In Syria, for example, Iran sought to prepare for the deal’s sunset by building up a conventional threat that could hold Tel Aviv hostage, just as North Korea has done with Seoul. That would take the military option for forestalling its nuclear program off the table for the U.S. and its allies. Tehran did so by deploying precise ballistic missiles, advanced anti-aircraft systems capable of threatening Israeli air traffic, stealth drones, and anti-ship missiles; training and deploying Shia infantry divisions recruited from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq; and building terror infrastructure for use against Israel in the Golan. And Iran acted with a sense of impunity because, it reasoned, no U.S. president would risk a nuclear arms-control agreement in order to push back on conventional activities.
President Trump’s withdrawal from the deal—the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)—leaves Israel to try to advance these same strategic objectives on a very different geopolitical landscape. It now faces four potential scenarios, based on how Iran may plausibly respond to the U.S. withdrawal.
It’s possible that the JCPOA will survive, with the Iranians remaining in the agreement and trying to minimize the effects of sanctions in an effort to retain ties with Europe, China, and Russia. Assuming that the United States would take no significant action beyond withdrawal, such as resurrecting crippling financial sanctions on Iran, this scenario would not differ dramatically from the period during which America was a party to the deal.
If Washington finds itself on the sidelines of an agreement between the P4+1 and Iran, though, it will have to find a different means of achieving its goals. Israel, the U.S., and Saudi Arabia could reach a “parallel agreement” on a plan of action focusing primarily on the issues that led Washington to withdraw from the deal, including both Iran’s harmful non-nuclear activities and the danger posed by the expiration of restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program.
Alternatively, perhaps Iran will concede. Rigorously enforced U.S. sanctions during a period of economic instability in Iran, along with the credible threat of a military strike, may bring Tehran back to the negotiating table to make a “better deal.” Israel should insist that any such agreement include permanent restrictions on Iran’s nuclear activity, allow for more intrusive nuclear inspections, and cover Iran’s malign non-nuclear activity in the region as well as its ballistic missile program. In his recent declaration regarding U.S. strategy vis-à-vis Iran, newly appointed Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared those objectives among the many that the U.S. intends to achieve. If Washington succeeds in striking an agreement according to the demands it has outlined, it would be a major success by all of Israel’s national-security parameters. Of course, it is also worth noting that despite the appeal of a more comprehensive deal, some White House officials appear to be holding out hope that U.S. pressure goes even further and pushes the Iranian regime to collapse.