The most illuminating moment of last week’s background briefing was when one of the officials said that “the problem with the deal was that it reduced our ability to pressure Iran,” repeating twice that the deal cordoned off sectors of the Iranian economy from sanctions. So abandoning the deal, they said, has given them wide-open running room on economic pressure.
Now, it’s fair to ask—what’s wrong with all of this? After all, the current Iranian regime is a repressive and abusive actor at home and a malign actor in the region, responsible for a great deal of chaos and death. Why not pressure them relentlessly, to impose costs at a minimum and spark change inside Iran at a maximum?
I agree that curbing and countering Iran’s regional behavior is a crucial priority for American policy. The Iran debate is not a quarrel over whether to challenge Islamic Republic’s negative influence in the region, but how. And I see a number of basic problems with the approach the administration is taking.
Above all, there is the abject folly of breaking the Iran deal when it was working as intended to achieve its objective: blocking Iran from getting a nuclear bomb. The end of the Iran deal means the end of our ability to enforce constraints on Iran’s nuclear program through means other than military coercion. We can’t expect that they will indefinitely uphold their side of the bargain when we’ve stopped upholding ours. They are likely to eventually move their program forward in order to gain leverage against us. So this strategy could easily generate a nuclear crisis over time, and a self-inflicted one at that.
This was especially unnecessary given that the deal did not preclude the U.S. and its allies from pursuing a more aggressive strategy to check Iran’s regional behavior—indeed, the Europeans had signaled their willingness to do just that. If you care about Iran’s behavior in the Middle East, killing the deal is a distraction at best. Now the world will have to return to worrying about a nuclear program that was previously under lock and key. The talk in Europe today is about Washington’s approach toward the nuclear deal, not Tehran’s approach toward the region.
But even setting aside the deal, the administration’s approach to Iran is not sound.
First, any policy that lacks a defined objective or clear endgame—that basically says, let’s keep raising the pressure and see what happens—runs the risk of leading to mistakes, bad choices, and escalation at times and places we can’t control. This is especially true where regime change is part of the equation. The notion that you can simply switch out an unsavory government in another country introduces a magical quality to strategic decision-making, leaving it less rigorous and reality-based and more prone to error. Proponents of regime change are constantly tempted to assess that the regime in question is “on the brink of collapse, if only we push just a little harder and do a little more.” This tendency can drive policy choices in dangerous and misguided directions, and already has in the case of Iran; along with removing Iran’s nuclear handcuffs, it makes military confrontation between the United States and Iran more likely. Indeed, some (though certainly not all) proponents of this approach are spoiling for just that.