Withdrawal from Iran Deal
“Give peace a chance,” President Obama urged leading up to the final negotiations on the Iran nuclear deal. The Obama administration, very effectively staying on message, framed the choice as “Iran deal or war,” and those who opposed the deal were, therefore, warmongers.
But a new sheriff is in town, and three years after the deal was finalized, on May 8, 2018, President Trump withdrew the United States from the Iran deal. And today, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo laid out a new and very ambitious path forward in dealing with Iran that focuses on far more than its nuclear missile program.
The new strategy includes ramping up Iran’s economic isolation that was squandered in exchange for the deal, crushing its terrorist proxies, and supporting the Iranian people instead of the Iranian regime.
Major newspapers and former Obama administration officials, echoing the narratives leading up to the deal, characterized the withdrawal as a reckless decision that will lead to war, yet another example of President Trump’s isolating the United States, and a shameful example of America breaking her word.
Thankfully, the sky is not falling yet, we are not on the brink of war with Iran, the United States continues to strengthen old and new alliances, and besides, the president is under no obligation to remain in an agreement that did not serve America’s interest.
Here’s the crux: President Obama and President Trump have disparate views of the threats facing the United States and the role the US should assume in international affairs. How each of them views the Iran deal provides a clear outline of the differences.
It is impossible to accurately understand the whole purpose of the Iran deal without taking into account President Obama’s vision for Iran. President Obama announced in his famous 2009 speech in Prague:
We want Iran to take its rightful place in the community of nations, politically and economically. We will support Iran’s right to peaceful nuclear energy with rigorous inspections. That’s a path that the Islamic Republic can take. Or the government can choose increased isolation, international pressure, and a potential nuclear arms race in the region that will increase insecurity for all.
It simply isn’t true that Iran has a “rightful place in the community of nations.” No country is entitled to political acceptance or the benefit of trade with the United States or our allies. That is an earned privilege that at a minimum should include fighting rather than funding and fueling terrorism and proxy actors engaged in war crimes.
Requiring Iran to make a strategic shift, including an end to its support for terrorism and weapons proliferation, and releasing American hostages were not prerequisites for benefiting from international acceptance. For President Obama, the Iran deal was predicated on the belief that bringing Iran into the economic and political fold by relieving sanctions in exchange for restrictions on its nuclear weapons program would build on the momentum of what President Obama viewed as “moderate forces” in Iran and cause the Iranian regime to further moderate over time. But there are no moderates in the regime, none with real power, anyway. And ever since the deal was implemented, Iran has increased its malign activity throughout the region, including pouring billions into propping up Syria’s dictator, Bashar al-Assad.
Right out of the gate, the deal was bad because it didn’t require the regime to make a strategic shift away from its malign behavior before rewarding it by flooding it with cash. Secretary of State John Kerry even admitted that some of the money could be used by Iran to fund its terrorist activity. (Let us not forget, Iran is directly responsible for hundreds of American deaths and injuries in Iraq.)
Even if one could look past this obvious flaw, the deal also permitted Iran to continue enriching uranium, even if at lower levels, and pursue research and development to improve the efficiency of the enrichment process. This was a departure from the previous US position, which was that Iran had to completely suspend all enrichment activities. But Iran refused to include these in the deal, so the Obama administration conceded for the sake of concluding a deal—any deal. With this concession, it became crystal clear that the US position was not to end Iran’s nuclear program; rather, it was to delay its breakout time, or how long it would take for Iran to weaponize. President Obama said that the deal would buy the United States time and lengthen the breakout time from six to a mere 12 months, and that’s if Iran doesn’t cheat.
As a candidate, President Trump strongly and rightly criticized the Iranian regime and the Iran deal. Once in office, he urged diplomats to try to “fix” the deal. By May of this year, it was clear that while the Europeans had made progress in some areas to strengthen the deal, Iran would not make the necessary changes to reach a satisfactory one.
Once this became obvious, the sooner the United States withdrew from the deal the better so that the regime could not continue to prosper to the same degree. Rather than “giving peace a chance,” the deal had empowered the terrorist regime and enabled it to continue its malign activities with more cash.
Getting the Iran deal behind us now allows the Trump administration to implement a strategy to try to isolate the regime, support the Iranian people who desire reform, and rally international support along the way.
As revealed today by Secretary Pompeo, the new Trump strategy toward Iran entails the following:
- First, Iran must declare to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) a full account of the prior military dimensions of its nuclear program, and permanently and verifiably abandon such work in perpetuity.
- Second, Iran must stop uranium enrichment and never pursue plutonium reprocessing. This includes closing its heavy water reactor.
- Third, Iran must also provide the IAEA with unqualified access to all sites throughout the country.
- Fourth, Iran must end its proliferation of ballistic missiles and halt further launching or development of nuclear-capable missiles.
- Fifth, Iran must release all US citizens, as well as citizens of our partners and allies, detained on spurious charges or missing in Iran.
- Sixth, Iran must end support to Middle Eastern terrorist groups, including Lebanese Hezbollah, Hamas, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
- Seventh, Iran must respect the sovereignty of the Iraqi government and permit the disarming, demobilization, and reintegration of Shia militias.
- Eighth, Iran must also end its military support of the Houthi militia and work toward a peaceful political settlement in Yemen.
- Ninth, Iran must withdraw all forces under Iranian command from Syria.
- Tenth, Iran must end support of the Taliban and other terrorists in Afghanistan and the region, and cease harboring al-Qaeda.
- Eleventh, Iran must end the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Quds Force’s support for terrorists and militant partners.
- Twelfth, it must cease its threatening behavior against its neighbors—many of whom are US allies. This certainly includes its threats to destroy Israel and its firing of missiles in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). It also includes its threats to international shipping and destructive cyberattacks.
Diplomacy does not require the United States to be pushovers. And agreements and treaties in and of themselves are not good if they do not help the US government provide for the just care and security of its people. In reality, no deal is preferable to a bad one, as Obama officials said more than 20 times. The Iran deal was a bad deal, and President Trump was right to dump it.
Rebeccah L. Heinrichs, a contributing editor at Providence, is a fellow at Hudson Institute where she provides research and commentary on a variety of international security issues and specializes in deterrence and counter-proliferation. She is also the vice-chairman of the John Hay Initiative’s Counter-proliferation Working Group and the original manager of the House of Representatives Bi-partisan Missile Defense Caucus.
Photo Credit: US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo delivers a speech, “After the Deal: A New Iran Strategy”, at the Heritage Foundation, in Washington, DC, on May 21, 2018. State Department photo.