by BRET STEPHENS | The New York Times | April 5, 2019
The Foreign Policy Fiasco That Wasn’t
Withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal has paid dividends.
It’s been nearly a year since Donald Trump made the decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal, to loud cries that it would bring nothing but woe to the United States and our interests in the Middle East.
So far, the result has been closer to the opposite.
That much was further made clear thanks to excellent reporting this week by The Times’ Ben Hubbard: “Iran’s financial crisis, exacerbated by American sanctions,” he writes from Lebanon, “appears to be undermining its support for militant groups and political allies who bolster Iranian influence in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and elsewhere.”
Well, heavens to Betsy. When the Obama administration negotiated the nuclear deal, the president acknowledged that sanctions relief for Tehran would inevitably mean more money for groups like Hezbollah. But he also insisted it wouldn’t make much of a difference in terms of Iran’s capacity to make mischief in the Middle East.
Hubbard’s reporting suggests otherwise. Iran can no longer finance civilian projects or credit lines in Syria. Hezbollah fighters and Palestinian militants aren’t being paid, and their families are losing subsidized housing. Even Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has complained publicly about the effects of U.S. sanctions.
Most importantly, Iran has not used the U.S. withdrawal from the deal to restart its nuclear programs, despite its threats to do so. Part of this has to do with Tehran’s belief that it can wait Trump out, especially since Democrats like Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris have promised to re-enter the deal if elected.
But it also suggests an edge of fear in Tehran’s calculations. The U.S. can still impose a great deal more pain on the Islamic Republic if it chooses to do so. How so? Mark Dubowitz of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies told me this week that the sanctions needle now stands at around 6. With a nod to Spinal Tap’s Nigel Tufnel, he says, “We need to get to 11.”
Iran still exports about 1 million barrels of oil a day; the administration could bring it to zero by refusing to hand out sanctions waivers. The State Department could also designate the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps as a foreign terrorist organization, on a par with al-Qaida or Islamic State. Such a designation, Dubowitz says, would “make the entire Iranian economy radioactive” to foreign investment, since the IRGC is heavily involved in scores of Iranian businesses.
Even here Dubowitz is merely warming to his theme. Freeze Iran’s foreign exchange reserves? Doable. Expose the immense wealth of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and sanction the companies he and other leading regime figures control? Ditto. Unleash lawsuits against companies still doing business with Iran to recover billions of dollars in outstanding terrorism judgments against the country? That, too.
The point isn’t to punish Iran for punishment’s sake. It’s to create leverage for a better nuclear deal. In May, Mike Pompeo set a dozen parameters for an agreement, including “unqualified access” to UN nuclear inspectors, permanent cessation of uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing, the end of Iran’s ballistic-missile program, withdrawal of its forces from Syria, and the release of U.S. nationals held in its prisons.
Pompeo’s demands have been alternatively dismissed as silly or reckless by most of Washington’s foreign policy establishment. But it says something about the debasement of diplomatic expectations–both of what we have a right to demand and what we think we can achieve–that any of it should be controversial.
Non-nuclear states that sponsor terrorism and subscribe to millenarian ideologies should never have access to any part of the nuclear fuel cycle, ever. Any U.S. administration that abdicates the responsibility to do everything it can to prevent such access effectively renounces America’s status as a superpower as well.
Iran’s gross domestic product is roughly equivalent to that of the greater Boston area, with 17 times the population. The regime may be a force to be reckoned with in the Middle East. But it is hardly a giant on the world stage, immune to any form of economic pressure.
The Trump administration has succeeded in dramatically raising the costs to Iran for its sinister behavior, at no cost to the United States or our allies. That’s the definition of a foreign-policy achievement. It’s time to move the needle up again. The longer Hezbollah fighters go unpaid, or the Assad regime unaided, the better off the people of the Middle East will be
Bret Stephens is a New York Times columnist.