September 16, 2015

After the Deal, Strengthen Our Iran Policy

By Michèle Flournoy and Richard Fontaine

With the president having secured the congressional votes necessary to ensure the Iran deal enters into force, our elected leaders should turn their attention to America’s broader strategy for Iran.  On its own, the nuclear pact will not deal with the many challenges Tehran’s behavior presents to the Middle East.  But a broader strategy that strengthens America’s approach to Iran could actually draw support from both deal backers and opponents – and perhaps even join Congress and the Obama administration in common cause.

A comprehensive policy to deal with Iran and its regional ambitions would include six elements:

Clarify the U.S. position on Iran.  The nuclear deal is best characterized as an arms control agreement designed to keep the most dangerous weapons out of the hands of a dangerous regime.  Administration officials have oscillated in their rhetoric, however, sometimes describing the pact as strengthening America’s ability to oppose Iranian designs, while at other times openly musing about the possibilities for a strategic rapprochement with Tehran.  Rhetoric suggesting that Washington aspires to a condominium with a moderating Iranian regime sends the wrong message to a region already on edge.  The administration should make clear that the nuclear deal aims to contain a regional threat, not to augur a strategic shift.

Strengthen deterrence.  While the president has said that the United States will not permit Iran to obtain a nuclear weapon, the administration has not spelled out the steps it would take if Tehran attempts to do so.  The president should make clear that, if Iran does in fact begin building a nuclear weapon, the United States will end those efforts, not only through the reimposition of sanctions but by employing military force if necessary. Keeping the military option explicitly on the table is critical to influencing Tehran’s future nuclear calculus.

Reassure U.S. partners.  The United States should make a major effort to reassure its regional partners who are nervous about an emboldened Iran by clarifying its intentions and bolstering our partners’ defenses.  This should include safeguarding Israel’s qualitative military edge, increasing aid to its rocket and missile defense programs, ensuring its access to cutting-edge U.S. defense technologies and weapons systems, and making a genuine effort to thaw the currently frosty relations with Jerusalem.  Washington should strengthen intelligence and cybersecurity cooperation across the region and assist the Gulf Cooperation Council nations in improving their air defenses and developing their own integrated missile defense system.

Reduce Iran’s regional influence.  Iran’s support for terrorist groups and proxies stretches from Syria and Gaza to Iraq and Yemen.  Washington should work with its partners to oppose Iran’s malign influence and destabilizing activities, including by stepping up U.S. interdiction of illicit weapons shipments to and from Iran and its proxies.  It should encourage a transition to a post-Assad regime in Syria by supporting opposition groups working to remove Iran’s client in Damascus, and it should help the government in Baghdad rid itself both of ISIS and the rationale for an Iranian military presence. 

Retain the sanctions lever.  Under the nuclear deal’s terms, the nuclear sanctions will expire over time, as will U.N. restrictions on Iran’s purchases of missiles and ballistic-missile technology.  The United States should make clear that it retains the right to impose its own additional sanctions on these non-nuclear transactions, as well as on those responsible for human rights violations and for support to terrorism.

Strengthen enforcement.  The administration should define the type and scale of nuclear violation that would draw the reimposition of sanctions on Iran and spell out the penalties for lesser violations that do not produce the “snap back” of U.N. sanctions.  Congress, for its part, should require the president to certify that verification standards are met, and it should increase funding for the IAEA to ensure that the agency can conduct robust monitoring and inspections.  The administration should also encourage Congress to establish a bipartisan group of members to monitor the agreement’s implementation.

The challenge posed to regional stability by Iran’s behavior requires real and immediate action.  That, in turn, means that America and its partners must deal with Tehran from a position of strength.  That strength would be undermined by a prolonged period in which the administration and congressional Democrats merely tout the deal’s upsides, while Republicans focus only on its drawbacks.

The vote counting may have reached its conclusion, but the debate over this new era of Iran policy is just beginning.  By working together to strengthen the American approach to Iran, Congress, and the administration may find, despite their deep disagreements, an opportunity to work together to protect and advance U.S. national security.

  • Michèle Flournoy

    Chief Executive Officer, CNAS

    Michèle Flournoy is Co-Founder and Chief Executive Officer of the Center for a New American Security (CNAS).  She served as the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy from Febr...

  • Richard Fontaine

    President

    Richard Fontaine is the President of the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). He served as a Senior Advisor and Senior Fellow at CNAS from 2009-2012 and previously as fo...