II The Iran Deal: the Dubowitz Maximum Pressure Thesis

Trump, along with Israel, attacked the JCPOA deal as insufficient and sought to destroy it. The more rational opposition to the re-entry (OR) camp found almost the same identical list of faults with the JCPOA as the re-entry camp (RC), but believe in continuing to intensify the pressure rather than re-engaging in the diplomatic route. The OR campaigned on withdrawing from the deal and devoted much of Trump’s term to fulfilling that pledge.

What is the consensus on what was wrong with the JCPOA? Both sides now recognize the numerous technical difficulties, the challenges to unwinding an array of sanctions, the new and unequivocal recognition of the interplay between the nuclear stream and the conventional threats, the impact of both American and Iranian domestic politics on making a deal, the importance of regional stakeholders, and, in general, the absence of a formula for reconciling all these competing tensions. Subjective strategic biases rather than any objective considerations seemed to determine whether one belonged to the RC (re-entry camp) or the OR (opposition to re=entry) group.

That may seem like divisiveness, but it represents real progress.

In opposition to the somewhat naïve diplomatic track followed by Obama – and which I personally supported – Trump mounted a clumsy no holds barred robust wall of sanctions of “maximum pressure” to punish the Islamic Republic and create an impenetrable wall preventing a resumption of diplomacy. The maximum pressure strategy embraced economic sanctions targeting both Iranian individuals and firms as well as non-Iranian businesses and individuals that engaged with the Iranians economically. Not only was the effort made to block Iranian access to the international financial system, the oil market and other economic opportunities, but included a diplomatic offensive against Iran. The result – the Iranians got their backs up, absorbed the punishment and resumed their progress towards the acquisition of nuclear weapons, effectively daring the United States to start a war against Iran. Success in economic and diplomatic punishment could not be translated into a political success.

Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo said that, “Our maximum pressure campaign isolated Iran diplomatically, militarily and economically. The last 48 months have proven that a foreign policy grounded on reality and our proudest tradition actually worked for the benefit of all of us.” But how could he make such a claim when Iran’s nuclear program advanced at great speed and brought the country closer to possessing a nuclear weapon? How could he make such a claim when Iran’s trouble- making in the region expanded and increased between 2018 and 2020? The Trumpists might praise Senator Tom Cotton and envoy Elliott Abrams as astute policy makers, but what did they actually accomplish?

Mark Dubowitz has argued against Biden resuming the diplomatic path to resurrect the Iran deal, but that does not seem a real prospect any time soon. Mark Dubowitz is the CEO of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a Washington thinktank. Mark is also an expert on Iran’s nuclear program as well as the country’s conventional threat. He also seems to be more sensitive to and more acutely aware of the existential threat Iran poses towards Israel. At the same time, instead of examining the initial actions of the Biden regime behind the president’s soothing words and the strategic thinking behind it, he seems intent on painting Biden as a reborn Neville Chamberlain setting out on a path of appeasement.

Biden does have virtually the same team as Obama. But it is not as if they have learned nothing over the last decade. Their writing is testimony that they have revised their positions. Biden is not simply offering more confidence building measures while Iran is in noncompliance, but, instead, talking softly while resuming the use of conventional military force against Iranian proxy assets. At the same time, while Trump used pressure to forestall the possibility of any deal whatsoever, Dubowitz would use those pressures to force Iran to cry uncle and re-enter a more comprehensive agreement on American terms.

Dubowitz acknowledged that maximum pressure failed to achieve any political gains under Trump except perhaps to let off steam and dissipate some of the discontent over and anger at Iran. In the meanwhile, Israel had carried the heavy lifting in the war against Iranian proxies, largely in Syria, for the country flew 2,000 bombing sorties into Syria during the Trump term. One of the earliest actions Biden undertook was to signal to Israel (and Iran) that the US was at Israel’s side in combatting the conventional threat against Israel, though the action was specifically linked to an attack on American assets in Iraq by Iranian militias. Resuming diplomacy did not mean restricting the use of military measures.

Instead of maximum diplomatic engagement without coercion (Obama) or maximum economic and diplomatic pressure without coercion, Biden has signalled his willingness to use both diplomacy (gentle) and military force. He has retreated to traditional American foreign policy – talk softly but carry a big stick. After all, neither a regime of maximum pressure nor one that relied strictly on diplomacy led any closer to the repressive regime being overthrown. It remains tightly entrenched. The value of the rial did collapse 80%. The economy suffered a 6% retreat in productivity. However, the regime seemed to dig in and grow more determined than ever. Opposition reappeared, but was no where sufficient to overturn the regime.

If a maximum pressure campaign had continued – there would still not have been an apocalyptic economic crisis, the total collapse of the rial or Iranians rallying in opposition sufficiently to overthrow a repressive government. The regime remains brutally repressive. Rather than the maximum pressure pushing the regime back to the negotiating table with its hands in the air, it continues willing to be immovable. At the same time, the Biden administration has not reversed the powerful and extensive sanctions of the Trump regime even as it signalled a willingness to do so. Maximum pressure will only be eased in concert with concessions from the other side. The big difference is that, while both the Obama and the Trump regimes were extremely wary of carrying and waving around a big stick, both relied on talk – quiet diplomacy on the part of Obama and loud bluster on behalf of Trump. But without the willingness to use the stick, the belligerent rhetoric was rebuffed.   

In pursuing a patient pathway to real success with the Iranians, the negotiations over time will only be successful if Iran’s nuclear program is reversed and its conventional warfare is not only contained but rolled back. The OP campaign entailed:

  1. Massive economic pressure to achieve Iranian economic collapse.
  2. Nuclear restraints on Iran effectively disappeared, pushing the regime into a choice between break out or sneak out.
  3. Missile programs remained off the table – even nuclear capable missiles.
  4. The stress on prioritizing the nuclear deal effectively remained.
  5. JCPOA did become unrepairable and was demonstrated as fatally flawed.
  6. At the same time, the gold standard of “NO ENRICHMENT” gave way to the Iranian standard of creeping enrichment.
  7. If Obama gave up the goal of achieving the gold standard at the beginning of negotiations, Trump’s non-negotiations effectively meant nuclear surrender as Iran enhanced the industrialization of its nuclear program.
  8. Both Obama and Trump ignored the advice of the US ME allies.

Iran has barred inspectors. Iran is now enriching uranium up to 50%. China has broken ranks and arranged secret deals to purchase Iranian oil. The Ayatollah has proven to be the best negotiator by extracting massive US concessions while eventually falling back on expanded enrichment in violation of an enrichment limit of 3.7% while putting the blame on the Americans. In the meanwhile, each of the sunset provisions moves closer and in only nine years time, there will be no restrictions. A military nuclear program will be legal and in accord with agreed upon international norms. The limitations on nuclear missiles are within two years of their expiration date. Fast centrifuges are back in production and ready for installation making it far easier to hide its program as well as protect it within a mountain. By relying on a zigzag alternating policy of diplomatic engagement and maximum pressure, the US has obtained the worst of both worlds. Very soon, Iran’s missile and nuclear paths will converge and Iran, a much larger country than Israel, will become the dominant regional military power, not Israel.

Instead of an increasingly dangerous nuclear limitation agreement without any limits on Iran’s conventional capabilities and actions, Trumpism led to enhancing the nuclear deal and without any conventional concessions. Iran has been able to enhance the use of its nuclear potential as an extortion device and a distraction as it expands its conventional military program and practice of regional meddling even as the Israelis continue its sabotage and cyber attacks on that nuclear program. Temporary and limited restraint has given way to unrestrained nuclear behaviour. In the meanwhile, Iran continues to have an estimated 150,000 missiles in Lebanon and 50,000 in Gaza under the control of its proxies while it exerts stealth in expanding its conventional military presence in Syria, eventually effectively surrounding Israel.  

The OR camp has established that even a longer, stronger, more sustainable JCPOA will be insufficient to restrain Iran’s ideological and on-the-ground expansionist goals, but lacks an effective alternate program to reign Iran in. Constraint, restraint, is insufficient as Iran’s Al-Quds forces increase their presence in both Yemen, Libya and Iraq. The eastern Shi’ite provinces of Saudi Arabia are in danger of becoming increasingly unstable. And Iran has reached its tentacles all the way out to Argentina to become the new icon for Islamic radicalism.  

How is the Iranian military adventurism AND its nuclear program both restrained and rolled back? That has to be the objective. How are the interests of Sunni Arab regimes and Israel to be integrated with American interests in combatting the Iranian threat? How can Israel’s covert and cyber activities against Iran be made part of a larger more coherent program of opposition while, at the same time, stretching out arms of welcome to Iran to rejoin the community of nations committed to international stability?

The reality is that the Abraham Accords, the explicit agreements between Israel and the UAE and Bahrain, as well as the implicit one with Saudi Arabia, introduced a sea change in the balancing act in the Middle East. Iran now faces a much more formidable and interwoven opposition. The Saudis have already started to explore with Russia and China developing their own nuclear capability. The danger of nuclear proliferation in the Middle East and the MAD (mutually assured destruction) doctrine has come closer along with the risks of calculation errors. Now that America has moved China to the front burner in foreign policy,.America should not allow Iran to be moved to the back burner, just shifted sideways to the other front, though smaller, burner.

A recent visit of UAE leaders to Yad Vashem in Israel and their sincere vow to educate their citizens in the reality and danger of repetition of the Holocaust is but one sign of the growth of greater cohesiveness in the opposition to Iran. Canada has a role to play, It can focus on Iranian human rights abuses and urge the appointment of a UN Special Rapporteur. After all, look at the large number of Canadians and residents of Canada who were shot down by a Republican Guard missile aimed at a civilian air carrier. The Canadians can support American and regional efforts to push back against Iran, designate Al-Quds as a terrorist organization and identify elements of the regime for ostracism.

Canada can help move the domestic debate away from partisanship towards a more coherent and achievable strategy. Canadians can help reinvigorate the Iranian diaspora opposition and protect its members against assassinations. At the same time, Canada can extend a helping hand to the more moderate elements in Iran competing in the electoral process.

Albert B. Wolf,. an associate fellow at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, has written (23 February 2021) on the openings available in the 2021 Iranian presidential elections. and the prospects for succession in turning up new leaders, new policies and new initiatives that do not destabilize the region further but offer a different creative pathway forward for Iran. The June election results will determine the successor to President Hassan Rouhani. Until that leadership is selected, the direction of Iranian policy will remain unclear. It is to Canada’s advantage, as well as that of the US and its regional allies, to do what it can to promote a moderate leadership. Will Majlis speaker Muhammad Baqer Qalibaf or former defense minister Hossein Dehghan be a successor to Rouhani? We do not know. Until then, the US supported by its allies, should pursue a policy of conventional containment while eagerly insisting on a readiness to return to an effective nuclear agreement but without expecting any substantive negotiations, let alone agreement, before June.

The US can agree to participate in

EU-brokered talks, but not simply to return to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. The Iranian government spokesman, Ali Rabiei, confirmed that Iran was “looking into the European side’s proposal of an informal meeting for a dialogue” but then Rouhani rejected any resumption of a dialogue until sanctions were lifted. To do otherwise would have opened him up to a tsunami of criticism from the Iranian hawks and weakened the so-called moderates. Dialogue encourages moderation and should be promoted.

In the meanwhile, Iran as a signatory to the non-proliferation agreement should be pushed to comply with the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) demand to account for its undeclared nuclear material. Iran now has 14 times the limit established by the 4-year-old Joint Comprehensive Plan Of Action (JCPOA).. Tehran abandoned a snap-inspections regime and reduced transparency, thereby subverting the JCPOA. The rhetoric escalated. Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei vowed “not to back down on the nuclear issue.” He floated the possibility of escalating uranium enrichment to 60 percent, far above the 3.67-percent limit in the JCPOA and three times the 20 percent announced by Iran in January.

The explanation: Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif noted that the recent law passed by the hard-line parliament effective 13 February barred Iran from sharing surveillance footage of its nuclear facilities with the IAEA. Complicating international diplomacy has been the domestic political tensions within Iran.

While over 20 former senior Israeli military and intelligence officials support the US resurrection of an Iran nuclear deal, and while Bibi and his supporters ”welcome the American initiative to bring Iran into compliance,” that approval is conditional on requiring “Iran to fully comply with its obligations under UN Security Council resolution 2231 on the development of missiles and the IAEA inspections agreements.” Israel now supports a “new, long-term agreement that will address the loopholes and weaknesses discovered in the previous deal.”

The question now is how to achieve this revised objective.


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