Introduction and Recommendations
The Trump administration has adopted an aggressive Iran strategy. The United States seeks to achieve—via the application of maximum pressure—nothing short of a fundamental change to policies that have defined the Islamic Republic for decades, if not since its founding, and have been a constant source of tension with the United States. Although the U.S. decision to withdraw from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and re-impose sanctions on Iran has garnered most of the attention, the administration also is leveraging diplomatic, law enforcement, informational, and other tools to apply pressure across a range of issues: Iran’s missile program, support for terrorism, regional influence, and human rights record.
The authors of this report believe U.S. interests would have been better served by remaining in the nuclear deal and by retaining its small contingent of U.S. forces in Syria. However, these debates are now moot. Our policy recommendations are therefore tailored toward achieving U.S. objectives assuming there is no American return to the JCPOA, and that President Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Syria is implemented.
The stated U.S. goal is to force Iran back to the negotiating table for a comprehensive deal that addresses not just the nuclear and missile program, but the full array of Iran’s destabilizing activities. Although the administration has denied that it seeks regime change, its approach of pushing Iran to the breaking point suggests that collapse of the government is an acceptable, perhaps even desirable, outcome if Iran does not capitulate on U.S. terms.
Last May, following the U.S. withdrawal from the nuclear deal, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo laid out 12 core issues where the administration was seeking change from Iran. (For a detailed list of these demands, see Annex 1.) We do not believe that getting resolution on all of these issues—which are sources of longstanding tension between the United States and Iran—is realistic. But if the administration is serious about making progress on the biggest challenges facing U.S. Iran policy, it must be more than simply aggressive. It also will need a smart, pragmatic, and patient policy.
This report aims to provide guiding principles and concrete policy suggestions for how to make realistic progress in preventing Iran from building a nuclear weapon and countering its destabilizing behavior under the assumption that the United States does not return to the JCPOA and that it continues its current pressure campaign. The recommendations in this report seek to take advantage of U.S. strengths, but also recognize the limits of U.S. influence and, in some cases, political will. We offer suggestions for where the United States should seek near-term “wins” and where it can accept short-term “draws” while it pursues longer-term efforts to change Iranian policies. This is an approach that ultimately tries to perpetuate Iran’s compliance with the nuclear commitments in the JCPOA even as economic pressure increases. And it is an approach that more effectively pushes back against Iran’s activities in the Middle East without either dramatically increasing U.S. involvement or pulling back from the region.
If the administration is serious about making progress on the biggest challenges facing U.S. Iran policy, it must be more than simply aggressive. It also will need a smart, pragmatic, and patient policy.
Although this is an Iran strategy, it also identifies where U.S. Iran policy intersects with other critical national security priorities such as counterproliferation, maintaining the efficacy of sanctions, and counter-terrorism—and makes recommendations for how to navigate potential contradictions in U.S. policy.
We recommend the following 12 actions:
- Clarify through words and action that the U.S. administration’s strategy is not regime change but a “big for big” trade and reinforce the benefits to Iran of reaching a deal.
- Keep communications channels with Iran open while pursuing the goal of high-level talks.
- Foster an environment where Iran continues to adhere to the nuclear restrictions and transparency measures in the JCPOA.
- Develop a set of calibrated options to deter those Iranian nuclear activities that matter most and begin laying the groundwork for a realistic long-term solution to the Iranian nuclear challenge.
- Seek realistic limitations on Iran’s missile program and strengthen counter-proliferation efforts.
- Use sanctions policy, and other tools, to maximize pressure by highlighting Iran’s non-nuclear illicit activities.
- Mitigate the negative effects of unilateral U.S. sanctions toward Iran on the U.S. economy and preserve the foundation for effective sanctions on Iran over the long term.
- Work more closely with Arab partners to counter Iranian irregular warfare.
- In Syria, manage the withdrawal of U.S. forces in such a way that prioritizes preventing a reemergence of ISIS, but also tries to limit Iranian gains to the extent possible.
- Pursue a patient strategy in Lebanon to slowly undercut Hezbollah’s influence by building up viable alternatives.
- Demonstrate a clear, long-term commitment to Iraq.
- Offer the Saudis a clear choice in Yemen: greater U.S. involvement in exchange for a fundamental shift in how the war is conducted or an end to American support.
Read the full report here.
More from CNAS
ReportsToward a More Proliferated World?
U.S. policy must adapt unless Washington wants to be faced with a more proliferated world in the future....
By Eric Brewer, Ilan Goldenberg, Joseph Rodgers, Maxwell Simon & Kaleigh Thomas
CommentarySharper: The Future of U.S. Sanctions Policy
Sanctions are increasingly common in U.S. foreign policy and economic statecraft. But they are not a cure-all....
By Kaleigh Thomas, Cole Stevens & Chris Estep
CommentaryEurope Can Preserve the Iran Nuclear Deal Until November
Over the course of the Trump administration, Europe and Iran have managed to avert the collapse of the nuclear deal....
By Ellie Geranmayeh & Elisa Catalano Ewers
The international community may find Iran ready to consider a return to negotiations in 2021—regardless of the results in November....
By Ilan Goldenberg, Elisa Catalano Ewers & Kaleigh Thomas