Following President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal – formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA – Mark Dubowitz responded to requests from members of various media outlets to help them make sense of the announcement and its ramifications. Here are the key points from a call hosted by The Israel Project. Former Ambassador to Israel Daniel Shapiro was another expert on the call.
Mark: “I’ve been working on Iran issues for 15 years. I supported a nuclear deal, I supported President Obama’s dual track strategy of engagement plus coercion.
But I became a critic of the Iran deal in 2013, of both the interim agreement and the final agreement because many of the superior deficiencies that we have been talking about for a couple of years now, including the sunset provisions, the lack of access to military sites, the failure to address the missile program, and advanced centrifuge R and D allowance that Iran can use to build an industrial size nuclear program.
I’ve always been deeply skeptical that you can actually deal with this issue in 10 years when Iran is much stronger, on the cusp of a breakout, their economy’s more powerful, and their regional presence is more dominant. I was a big believer that we had to address these issues today and not in 10 years’ time. I agree that we really had an opportunity here to strengthen the JCPOA, to fix some of these fundamental flaws, by reaching an agreement with the E-3 – that agreement was well on it’s way.
Most of the issues had been resolved, the supplemental text which I saw had very few remaining issues of negotiation. I always thought that fixing this, keeping the Europeans on board, remaining in the deal, and then putting maximum pressure against the Iranian regime using all instruments of American national power – as the president had articulated in his October speech, when he first rolled out the Iran strategy – was a better way to go.
And I also believed you could do exactly what you did today, which was impose sanctions on the Central Bank of Iran, not for nuclear reasons, but because the Central Bank of Iran is involved in financing Bashar al Assad’s slaughter in Syria, as well as the Revolutionary Guard Corps and the Quds Force.
So you really could have launched the maximum economic pressure campaign, stayed in the deal, fixed some of the fundamental flaws in the agreement, kept the Europeans on board, and then given the Iranians a painful choice between further pressure or coming back to the table. That was not the decision President Trump made. I think part of the reason is that he may never have been interested in a fix, he may have always been a nixer. He certainly brought John Bolton into one of the highest positions in the land, and John is a very well-known and clearly very influential nixer.
A little bit of backstory on this: I mentioned that the Europeans and Americans have come pretty close. There was one outstanding issue which revolved around the sunset provisions and how quickly you could automatically snap back nuclear sanctions if Iran were to lower its nuclear breakout time below one year.
There was still a gap on that and the Europeans had committed that they would seek those sanctions in the future if Iran were to lower its breakout time. I think unfortunately the experience of the E-3 in trying to get sanctions, 15 designations of the IRGC and other entities through the European Union over the past month was not very positive and certainly did not auger well for what the future would look like. The Italians ended up blocking that, so they failed to get 15 very minor designations through the European Union.
So, I think faced with that, Bolton and the president himself were deeply skeptical that the Europeans in the future would ever snap back the most powerful nuclear sanctions should Iran lower its breakout time. So just a bit of a backstory on the supplemental agreement.
But, nevertheless, I thought that was the way to go. But the president has decided that instead of fixing, he’s decided to nix a fix. The idea is that by putting maximum pressure on Iran, financial and other, you can create a situation where you can intensify the political and economic crisis that the regime is already under and really get a more comprehensive deal.
The Europeans are, as Dan said, a central player here, but the Europeans are really between what I call an Iranian rock and a “Trump-ian” hard place. The Iranians are already threatening that they’ll escalate their nuclear program unless the Europeans pour in tens of billions of dollars to save the Iranian economy.
On the other hand, if the Europeans do that, they’ll face the full might of U.S. secondary sanctions. Make no mistake, those secondary sanctions are incredibly powerful in forcing companies and banks to make a choice between a 19 trillion dollar U.S. market and 400 billion dollar Iranian market. Between the U.S. dollar and the Iranian riyal, most banks and companies are going to make the obvious choice, which is they’ll stay out of Iran. If they do that, the Europeans again are going to be in this dilemma of how do they actually keep the Iranians in the deal by giving them the economic goodies but at the same time not risking their company’s access to the U.S. market.
I think the escape hatch for the Europeans is a comprehensive deal. I’ll read a quote from Emmanuel Macron, the French President that came out two hours ago in response to the president’s speech. He said “we will work collectively on a broader framework covering nuclear activity, the post 2025 period, ballistic activity, and stability in the Mid-East, notably Syria, Yemen, and Iraqi.”
So, the French President is clearly understanding that he needs to take that escape hatch and try to get the Iranians back to the table. Clearly, this is a high-risk, potentially high-reward strategy. It is very “Trump-ian” in its makeup. It’s very much Trump’s art of the Deal, where “I’m going to exit these agreements” or “I’m going to threaten to exit these agreements unless I get better terms and if I get better terms I’ll come back in”. Again, high-risk, potentially high-reward.
It’s going to be very important that the president marry this with a maximum pressure campaign that is not just sanctions-based. Clearly, one of our closest allies, Israel, is already engaged in war with Iran.
It would obviously be a huge mistake if the president did what he said he was threatened to do, which was to withdraw U.S. troops in Syria, isolating and leaving the Israelis alone to fight the Iranians as well as creating a sense in Tehran that this presence is a paper tiger or perhaps better put, a Twitter tiger.
The history of Iranian escalation over 40 years is that the Iranians back down when they feel American steel and they push forward when they feel American mush. So the question is: will Trump be steel or will he be mush? And his moves in Syria are, I think, going to be very telling about how serious he is about a maximum pressure campaign, and that could have serious consequences for Israel, for the Jordanians, and others.
The Iranian people are on the streets. They’ve been on the streets actually for years, but those protests really intensified in December and January. They continue to this day.
Clearly, the majority of Iranians despise this regime. This regime has lost its legitimacy and there’s an opportunity to continue to use political, economic, diplomatic and other forms of warfare against this regime in a sort of “battle Rial” in order to continue to intensify the collapse of the currency, the hyperinflation, and all the things that Iranians are on the streets protesting about.
There is a risk of a rally around the flag, though I’m deeply skeptical of Iranians. I think if they’re going to rally around the flag, that it’s the flag of the Shah era – not the Islamic Republic flag. I think they’ve given up on this regime, but that remains to be seen, of course.
The most important thing I believe, is to continue to support those brave Iranians that are on the streets, targeting the corruption of the regime, the 200 billion dollar corporate conglomerate controlled by the Supreme Leader, which includes a number of these religious foundations that have all of the elite money, targeting human rights abuses, and the abuse of Iranian civil liberties, facilitating the use of telegram and other social media platforms, which are really fueling these protests in which the Iranian regime has closed down, targeting the Islamic Republic of Iran broadcasting, which has been airing forced confessions and is very much a tool of the regime and really focusing in on those kinds of sanctions, and not just economic in nature but are very much focused on human rights and corruption and some of the elements that speak to the brutal oppression of the regime. I’ll conclude with that and just say that I would have preferred to see a fix. Thank you.