“Beyond just violating the deal and unilaterally abandoning it, I think what the Trump administration is trying to do is make it impossible or next to impossible for a future Democratic administration to re-enter [the Iran nuclear deal],” said Ned Price, a former CIA and White House official now with National Security Action who was speaking on Iran policy on Wednesday. The Trump administration’s designation of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) is the “clearest example” yet, he said, of the White House seeking to tie the hands of a successor administration.
Price was speaking at a briefing hosted by the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) on Capitol Hill addressing the one-year anniversary of President Trump’s unilateral withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The panelists, which also included Jamal Abdi, President of NIAC; Suzanne DiMaggio, Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace; and Asieh Namdar, anchor and journalist for CGTN, argued that the next administration must return the U.S. to its JCPOA commitments.
On what the Trump administration is hoping to achieve, “it really depends on who you talk to in the administration and on what day,” DiMaggio said. “If the goal of U.S. policy is to get the Iranians back to the negotiating table, then the policy is a failure.” Similarly, if the goal is “the fulfillment of Secretary Pompeo’s 12 goals,” DiMaggio warned, “the Iranians read the 12 goals as regime change.” Rather than send signals that the U.S. is pursuing “flatout economic warfare” that could lead to the use of military force, DiMaggio advocated for more engagement. She warned that as the maximum pressure campaign goes on, “with each pressure point, we are making it impossible for the Iranians to even consider to come back to the table.”
Price added similar warnings, noting that “the fatal flaw in the administration’s policy is that coercive sanctions cannot have the intended effect when the ultimate goal is regime change in everything but name.” In contrast to the Obama administration, which had the backing of the international community in first enforcing sanctions and then negotiating a final nuclear agreement, he outlined how the Trump administration has pursued a unilateral approach. When asked how much of Trump’s latest policies since leaving the JCPOA, including designating the IRGC as a FTO and the Muslim Ban, can be undone, Price was optimistic. “I think if Donald Trump has taught us one thing, it is that you can do a lot, especially in the realm of foreign policy, as long as you explain yourself.”
Abdi, meanwhile, warned that Trump’s policies are undermining the constituency inside of Iran for negotiations. “I think what we are seeing inside of Iran is, at least among the political class, a real consolidation around a more hardline position,” Abdi said. He said the Trump administration’s maximum pressure campaign is intended to push Iran to leave the JCPOA. In such a case, Iran may lose the international community’s support and the moral high ground.
Noting that National Security Advisor John Bolton has been a long-time proponent of military force against Iran, Abdi warned “If Iran can be goaded to leave the nuclear deal, then I think you will see some of the things that John Bolton had been advocating for potentially to come to fruition.” The Trump administration’s latest escalations are alarming because they have begun to “institutionalize that diplomacy with Iran is off the table.” Abdi argued that the U.S. must uphold its international commitments by returning to compliance with the nuclear deal. “When Pompeo talks about Iran behaving as a normal country, well, the United States is not operating as a normal country, and typically the United States derived its power from the international order and the notion that diplomacy works.” The Trump administration’s current strategy is such a departure from those norms, he said, that “regime change” may have already occurred in the U.S.
The panelists unanimously agreed that the current U.S. strategy toward Iran is not only self defeating but dangerous, including by signaling to other nations that the U.S. is unreliable. Moreover, while Abdi emphasized that Iranians clearly recognize that their government is behind a lot of the suffering inside Iran, he warned that the U.S. has given “the Islamic Republic a pretty compelling narrative for how it is the U.S. to blame for economic challenges in Iran.”
Returning to the negotiating table with Iran would help restore faith in U.S. leadership, but with the current administration, the future remains uncertain, and there may eventually not be a table to return to. Abdi warned that there is work to be done to ensure that “regime change” in the United States is not permanent, “and that the United States returns to being a responsible actor that the U.S. derives so much influence and power from for so many years.”