Iran’s many adversaries must agree a common strategy

Iran’s many adversaries must agree a common strategy

United States President Donald Trump must decide by May 12 whether to continue to waive economic sanctions against Iran — a call that has to be made every 120 days and that will ultimately determine the fate of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Each time we approach this point, there is speculation about the president’s intentions. This time it is more feverish than ever.

There have been reports that American, British, French and German officials (the US plus the EU3 in JCPOA terms) are engaged in intense negotiations to agree a new package of measures designed to meet Trump’s concerns about the deal without fracturing it. But there is also a new and perhaps more hawkish national security team in Washington, with John Bolton and Mike Pompeo replacing H.R. McMaster and Rex Tillerson as National Security Advisor and Secretary of State respectively. And recent events in Syria and Yemen have highlighted again the dangers of an expansionary Iranian role in the region and its apparently continued ability to provide a supportive environment (with Russia) for the use of chemical weapons, establish military bases, and develop and spread ballistic and naval missile technologies, which are used to threaten its neighbors and international shipping.

What should we make of all this?

The first step is to acknowledge the imperfections of the JCPOA. I highly recommend the 2016 Washington Quarterly account of the final negotiations by the former French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, one of the key participants. Among other things, he describes the skillful manipulation of some of the key actors by the Iranians — and the apparent willingness of those actors to be played. Jay Solomon’s “The Iran Wars” and Mark Landler’s “Alter Egos” provide further contextual detail of the evolving relationship between the US and Iran that conditioned the final shape of the deal.

In practice, it gave the Iranians a way to partially reintegrate, on their terms, into the global economy and in particular into global financial and energy networks in return for promises to abandon, freeze or suspend elements of their nuclear program for a specified number of years. It essentially bought the international community time. It also watered down existing UN restrictions on Iranian ballistic missile development. And it said nothing about Iran’s non-nuclear activities in the region, which most of its neighbors and indeed Western policymakers regarded as malign and destructive.

Could we have got a better deal? At various points before 2016, yes. Iran felt under huge pressure in 2003 and again when it was effectively denied access to the international banking system — through the blocking of SWIFT — after 2012. But it also exploited US policy failures in Iraq, the Obama administration’s determination to cut its losses in the region more widely, its apparent aim to secure a deal with Iran on almost any terms, and ambiguity among Washington’s regional partners about whether the nuclear deal should or should not address other issues of relevance to them.

The West put so much energy into JCPOA that it neglected Iran's malign and destructive non-nuclear activities.

Sir John Jenkins

The question has always been about how any nuclear deal fits into wider US, Western or Arab strategy in the Middle East. As far back as 2008, I remember remarking to British ministers that the ultimate issue was how we shaped, contained and deterred Iran’s expansionist ambitions over the long term: A nuclear deal was only one component of this. And the problem has long been that we put so much energy into securing such a deal that we collectively neglected Iran’s non-nuclear activities, which, in my view, represent the real threat to the stability of the region.

The problem now is that we still have no collective policy understanding of how we manage these threats. And the clock is ticking. Iran has not — as some wishful thinkers insisted in 2016 — used sanctions relief to improve the state of its domestic economy; something Iranians have been quick to notice and one reason why the rial is under such pressure at the moment. It has instead doubled down on Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Lebanon, in all of which its position has, if anything, improved since 2016. Meanwhile, Trump says he wants to withdraw US forces from the region. And there is no collective willingness so far to push back materially against the growing Iranian garrisoning of Syria; its transfer of weapons to the Houthis; its quiet but forceful cultivation of Iraqi and indeed Syrian Kurds; and the continued strengthening of its position in Iraq more generally, where it now has a far greater range of clients than in 2011, when I left in disgust after Nouri Al-Maliki, with Iranian support, had been allowed to hijack the 2010 elections.

The only regional state actors that are evidently doing something serious to push back against Iranian expansionism are Israel in southern Syria (where, as I have consistently said, war is coming — and it may already be here), and Saudi Arabia and the UAE in Yemen. But all three countries need help. On their own in separate theaters they will not be able to fully contain or constrain Iran, which operates across the greater Levant, into Central Asia and down through the Gulf and the Indian Ocean into the Red Sea. Iran also benefits from the truly global political, terror and criminal networks of Hezbollah, which operates throughout the Middle East, in West Africa, South America, Australia, Europe and into North America itself.

That is the real challenge, not the nuclear deal. The issue with the latter is how we use the time — effectively some 15 years from the point of signature — we have been given. In my view, any abrogation, abandonment or undermining of the deal would only serve Iranian goals. They would use it to drive wedges between the signatories — the US, the EU3, China and Russia — and to gain international sympathy. It would also have an impact on negotiations with North Korea.

The real policy challenge is to agree a common strategy of renewed pressure on and containment of Iran in areas where it matters. These include the rigorous enforcement of inspections and snap-back sanctions; denying Iran the ability to establish permanent forward bases in Syria; supporting the emergence after the May elections of a truly independent and capable government in Iraq, with the aim of ending corruption and sectarian mobilization; and reaching an agreement to end the war in Yemen that binds all the combatants into a genuinely national system of governance, addresses Southern grievances, constrains the Houthis, and excludes illegitimate Iranian activity. The strategy must also confront provocative Iranian activity in the Gulf and its support for subversion in Bahrain, and target those figures, many associated with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and Hezbollah, who act as the spearhead for most of these efforts.

This will require old-fashioned diplomacy, judicious use of military force, training and equipment, a willingness to establish and use escalation dominance (highly effective in the Gulf, as we saw in the 1980s), more explicit security guarantees, better intelligence coordination, a renewed effort to use targeted financial sanctions against those with clear links to terrorism, crime and weapons smuggling, and, above all, a willingness to convene, plan and coordinate in a sustained and resilient manner.

If we combined this with an effort to offer genuine reformists within Iran appropriately conditioned support for economic development and to communicate more effectively to the millions of Iranians who have shown by their protests their dissatisfaction with their government that a better way is on offer, then it would begin to look as if we had a plan.


  • Sir John Jenkins is a senior fellow at Policy Exchange. Until December 2017, he was Corresponding Director (Middle East) at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), based in Manama, Bahrain and was a Senior Fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs. He was the British ambassador to Saudi Arabia until January 2015.
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