Trump Faces Big Iran Decisions Soon. Here's What He Should Do

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Michael O'Hanlon, director of foreign policy research at the Brookings Institution, provides insight.

The Iran deal is back. By law there are several important decisions President Trump must make in the next few days regarding the 2015 agreement, which lifted international economic sanctions on Iran in return for inspections and limits on nuclear facilities, in an effort to prevent the Islamic Republic from developing nuclear weapons.

Most crucially, the president must make a decision regarding whether to reimpose U.S. economic sanctions on Iran that were waived when the nuclear deal went into effect. He must also certify whether the deal is working.

Other nations that signed the agreement – Britain, Russia, France, China and Germany – also lifted economic sanctions on Iran, but President Trump has no power to reimpose those.

When President Trump refused to certify that the nuclear deal was in America’s national security interests in October, he recognized that the agreement was fundamentally flawed. That has not changed. Here is what has changed.

  • At the time he did not certify the nuclear deal last year, President Trump called on Congress to try to fix it in a way that addresses fundamental flaws. Congress is working on legislation to do that, and the State Department is working with international allies to see what more might be done.
  • Thousands of Iranians have risen up by staging protests against the corrupt and brutal Islamist regime and are attempting to replace it with a new government.
  • Iran has continued its military and financial support of Syrian dictator Bashar Assad and terrorist groups throughout the region, while showing no sign of complying with the spirit of the nuclear deal to de-escalate tensions with other nations. Iran continues to threaten and demonize the United States, Israel and several Arab nations.

The United States needs to pressure Iran to comply with the spirit of agreement, or else withdraw from the deal. To accomplish this goal, the Security Studies Group, where I serve as president, recommends that President Trump take these actions this month:

Continue the waiver of economic sanctions in the Iran deal. This is not about rewarding the Iranian regime, but about the president keeping his word. Iran has done nothing to earn this waiver and the president should make that clear in his announcement. But in order to allow Congress and the State Department the best opportunity to work on fixes for the deal, we should not now reimpose the full array of sanctions that were in place prior to the agreement. Continuing the waiver would give diplomats and legislators a fair shot at seeing if they can fix this deal.

Announce targeted sanctions on Iranian leaders . In order to get Iran to agree to the deal the Obama administration removed the EIKO business empire of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khameini from the sanctions list. This was a mistake, and should be rectified by sanctioning EIKO again now. EIKO allows Khameini to enrich himself grotesquely. It also allows him to influence others through lucrative contracts, corruption and graft. The Central Bank of Iran is the primary tool the regime uses to fund terrorism and the rest of its bad actions. The bank was also removed from the sanctions list in 2015 and should be sanctioned again now.

Refuse to certify the Iran deal.  Nothing has changed for the positive since President Trump refused to certify the deal in October, so he should again note the reasons and add the human rights abuses by the regime against protesters. He should also point out that the only ones who seem to have benefitted from the massive infusion of cash that President Obama sent Iran are the regime leaders and the terrorist groups they fund, such as Hezbollah and Hamas. The Iranian people have seen their economic fortunes get even worse.

These three steps make clear that the Iranian regime remains very much in defiance of the spirit and almost certainly the letter of the deal – but would allow President Trump to keep his promise to give legislators and diplomats a chance to try to fix the deal.

The effort to fix the deal may not succeed. At that point, stronger measures remain available. It is right to give Congress and the State Department the chance they were promised to try, and while that plays out to also ensure the Iranian regime feels the pressure it so rightly deserves.

Jim Hanson is President of Security Studies Group and served in US Army Special Forces.

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