Beyond Sanctions – What Are America’s Options vis-à-vis Iran?
The Trump administration hit Iran with new sanctions last Friday following the test-firing of a medium-range ballistic missile; an action the White House says is in defiance of a U.N. resolution. Iran confirmed the launch but insisted it did not violate the nuclear deal because this missile is not capable of delivering a nuclear warhead.
That explanation didn’t satisfy the Trump Administration. “Iran’s continued support for terrorism and development of its ballistic missile program poses a threat to the region, to our partners worldwide, and to the United States,” said John E. Smith, acting director of the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control.
The sanctions targeted three networks comprising 13 people and a dozen entities including a group affiliated with the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps working with the Lebanese group Hezbollah. However, the White House said that none of these designations violate the Iran nuclear deal.
“Iran has a choice to make. We are going to continue to respond to their behavior in an ongoing way at an appropriate level to continue to pressure them to change their behavior,” a senior administration official told NBC News.
The actions have bipartisan support and a group of 20 senators calling for “full enforcement of existing sanctions and the imposition of additional sanctions on Iran for its ballistic missile program are necessary,” was recently sent to Trump.
Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tennessee, who co-authored the letter with Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Maryland, told reporters “they need to be put on notice.”
The Obama administration previously issued similar unilateral sanctions in response to “ballistic missile tests and Iran’s continued sponsoring of terrorist activities”.
The sanctions came two days after National Security Adviser Michael Flynn said — during a surprise appearance at the daily White House press briefing — that they were putting Iran “on notice.”
“The international community has been too tolerant of Iran’s bad behavior,” Flynn said in a statement on Friday. “The ritual of convening a United Nations Security Council in an emergency meeting and issuing a strong statement is not enough. The Trump Administration will no longer tolerate Iran’s provocations that threaten our interests.”
“The days of turning a blind eye to Iran’s hostile and belligerent actions toward the United States and the world community are over,” he added.
However, Senator Corker has noted that “it’s too early to talk about military options.”
“I do think, on the other hand, when they threaten with — when they threaten us in other ways,” he said. “Let’s move away from the nuclear agreement when they have their naval vessels threatening ours and doing things, they need to be aware that there’s a new day and we’re not putting up with the things they’ve been doing in the region.”
What Options Does the US Have?
The problem is that the US doesn’t have a lot of options. There hasn’t been a direct provocation, justifying military action. They can’t claim that the Iranian launch violates UN Security Council Resolution 2231 (which ratified the Iranian nuclear deal) because under its terms Iran’s missile program isn’t limited.
Thanks to the lifting of the sanctions, Iran now has several billion dollars in cash to tempt nations and international corporations. Several deals are in the pipeline and they may be impossible to stop.
Admittedly, Trump could stop the Boeing deal with Iran, but Airbus, the European aircraft manufacturer would step in to take the order for itself. Nor, would many nations, especially China, Russia, and France, agree to reimpose the sanctions.
The US could bar Iranian banks from clearing US dollar transactions. However, Iran has managed to circumvent these restrictions in the past by using gold and other currencies. In the end, such a move might do more damage to the dollar’s standing as the international reserve currency. In fact, China appears more than willing to step in and allow its Yuan to act as a currency for Iranian trade.
But, that doesn’t mean there are no options for the US. Trump could increase the military aid and weapons to the Saudis to escalate their war in Yemen aiming to defeat what is perceived as Iran’s allies the Houthis. In fact, it appears that Trump is ready to approve a $300 million sale of precision guided missiles to Saudi Arabia in order to prosecute that war. This includes “Paveway” guidance system to convert gravity bombs into smart bombs. The kingdom has reportedly been badly in need of a resupply since its campaign in Yemen kicked off two years ago.
However, the Saudis may be afraid of taking on Iran too directly and may want to get a better measure of Trump’s ability to stand by its allies.
The Trump Administration is also arming other GCC nations and already moved during its first days in office to approve roughly $1 billion in sales, including some $400 million in air-to-air missiles and helicopter parts for Kuwait and a $500 million-plus package that included Aerostat observation balloons for Saudi Arabia. They are also ready to sell 19, F-16 aircraft to Bahrain in order” to better counter the Iranian threat”.
“These are significant sales for key allies in the Gulf who are facing the threat from Iran and who can contribute to the fight against the Islamic State,” said an official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “Whereas the Obama administration held back on these, they’re now in the new administration’s court for a decision — and I would anticipate the decision will be to move forward.”
These sales are expected to sail through Congress.
Another option to counter Iran is cyberwarfare. The Stuxnet cyberattacks against Iran’s nuclear infrastructure appeared to slow Iran’s nuclear weapon development program. And, although Iran is undoubtedly better prepared this time, new methods of attacking Iran’s computer infrastructure could hurt Iran militarily and economically.
The downside is that Iran is more than willing and capable of using cyberwarfare to retaliate. In fact, there are reports that Iranians have hacked US government and infrastructure sites.
There is also the “Russia Card” that Trump can play. Although Russia and Iran have good relations today, over the centuries, there has been some geopolitical conflict over shared areas of interest. Although Russia is more than willing to cooperate with Iran to further its goals in the Middle East, it has no interest in seeing Iran becoming a regional power that can hamper Russian foreign policy goals in the area.
Putin is also aware that Iran is also the single strongest competitor to Russia for the European and Asian energy markets.
The US can curb Iranian regional power by cooperating more with Russia in Syria on the assumption that this would make President Assad more beholden to Russia and limit Iran’s influence in a post-civil war Syria.
Of course, the Russo-Iranian relationship is about more than shared policy goals. It’s also economic. Russia has been economically crippled by US and European economic sanctions and Iran offers a trading partner with money.
However, reducing Russo-Iranian trade is a complex issue. True, the US could unilaterally eliminate some economic sanctions against Russia, but many of the sanctions are being imposed by a united front of the US, NATO, and the European Union. Ending these sanctions would mean Trump would have to start mending relations with several European nations that have criticized Trump in the last few months. Could Trump improve his relations with France and Germany enough to make this work?
There is also the NATO issue. Russia has started moving forces close to several NATO nations and the West has responded by moving combat units close to the Russian border. Would NATO be willing to forget about these threats in order to repair relations with Russia? Would NATO nations be willing to forget Trump’s comments about the obsolete nature of NATO to work with Trump?
However, there are strong forces on both sides that are pushing for a rapprochement between Russia and the US. Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger is a chief informal foreign policy advisor for Trump and Kissinger’s advice to Trump is to seek to normalize US/Russian relations – diametrically opposed to the Obama/Clinton policies of confrontation with Russia.
It is also part of a broader strategy to tempt Russia towards closer relations with the US/EU while sacrificing its growing close relations with China – viewed by Trump, as the chief obstacle to the America’s dominant global leadership.
However, as a critical part of the deal, Russia is expected to sacrifice its budding alliance with Iran.
The West has in hand some very powerful means of persuasion, including increased Russian access to the huge European energy market, restored western financial credit, access to Western technology, and a return to the global decision-making table – which Russia badly wants.
Remember that three proposed Russian natural gas pipelines to Europe have been stalled since sanctions were imposed over Ukraine, leaving billions of dollars on the table.
Foreshadowing a possible move by Trump towards Russia was a news leak late last year in Germany’s Bild Zeitung, that Kissinger has drafted a plan to officially recognize Crimea as part of Russia and lift the Obama administration’s economic sanctions.
What this means for Russia, just now emerging from nearly two years of recession, is a possible return to prosperity, an offer that any national leader would find hard to resist
However, there is definitely one American ally willing to help the US. And, that is Israel. When Prime Minister Netanyahu visits Trump in the next few weeks, he may have two requests: deep-penetrating bombs that could threaten Iranian nuclear sites and more aid to improve their anti-ballistic missile system. In return, he may offer more assistance in tripping up the Iranian missile and nuclear programs.
Israel apparently was a critical partner in the Stuxnet virus and has some pro-Israeli assets in Iran that were involved in the assassination program against Iranian nuclear scientists. Trump may find these two covert Israeli assets very attractive.
At least five Iranian scientists were murdered by Israeli assets, most of them by bombs planted on their cars as they drove to work in the morning. However, Obama, who was in negotiations with Iran on the nuclear deal, pushed Netanyahu to stop the assassinations.
Israel might be very willing to reemploy these Mossad assets in Iran and join the US in aggressive covert operations to stop or hamper Iran’s missile and nuclear programs. Although assassinations may be too high profile, we can expect sabotage in Iran and covertly created problems in shipping high tech equipment into Iran.
Some US advocates of military options pointing to the fact “the hard reality is that countering Iran can’t rely upon old methods like economic sanctions and denial of nuclear and missile technology. They have been tried in the past and have failed”.
The weakness of the Iranian government is its radical nature. Its repression makes a revolution a strong possibility. Its radical Islamic theology prevents many of its potential geopolitical allies loath to side with them. A more successful strategy to isolate Iran would rely upon new tactics instead of what has failed in the past.
The Geostrategic Importance of the Black Sea Region: A Brief History
By Boris Toucas
Center for Strategic and International Studies
February 2, 2017
Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea in March 2014 refocused global attention on the strategic significance of a region that rests on the fault lines of two former empires—the Russian and Ottoman Empires—with involvement by European powers, such as Great Britain, France, and Germany. This analysis provides an overview of the region with a view that the past is prologue to the region’s future as restive powers reanimate empirical political and military strategies in a modern context.
NATO and the Delicate Balance of Deterrence
By Anthony H. Cordesman
Center for Strategic and International Studies
February 7, 2017
There are good reasons that the United States should ask more of several key NATO allies, should seek to modernize NATO, and should seek to expand NATO’s role in dealing with terrorism and Islamist extremism. At the same time, none of these goals justify the sort of U.S. efforts that could undermine the balance of deterrence between NATO and Russia, increase the risk of Russian adventures in Europe, or increase a risk to a return to the level of tension in the Cold War and increase the risk of a serious conflict.
NATO does need to change, and put a more systematic emphasis on forward deterrence—in nuclear, conventional and irregular/hybrid warfare terms. It also can do more to fight terrorism and violent Islamic extremism, and carry out more effective out-of-area actions. The goal, however, should be to increase NATO’s deterrent and mission capabilities, and not simply to shift more of the burden to Europe or meet an arbitrary goal of spending 2 percent of the national GDP.
Trump, the EU, and Iran Policy: Multiple Pathways Ahead
By Cornelius Adebahr
January 31, 2017
With U.S. President Donald Trump now in office, the campaign rhetoric that created anxiety and uncertainty around the globe is giving way to actual presidential policies. While candidate Trump did not elaborate much on his foreign policy agenda, he was very vocal about a few things: in addition to obliterating the self-proclaimed Islamic State and getting tough with China on trade, one of his highest priorities would be to “dismantle the disastrous deal with Iran.” The 2015 agreement that put an end to Tehran deceiving the world about its nuclear program is thus in real danger.
‘Putting Iran on Notice’ Means Restoring American Credibility
By Fred Fleitz
Center for Security Policy
February 5, 2017
After declaring that “Iran is on notice” for a recent ballistic-missile test and for missile attacks against a Saudi ship by Houthi rebels, and then announcing new U.S. sanctions against Iran on Friday, the Trump administration met with predicable criticism from Democrats and the foreign-policy establishment, who objected that the president was provoking Iran and risking war by threatening the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA). In fact, it was President Obama’s Iran policy that made the Middle East much less stable, as his appeasement of Iran and “leading from behind” approach emboldened Tehran and did little to stop it from pursuing nuclear weapons and building ballistic missiles to carry them. The Obama administration did absolutely nothing in response to Iran’s sponsorship of terrorism and its backing of the Houthi rebels in Yemen. Even worse, Obama officials during the nuclear talks gave Iran a green light to expand its role in Iraq and Syria. It’s no accident that Iran sent ground troops into Syria shortly after the JCPOA was announced.
Mr. Bannon Joins the National Security Council
By John R. Haines
Foreign Policy Research Institute
February 2, 2017
The Washington commentariat continues to roil over President Donald J. Trump’s naming of Chief Strategist and Senior Counselor Stephen K. Bannon to a seat on the National Security Council Principals Committee (NSC/PC). For the new president’s first National Security Directive is the object of much breathless criticism. Take this, for example: The director of national intelligence and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff no longer get automatic seats at the adults’ table — also known as the Principals Committee. Below the NSC, the Principals Committee is the most senior interagency body of the national security process. It’s the last stop before taking a major national-security decision to the president. While characterizing aspects of the presidential directive as historically anomalous, much commentary around it is cloaked in language that masks—often thinly—animus toward Mr. Bannon personally.
Can Trump Break Up the Russian-Iranian Alliance?
By Anna Borshchevskaya
February 6, 2017
Russia and Iran are currently engaged in unprecedented cooperation. Never in 500 years has the leadership of the two countries been so close. Despite deeply rooted mistrust and a long history as rivals, a number of common interests have brought Russia and Iran together. First among them is the mutual geostrategic goal of zero-sum opposition to the West, especially the United States. Russian-Iranian cooperation may be short-lived. But in the meantime it can inflict lasting damage to U.S. interests. It is going to be difficult to drive a wedge between Russia and Iran in the short-term, but there are certain things the new Trump administration could do to that end. To understand the close ties between Russia and Iran, it’s important to understand the complicated history between the two countries.