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No One Can Tell if Trump Has an Iran Strategy. That's Reckless for America and for Israel

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A newspaper featuring a picture of U.S. President Donald Trump is seen in Tehran, Iran, October 14, 2017.
A newspaper featuring a picture of U.S. President Donald Trump is seen in Tehran, Iran, October 14, 2017.Credit: TIMA AGENCY/REUTERS

The intense reactions to President Trump’s decision not to certify Iran’s compliance with the nuclear agreement last week obscure a rather obvious fact: No one has any clue what is actually going to happen.

Unfortunately, that appears to include Trump himself.

Reactions were predictable from all corners.

Iran hawks in the United States cheered, including Republicans who voted against the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and have never accepted the logic of President Obama’s strategy to prioritize the nuclear issue and ensure Iran is kept at least one year from a breakout for over a decade.

Prime Minister Netanyahu, of course, praised Trump’s "courageous decision" as a chance to fix the "bad deal" and confront Iran’s regional aggression and sponsorship of terrorism.

Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies, who share Israel’s view of Iran as the preeminent regional threat, also praised Trump’s move.

Meanwhile, others members of the P5+1 nations who are parties to the deal were politely contemptuous of the President’s decision. 

The leaders of France, Germany, the UK, and the European Union distanced themselves from Trump’s strategy, making clear that they, while open to trying to constrain destabilizing Iranian actions, remain fully committed to the JCPOA. 

Russia and China also protested that Iran is upholding its obligations under the deal and there is no basis for decertification or withdrawal.

And Congressional Democrats, even some who had voted against the JCPOA, urged the President not to take any any action that would undermine the deal and vowed to block Congressional action that would do the same. Echoing former Israeli security officials with whom they have consulted, they argue that even if the deal should be strengthened and Iran must be confronted in other areas, there is no benefit to the United States to release Iran from the deal’s constraints on its nuclear program.

Two types of missiles and a portrait of the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei are displayed for the 37th anniversary of the 1980s Iran-Iraq war, Tehran, Iran, September 24, 2017.Credit: Vahid Salemi/AP

The bizarre thing is that none of those reacting really understand what will happen next, because Trump has been so unclear about his strategy. So people fill in the holes, projecting onto it their own wishes or fears.

Will Trump convince Congress in the next 60 days to add "trigger points" for reimposing nuclear sanctions, even while U.S. and Israeli intelligence agencies and international IAEA inspectors maintain that Iran is in compliance with its obligations? 

Republicans in Congress largely seem unenthusiastic about Trump dumping this decision in their lap. Most, like House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce, call for tough enforcement of the existing deal, not unilateral U.S. action (whether by Congress or the President) to that could violate it and cause Iran to pull out, with the U.S. taking much of the international blame.

Trump asserted that if Congress does not take such action, he will then terminate the agreement — essentially a "threat" to release Iran from its obligations under the deal.

The logic of doing so, when Iran is in compliance, is as yet unexplained. Perhaps he believes that such threats will convince Iran to agree to modifications of the agreement, such as lengthening the term of key prohibitions (the sunset provisions) on aspects of Iran’s nuclear program. 

But will he have the leverage to get Iran to agree to such terms? It seems highly unlikely when he has none of the international support and solidarity that were a defining feature of the P5+1 negotiations with Iran. 

There is no indication that the Trump Administration has engaged in any of the diplomatic consultations that usually precede such an important shift. Many key positions in the State Department remain vacant, and Trump demonstrates neither the inclination nor the know-how to get European, Russian, and Chinese leaders to join his strategy. If such efforts have been undertaken, they have clearly, thus far, been ineffective.

U.S. President Donald Trump walks from the Diplomatic Reception Room after speaking about the Iran nuclear deal at the White House in Washington, U.S., October 13, 2017.Credit: KEVIN LAMARQUE/REUTERS

So Trump’s cheering section is celebrating an announcement that scarcely qualifies as a strategy, much less one that has been well-thought through. It is entirely unclear if Congress will act, and if so, how; whether Trump himself is committed to go as far as killing the deal; whether key allies and P5+1 partners will play along; and whether Iran will be willing to agree. Other than that, the strategy is all set.

But Trump skeptics are also projecting to an extent.

What will happen in reality? Maybe very little. The sum total of Trump’s approach might well be to get tougher on Iran over ballistic missiles and support for terrorists (actions which are much easier to support), while leaving the JCPOA essentially in place and launching a longer-term diplomatic approach to extend its sunset provisions and strengthen inspection protocols. These are also worthy goals, and the only question is whether Trump will be trying to pursue them with reduced leverage because of his unilateral approach.

But the risk of miscalculation with such an uncoordinated strategy is high.  No wonder my former colleague, Richard Nephew, a brilliant diplomat and one of the U.S. negotiators with Iran during the Obama Administration, summed up the feeling of many skeptics, using Twitter to address supporters of Trump’s approach who claim he will improve on the JCPOA’s flaws: "That is what you have promised. We are owed a 'better deal'. That is what we - and certainly I - will hold you to. Good luck."

But those in the arena cannot afford to leave it to Trump.

Republican and Democratic Members of Congress must now use their own leverage with the Administration to try to steer this reckless action back onto safer ground that preserves the JCPOA and develops a real strategy to extend its benefits, strengthen it as needed, and maintain international - and not just regional - support for confronting Iran’s destabilizing activities.

Daniel B. Shapiro is a Distinguished Visiting Fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv. He served as U.S. Ambassador to Israel from July 2011 until the end of the Obama Administration.

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