US President Donald Trump’s speech on the shift in Iran policy last Friday was a welcome relief from the Obama administration’s apologetic and self-serving rhetoric, as well as its series of foreign policy steps leading up to Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which allowed for chaos in Syria, ignored as long as possible the fate of American prisoners in Iran and left the world, and the United States, more vulnerable to terrorism and ballistic missile attacks than ever before.
Trump condemned the extensive Iranian malfeasance in strong, unequivocal terms and vowed to move away from the policy of appeasement that only played into the hands of the ruthless regime that demands respect for its national sovereignty while contributing to violent uprisings and civil wars in a number of nations in the neighborhood.
It is a good first step, and psychologically important for both the US and its allies alike. Moral leadership is of the essence in a world increasingly plagued by a lack of clarity and courage. That said, and as Senator Ted Cruz has put it, all economic, diplomatic and if necessary, military options must be explored with regard to Iran.
The current shift in policy, while a promising beginning, is neither entirely new nor sufficient, and we should not be misled into believing that it will solve all problems. In reality, the White House’s designation of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps as a terrorist organization, crackdown on human rights abuses, and other steps delineated in the speech were all parts of the policy shift outlined in this summer’s sanctions package passed by Congress and signed into law by President Trump.
What is left unstated in the numerous analyses of the speech provided by the full spectrum of pundits and journalists is that the “new” policy is merely a commitment to reinforcing existing law. The lawmakers who came out with positive statements with regard to the new speech are quite familiar with the legal provisions. No doubt they want to be supportive of the executive decision to finally do the right thing, but the question as to why it has taken so long to utilize the authority provided by Congress and enforce the mandatory provisions outlined in the law signed in July remains open. For that reason, it is hard to view this shift as anything particularly radical.
Furthermore, the enforcement of the anti-IRGC provisions, while a necessary step for security is by no means sufficient. It would allow the killing or arrest of such figures as Qasem Soleimani, and perhaps a greater focus on cracking down on entities that fund IRGC companies.
However, the US acting in isolation against Iran, where many Western countries are already heavily invested, would be an economic drop in the ocean.
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And some of the worst violators of human rights may not be affiliated with IRGC. The prison wardens, guards, judges, doctors, and other non-military enablers of the regime remain beyond the reach of the law. And the non-IRGC intelligence agencies and military apparatus will continue to benefit from the sanctions relief and unfrozen assets provided by the terms of the JCPOA.
What’s worse, President Trump has asked Congress not to impose the new sanctions, which, as a public statement, will have unfavorable consequences for his own plan of actions. His comments signal that the administration has not yet recognized the full extent of the regime’s duplicity, providing it yet another opportunity to realign priorities and shift whatever illicit materials it may possess during an unspecified time period, while the US is cracking down on the IRGC, a step that Iran was already fully prepared for given the months of discussion and public statements in that regard. What’s missing from the new policy is an element of surprise vital to keeping the adversary off-balance. Congress recognizes the limitations of just focusing on terrorism, while ignoring other central concerns of the JCPOA.
Rep. Peter Roskam (R-Illinois) is already set to craft a new bill which would address this missing piece.
The bill would reimpose the original sanctions if Iran does not comply with the terms within six months: give access to inspects its military sites, stop all work on ballistic missiles. It would kill the rightfully maligned “sunset clauses.”
The trouble is, six months (providing the bill even passes, and passes quickly) is more than enough time for Iran to take further deceptive action. Time is the regime’s greatest friend and our worst enemy.
And for all we know, the military sites we have in mind are not even the sites where the bulk of illegal nuclear activity is taking place. The exiled Iranian People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran recently came out with a bold claim that this entire time, IRGC has been operating four new military sites where this work has been taking place. Whether or not this is “fake news,” the fact that the claim was made should be publicly acknowledged and discussed, and at the very least, investigation of such statements should be demanded. Yet, there was no mention of the likelihood of continuous nuclear proliferation in the new policy, with the brunt of the focus on the IRGC.
While we continue trying to placate the staunch supporters of the JCPOA, Iran is likely continuing to acquire the very capabilities JCPOA sought to prevent.
While we continue to focus our efforts on lists of terrorists, which will likely take many months to compile, and which will shift again and again as the clever IRGC members will suddenly leave the organization and to everyone’s surprise join up with other intelligence agencies or newly created organizations, the many non-IRGC terrorists, military personnel and civilian enforcers will continue to get away with murder. What we should be doing instead:
1. Reimpose sanctions immediately and lift them only after full inspection of all available military sites and investigation of suspected secret sites.
2. Create a set of sanctions that would focus less on particular organizational membership and more on the harmful/aggressive activity.
3. Engage in a much more efficient listing and enforcement of existing sanctions.
4. Penalize individuals and entities responsible for specific violations against US nationals, such as arbitrary detentions and imprisonment.
5. Reengage with our allies in bilateral and multilateral trade deals that would make their financial withdrawal from the risky and unsavory investments in Iran worth their while.
Unless we focus on Iran’s activity as a mutlifaceted problem that requires a holistic approach, the Islamic Republic will continue playing games, reaping the benefits of time extensions and breaks, while also growing increasingly stronger as a threat to our national security interests, and the well-being of our allies and the entire region.The author is a human rights and national security lawyer based in New York.
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