Donald Trump has announced two important and long overdue changes to Iran policy. First, he committed to addressing the shortcomings of the Iran nuclear deal, without terminating it. Second, he called for a comprehensive strategy to counter Iranian aggression throughout the Middle East. More sanctions, however, will not be enough to accomplish either of these goals.
The president’s twin objectives of fixing the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), as the nuclear deal is known, and confronting Iran’s destabilizing regional behavior are closely connected. Barack Obama overlooked Tehran’s military expansion into Iraq and Syria, among other actions, for the purpose of winning Iranian cooperation on the nuclear issue. The result was not just a disastrous deal, but a diminished U.S. ability to accomplish any of its strategic objectives in the region.
To defend our vital interests in the Middle East and potentially improve a deeply flawed nuclear deal, the United States must first rebuild leverage by countering Tehran’s growing aggression and influence in the region. That cannot be accomplished overnight. Nor can it be done solely through the use of sanctions or the threat of withdrawal from the agreement.
Along with more sanctions, and before trying to fix or abandon the deal, policymakers must develop a comprehensive strategy, utilizing every element of American power, to rebuild and apply counter-pressure against the full spectrum of Iran’s destabilizing behaviors.
The Gemunder Center Iran Task Force at the Jewish Institute for National Security of America (JINSA), which we co-chair, recently detailed such a strategy, consisting of two elements.
First, restore credible U.S. military leverage against Iran. American officials should prepare – and make clear they are preparing – contingency plans to defend the United States and its allies from Iranian nuclear-capable missiles. The United States should be prepared to shoot down Iranian nuclear-capable ballistic missiles, including test launches, and respond forcefully to any Iranian harassment of U.S. naval vessels. To this end, it should deploy the Aegis missile defense system to the Persian Gulf (like we already do in Europe and East Asia).
It is also critical that the United States has a post-Islamic State strategy for Syria, including more assistance to our allies on the ground in holding territory hard-won from IS. This is necessary to prevent Iran, Hezbollah and their proxies from dictating that country’s future and consolidating a land bridge from Iran to Lebanon.
Second, Washington must take the lead in assembling a coherent regional coalition against Iran. This will require more concerted cooperation with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to develop robust missile defenses against Iran’s region-wide proliferation of advanced missiles.
The Trump administration and Congress must also augment the recent Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on defense aid to Israel by removing Obama-era caps on missile defense assistance. The MoU must be treated as the floor, not the ceiling, for bilateral cooperation against Iran’s and Hezbollah’s growing presence and capabilities on Israel’s northern borders. Similarly, we must ensure U.S. and Gulf air and maritime defenses can operate in close coordination as Iran’s military capabilities expand under the nuclear deal.
Trump is absolutely right to call the JCPOA “unacceptable” in its current form. By allowing restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program, ballistic missile program, and conventional arms purchases to expire over the next 15 years, the JCPOA actively grants Iran the right to become a de facto ICBM-armed, militarily modernized nuclear power.
We applaud the cooperation of the president and Congress to increase sanctions on Iran. But more needs to be done.
(Eric Edelman served as Under Secretary of Defense for Policy during President George H.W. Bush's second term in office. General (ret.) Charles Wald is former Deputy Commander of U.S. European Command. They co-chair JINSA’s Gemunder Center Iran Task Force.)