October 26, 2017

Contain, Enforce, and Engage

An Integrated U.S. Strategy to Address Iran’s Nuclear and Regional Challenges


The United States ended a thirty-five-year diplomatic vacuum with Tehran with one objective in mind: to stop it from developing a nuclear weapon.

The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) did precisely that. It cut off Iran’s pathways to a bomb, sharply constrained its nuclear program, and subjected it to an unprecedentedly strict monitoring and verification regime. The JCPOA is far from perfect and required coming to terms with painful realities and making difficult compromises—the inevitable outcome of tough, multilateral negotiations. Nevertheless, the JCPOA was successful in halting, and in some cases reversing, Iran’s progress toward a nuclear weapon, at least for the next decade. Iran today is much further away from a nuclear bomb, and the prospect of direct military conflict between the United States and Iran is forestalled. We are safer. Our partners in the region are safer. And the world is safer.

The JCPOA, essential as it is to retain and implement effectively, however, must not be the end of the diplomatic road with Iran. It is merely the beginning, the cornerstone of a broader, longer-term strategy to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon and to diminish and counter Iran’s threatening behavior—from its growing ballistic missile arsenal, to its dangerous use of regional proxies, to its human rights abuses at home.

This report outlines the key elements of such a strategy—a tough-minded approach to playing a strong American hand against an adversary that is formidable, but hardly ten feet tall. It calls on the United States to continue to enforce rigorous implementation of the nuclear agreement; to embed the agreement in a wider regional strategy deploying all elements of American power to limit Iran’s ability to meddle in the internal affairs of our regional partners or threaten Israel; and to engage Iran to avoid inadvertent escalation, make clear our profound concerns with Iran’s behavior at home and abroad, address the eventual sunset of JCPOA nuclear limits, and test opportunities to advance shared interests. This is all easier said than done. There will be no avoiding complicated tradeoffs. But it is an honest and realistic guide for U.S. policy today and in the difficult years ahead.

Any strategy’s success will depend in large measure on whether it can keep the burden of proof on Iran, demonstrating American good faith and seriousness of purpose and preventing Iran from painting the United States as the diplomatic outlier. U.S. threats to abrogate the deal or call for its renegotiation, reimposing nuclear-related sanctions, provocatively threatening military action, or otherwise failing to uphold America’s end of the bargain would leave the United States in a weaker, not stronger, position to deal with Iran and other looming crises, especially North Korea.

The Donald Trump administration’s decision to not certify to Congress that the JCPOA’s suspension of sanctions is appropriate and proportionate, and to seek to modify the deal, puts the deal on the path to failure. This occurs notwithstanding repeated affirmations by U.S. intelligence agencies and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that Iran continues to abide by its JCPOA commitments. Congress, the administration, and our P5+1 partners (the United States, China, Russia, France, Germany, and the UK) must now work together to avert a strategic “own goal” of historic proportions that would also undermine the prospects of dealing effectively with the other challenges presented by Iran. The strategy laid out in this report offers a road map that should appeal to leaders of both U.S. political parties, and all those serious about being tough on Iran and confident in America’s continued strength.

We are pleased and proud that our two institutions could come together to try to answer one of the most consequential foreign policy questions facing the United States. With our shared commitment to independent thinking and our experts’ combined brainpower and decades of experience in the policy trenches, we hope this report will help policymakers build on the achievements of the JCPOA and secure at least a semblance of order in a disordered Middle East.

William J. Burns President Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

Michèle A. Flournoy Chief Executive Officer Center for a New American Security

October 2017

Executive Summary

The fundamental premise of this report is that Iran represents a serious and difficult challenge to U.S. interests in the Middle East, requiring the United States to adopt a comprehensive and integrated strategy toward it, one employing a multitude of policy tools simultaneously and calibrated to one another. At its heart lies the combined employment of engagement and coercion. Past experience suggests that Iran will not accommodate U.S. interests unless subjected to skillful application of such a powerful combination of approaches.

What does this basic strategy mean for today’s policy toward Iran? On the nuclear front, it means the United States should not renege on the JCPOA without a demonstrably viable diplomatic alternative in place. While the JCPOA is imperfect, so long as Iran complies with it, it is still the best available mechanism both to contain Iran’s short- to medium-term nuclear ambitions and to free the United States to concentrate its energies on checking Iran’s very disconcerting regional actions. There is no realistic prospect of attaining a better agreement in the near term, which would make abandoning the JCPOA an exceptionally risky strategy. Congress will of course speak out on Iran policy, including the policy embodied in the JCPOA, and it may lay down parameters for U.S. policy toward Iran on nuclear and other issues. But it would be counterproductive to attempt to reopen the JCPOA or impose new conditions that would make it more difficult for the United States to implement its commitments under the deal. Such unilateral actions would make it more difficult for the United States to mobilize international pressure to obtain scrupulous implementation by Iran. Instead of trying to renegotiate the JCPOA now, the United States should vigorously implement the agreement, tackle key outstanding concerns, encourage the peaceful transformation of Iran’s nuclear program, and pursue multiple options to create enduring constraints on Iran’s nuclear activities.

In terms of Iran’s destabilizing activities in the Middle East, a combination of coercion and engagement has never been truly tried and should be. This means increasing the costs to Iran of its support for surrogates and proxies through a combination of direct military and intelligence activities aimed at exposing and countering Iranian actions, applying economic sanctions, and in some cases sending American military deployments designed to increase U.S. leverage and counter specific Iranian aims and actions. These steps must be complemented by a willingness to keep multiple channels of dialogue open. De-confliction mechanisms will be necessary to prevent unintended escalation. The United States should remain willing to discuss disputes with Iran—because ultimately Iran is a player in the Middle East, and will at a minimum have to acquiesce in order for political arrangements to be successful in stabilizing the region.

Finally, even as the United States pursues these policies, it should also expand other tools for engagement with Iran, most notably channels for diplomacy, people-to-people exchanges, and economic interaction. These steps should be pursued in concert with the elements outlined above—to promote U.S. interests in stability and security, and to ensure U.S. ability to communicate its intentions and positions. Such outreach should not strive to change the nature of the Iranian regime, and should not work against containing Iran’s nuclear program and nuclear-capable missile programs or countering its destabilizing regional policies. Diplomacy should leave open the opportunity to slowly improve U.S.-Iran relations with those in Iran who are calling for greater economic and political engagement.

To pursue this integrated strategy, this report recommends taking the following steps:

JCPOA Implementation—The United States can best serve its short- to medium-term strategic interests by sustaining the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action and vigorously employing its verification tools.

To do so, the United States should:

  • Lead efforts to resolve JCPOA ambiguities and disputes to the United States’ satisfaction.
  • Insist on full implementation of the Additional Protocol and judicious application of additional verification powers contained in the JCPOA.
  • Remain involved in Iran’s peaceful nuclear program.
  • Continue to meet U.S. sanctions-relief commitments.
  • Coordinate closely with the European Union (EU) and E3 partners (France, Germany, and the UK), and work energetically with Russia and China.
  • Fully participate in the Joint Commission.
  • Organize the State Department and the interagency process to implement the deal effectively.

Structural Nuclear Issues—The United States should explore multiple options now to constrain Iran’s nuclear activity after the JCPOA’s provisions begin to expire in 2023, rather than betting on renegotiation of the JCPOA or on any other single approach.

The United States should explore the following four options simultaneously:

  • Build a case around current and future challenges to implementation of the JCPOA and related United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolutions, in order to deny Iran the legitimacy to scale up its nuclear activities once the restrictions they impose begin to expire.
  • Extend and expand upon some of the JCPOA’s innovations and seek international support for a new global framework for enhancing the capacity to distinguish between peaceful and nonpeaceful nuclear energy activities.
  • Develop a regional Middle Eastern (or alternatively a subregional Gulf) regime for handling nuclear fuel-cycle activities.
  • Negotiate a follow-on agreement to the JCPOA, well in advance of the expiry of the JCPOA’s uranium enrichment clauses (probably even before Transition Day), which would commit Iran not to scale up its infrastructure for developing nuclear weapons capabilities.

Coercion—Focused and smart pressure, through military operations, intelligence activities, and targeted sanctions, can deter destabilizing Iranian initiatives, impose costly consequences in response to provocations, slow and complicate Iranian acquisition of the most destabilizing weapon systems, and directly counter Iranian activities in the region.

In particular, the United States should:

  • Closely monitor Iran’s nuclear program (in collaboration with friendly partners) to detect any indication of activity to acquire nuclear weapons or otherwise violate the JCPOA.
  • Work closely now with international counterparts to pre-plan for a coordinated, proportional response to an evident Iranian breach of the JCPOA.
  • Conduct contingency planning and exercises for operations to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.
  • Maintain a robust military presence in the Middle East.
  • Undermine Iranian asymmetric activities in the Middle East and around the world by publicizing them and using their exposure to embarrass and isolate Iran.
  • Dedicate more resources to identify and impede the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGC) economic role at home and abroad.
  • Aggressively identify, sanction, and counter Iranian missile procurement activities.
  • Take military steps to ensure that Iran-supported militias and Hezbollah are kept out of the Golan Heights and southwestern Syria.
  • Dedicate more resources to aggressively identify and sanction leaders, businesses, bankers, and facilitators aiding Hezbollah’s violent operations.
  • Limit a so-called land bridge from Iran to the Mediterranean by positioning U.S.-supported forces to retake most territory held by the self-proclaimed Islamic State in eastern Syria.
  • Prevent or limit a conventional Iranian military buildup in Syria.
  • Aggressively identify and sanction the individuals and entities Iran uses to support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
  • Maintain a small long-term military presence in Iraq at current force levels.
  • Posture military forces to clearly message Iran that any effort to disrupt the flow of trade through the Bab al-Mandeb strait will be met with firm U.S. resolve.
  • Engage in close military and intelligence collaboration with Israel and other U.S. allies in the region on checking the most disconcerting aspects of Iranian activity.
  • Support targeted maritime interdiction operations to intercept Iranian arms shipments.
  • Continue military assistance to regional Gulf partners.
  • Proceed with care in addressing evidence that any Iranian entity de-listed under the JCPOA is conducting sanctionable activity.

Engagement—U.S. engagement with Iran, complementing coercion, is essential to convey clear messages, de-conflict activities, de-escalate conflicts when merited, explore opportunities for diplomatic solutions to nuclear and regional issues, demonstrate reasonableness to U.S. partners and to pragmatic forces within Iran, and create incentives for Iran to limit its nuclear and regional activities of concern.

To do so, the United States should:

  • Communicate directly with Iranian officials.
  • Amplify and echo U.S. messages through indirect channels.
  • Expand people-to-people contact between Iranian youth, entrepreneurs, and civil society groups and their U.S. counterparts.
  • Keep an open dialogue on the JCPOA and regional challenges, especially with regard to the conflicts in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Afghanistan.
  • Pursue a more robust maritime de-confliction process.
  • Encourage the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to provide additional technical support and guidance on market reform to Iran.
  • Reinstate the U-turn license to allow foreign businesses to use U.S. banks to conduct dollar-denominated transactions relating to Iranian entities, as an incentive for further nuclear commitments or other Iranian concessions.
  • Consider limited options to allow direct U.S. corporate involvement in Iran in exchange for moderation of Iran’s nuclear, missile, and regional policies.
  • Encourage the respect of human rights in Iran.

The full report is available online.

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