The Iran deal: what is to be done?

I’ll say this for Barack Obama, his two signature programs — Obamacare and the Iran deal — will be difficult for President Trump satisfactorily to dismantle. Yesterday, the Hudson Institute held a conference on “The Iran Deal Under Trump.”

Unlike some D.C. think tank events, a full range of views was on display: anti-deal conservatism, moderate deal skepticism, and pro-Iranian apologism.

Gary Samore of Harvard, who worked on arms control in the Obama administration but left before formal negotiations with Iran commenced, was the moderate (or maybe center-left) deal skeptic. He laid out the three options available to the Trump administration.

First, renege on the deal. Second, try to renegotiate. Third, abide by the deal.

Samore argued that if the U.S. reneges, Iran will restart its nuclear program in earnest. Other players (the P5+1) will not support us in reimposing sanctions.

In Samore’s view, successful renegotiation would also require support of the P5+1, and that support is unlikely unless these nations view the U.S. as acting in good faith. This means being willing to make concessions.

Samore described the third course, abiding by the deal, as the “safe option,” at least in theory. It would not preclude the U.S. from dealing with non-nuclear threats to the region posed by Iran. However, countering these threats will increase tension between the U.S. and Iran. The resulting escalation would likely undermine the deal.

Samore favors renegotiating. In exchange for Iranian concessions on the nuclear side and/or on terrorism, the U.S. should offer additional sanctions relief. We have leverage in this regard, he says, because the Iranian economy hasn’t received the expected boost from the deal.

This approach strikes me as quite misguided. Whatever the regime might promise in exchange for additional relief, the mullahs can’t be trusted to curb their ambitions.

Samore predicted that Trump won’t kill the deal, but may well let it die through 1,000 cuts. He says he never believed the deal would hold for ten years anyway.

Michael Pregent of the Hudson Institute argued, as we often have, that the deal is a one-sided affair that is working out great for Iran and its clients including Hezbollah. It has emboldened Iran and boosted terrorism.

However, Pregent doesn’t favor ripping the agreement up. Instead, the Trump administration should ignore the side agreements, enforce the rest of the deal, and enforce sanctions not inconsistent with the deal. He believes that if Iran walks away under these circumstances, the P5+1 members will bring it back.

The pro-Iranian apologist, Trita Parsi of the National Iranian American Council, claimed that the Middle East is irrelevant to the U.S. He recommended that the U.S. turn away from the region and focus on China.

According to Parsi, Iranian hegemony shouldn’t concern us because, unlike China, Iran can never seriously threaten the U.S. Parsi didn’t say whether he regards Russia, Iran’s potential partner in hegemony, as a serious threat to the U.S. However, he agreed that Russia is a threat to Europe.

Alternatively, if the U.S. remains a serious player in the Middle East, our focus should be on the Saudis. The mullahs couldn’t have said it better than Parsi did.

I agree with Pregent that the U.S. should hit Iran hard with sanctions as a response to its sponsorship of terrorism and other actions hostile to the U.S. If we cannot impose an effective sanctions regime within the constraints of the deal, we should ignore the constraints.

I lack Pregent’s confidence that the P5+1 will keep Iran from going forward with its nuclear program. To the extent Iran does so, a military option should be on the table. President Trump and Prime Minister Netanyahu should be discussing that option and its possible ramifications.

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