The Iran Hawks Are Circling

In the escalation in the Middle East, some U.S. lawmakers see an opportunity to kill the Obama-era nuclear deal once and for all.

The supreme-leader display seen at Baharestan Square in Tehran (Reuters)

Lashing out against the Trump administration’s tightening sanctions, Iran is accelerating its steps out of the nuclear deal, breaching another of its limits yesterday and vowing that more will come. In the U.S., congressional hawks are circling, feeling vindicated by Iran’s provocations, and are trying to seize the opportunity to kill the Obama-era nuclear deal once and for all.

Last week, the Republican Senators Ted Cruz, Tom Cotton, and Marco Rubio sent a letter to President Donald Trump, urging him to increase U.S. pressure even more on Iran. This was after Iran announced it had gone over a limit on its uranium stockpile. A week later, Iran went further, announcing yesterday that it was enriching uranium to a higher purity than what’s allowed under the nuclear deal.

That step puts it nowhere near enriching to weapons-grade level, but it came with a warning that the country was prepared to get even closer unless the European parties to the deal could offer some economic relief. The United States, which pulled out of the accord last year, has since imposed repeated rounds of harsh sanctions on the country—imperiling the framework of a pact premised on Iranian nuclear restraint in exchange for economic relief. So far, the Europeans haven’t been able to pick up the slack.

This summer has been one of provocation between Iran and the United States in the Middle East, even as both sides declare that they don’t want war. The U.S. has been building up its military presence in the region, while Iran has been accused of attacking international shipping in the Gulf of Oman and has shot down an American drone. So it’s an opportune moment for the voices that have condemned the nuclear deal since it was only a glimmer in Barack Obama’s eye. They argue Iran’s recent activities prove that the years of sanctions relief under Obama were a mistake, and only put Iran in a stronger position to harass America and its regional allies. The deal’s supporters, meanwhile, argue Trump’s sanctions campaign was what provoked the current crisis, and Iran had previously been observing the deal.

Now congressional hawks are pushing to topple two of the last remaining pillars of the deal: international civil nuclear cooperation with Iran, and relief from United Nations sanctions on certain nuclear-related technology transfers to Iran, as well as arms transfers to the country and ballistic-missile development. They are likely to succeed on the first—the second, more dramatic step could be substantially more difficult.

Iran’s economy is already being strangled by the Trump administration’s sanctions campaign, which various officials have described as a success while acknowledging that it is prompting Tehran to lash out. By Trump’s account, the ultimate goal of that campaign is to drive the Iranians back to the negotiating table for a better deal, but in the meantime, others are content to stress the regime financially. In a speech yesterday, National Security Adviser John Bolton, one of the architects of Trump’s Iran policy, told the Christians United for Israel group that the administration’s maximum-pressure campaign is working: “A little over a year ago, the nay-sayers predicted we couldn’t do it. Our unilateral sanctions, they said, would not be effective. Since then, the United States has levied the toughest-ever sanctions on the Iranian regime, and Iran’s economy is, to quote the Financial Times, ‘collapsing’ under their weight.”

Most dramatically, in May the administration banned countries from importing Iranian oil. Robert Malley, the chief nuclear negotiator for the Iran deal in the Obama administration who recently spoke with Iranian officials, told reporters during a conference call that the Iranians had been surprised by how quickly their oil exports had collapsed, and that the sanctions were biting much harder than they’d initially expected. Malley said that had helped change their calculus: from hunkering down to wait out the Trump administration and hope for a new president to reenter the nuclear deal, to maneuvering for negotiating leverage with regional provocations and steps to reconstitute their nuclear program.

But even that sanctions campaign hasn’t gone far enough for congressional hawks, who have now turned their focus from economic pressure to nuclear pressure.

The nuclear deal allows countries to assist Iran’s civilian nuclear program. Congressional hawks now want to sanction that activity too; so far, the U.S. has been issuing sanctions waivers to allow the work to continue. Christopher Ashley Ford, the assistant secretary of state for international security and nonproliferation, said in remarks last December, “We have carefully refrained from restoring sanctions in such a way as to obstruct international cooperation with Iran [on some projects] that provide Iran opportunities to benefit from nuclear technology in ways not raising proliferation risks.” The aim, he said, was to preserve the nuclear status quo until a better deal could be negotiated.

But some hawks have argued that the waivers in effect lend international legitimacy and participation to a program they view as illegitimate. Iran itself has fueled this argument through its recent incremental violations, which some hawks see as additional proof for their view that the civilian nuclear program is really a cover for seeking nuclear weapons. “The Iranians have now changed the nuclear status quo and are trying to create a new normal of minor violations that will enable their creep toward a nuclear weapon,” the letter from Cruz, Cotton, and Rubio says. “We urge you to end these waivers.”

Mark Dubowitz, the chief executive of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies who has helped lead opposition to the Iran deal in Washington, said that measure alone would not be enough to kill the deal. He also advocates ending the waivers, but not for that reason. “I agree with my friends who say we shouldn’t be providing this, because I don’t believe we should be helping Iran develop and expand its nuclear program,” he told me. If you assume, as Dubowitz and other Iran hawks do, that Iran intends to build a nuclear weapon, then that’s reason enough to end the waivers. (Iran denies seeking to build a weapon.)

What would really kill the deal, though, would be the reimposition of United Nations sanctions that were suspended under the deal. In their letter, the senators urge Trump to seek such a “snapback” through the United Nations Security Council, arguing that under the deal’s terms, any of the original participants can seek such sanctions unilaterally. (The deal’s supporters dispute that the United States can do this, because it left the deal.)

But it may not even come to that. European countries have so far limited their response to Iran’s escalations to strongly worded statements and diplomacy, some aimed at providing Iran the economic relief it’s demanding. The statements, though, are getting stronger, and there may come a point—whether it’s Iran enriching uranium to 20 percent purity rather than the nearly 5 percent it’s now achieved, or blocking nuclear inspectors, or some other provocation European powers have not yet publicly specified—when one of the European parties seeks a snapback. They are so far extremely reluctant to take that step.

That would be the end of the deal. The economic impact might be limited relative to America’s unilateral sanctions, but the political impact would be devastating for Iran.

The rationale for the U.S. taking action, according to one GOP aide familiar with the hawks’ strategy who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the issue, is that the snapback provision will only last for roughly another six years, at which point the option to reinstate those sanctions goes away. After that, if the U.S. wanted to punish Iran through the United Nations, it would again have to cobble together an international coalition—a potentially difficult proposition. “Unless Trump acts, the last realistic chance to keep international pressure on Iran will go away under his administration,” the aide said, especially if Trump doesn’t win another term.

And what if Trump does act? Would Iran continue its so far gradual and reversible provocations, or find itself with nothing to lose and break out toward a nuclear weapon? And how would Trump, who has both declared that Iran will never get a nuclear weapon and expressed distaste for military adventures in the Middle East, respond then?

That dynamic is unknowable, and in the meantime the Europeans are scrambling to find diplomatic ways out of the crisis, while many Democratic candidates have vowed that, if elected, they would reenter Obama’s original deal.

But the Iranian government is clearly tired of waiting for that possibility. By 2020, even if Trump is not reelected, there may be nothing left of the Iran deal to save.