Bill Owens: Iranian Gamble

May 17, 2018

President Trump withdrew on May 8, 2018 from what is known as the Iranian Nuclear Deal.  Our European allies lobbied furiously urging the US to stay in, while Israel urged the US to withdraw.  Secretary Mattis and senior members of the military indicated that they believed Iran was in compliance with the agreement, while the International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors indicated they were likely to buttress the conclusion of the Department of Defense by concluding that Iran is in compliance with the agreement, and that their inspectors would spot any attempt to build a weapon.

The goal of the agreement and presumably of Israel, is to take the strongest steps possible to ensure that the Iranians do not develop nuclear weapons.  A responsible end-game. 

Boris Johnson, the British Foreign Secretary, and not himself a bright light of rational thought, was in DC prior to May 8th lobbying for the US to stay in the Iranian Nuclear Deal.  Mr. Johnson, in my view, correctly pointed out that this deal is the best option to ensure Iran does not secure a nuclear capability with the “fewest disadvantages”. 

The Iranians have indicated that they will negotiate with the Europeans, the Russians and potentially the Chinese for purposes of maintaining the Iranian Nuclear Deal.  What do those steps actually mean?  President Trump’s administration intends to impose strict sanctions for the purpose of creating economic hardship for - the Iranian government and the Iranian people.

There are some indications that the Iranian people are already suffering as evidenced by the labor unrest which is widespread both geographically and by business sector.  The belief of the Iranian people, at least as reported in the media, is that any new sanctions will have a dramatic negative impact on their lives.  This may be what Mr. Trump desired with the hope of regime change.  There are rumblings in Iran that a military coup could follow any substantial unrest, so that if the Trump administration is attempting to achieve regime change that would result in a less strident government that seems a highly unlikely outcome and a poor strategic gamble. 

If the Iranians are successful in their negotiations with the Europeans, the Russians and the Chinese, then it is more than likely to have a negative impact on our multinational businesses who will be restricted from trading with the Iranians while their competitors will be able to freely do so.  This could have the opposite impact anticipated by the administration, in that it would lessen the bite of sanctions by the US, create a divide between the US and its allies, causing some of our allies to join with our enemies in a joint effort to keep Iran in check, and leave Iran with little, if any, need to negotiate with the US for the better deal Mr. Trump hopes to achieve.  Iran is not isolated in the same way as North Korea which has only one ally, China.

The great danger with the Trump administration is that it will go back to the game of who has the bigger button with a country that is in much better position to withstand Mr. Trump’s pressure. 

Military options are very limited, as I recall very clearly the discussions that went on while the Obama administration negotiated the Iranian Nuclear Deal with the only real option being the Bunker Buster Bomb, which many in the military felt would not destroy the Iran nuclear capability, although they felt it might disrupt it for a period of time, but only pushing it back months, not years or decades.  Will we consider additional air raids or missile strikes, a ground invasion, none of these have the likelihood of success in the sense that it will eliminate or destroy Iran’s nuclear capability. 

Unfortunately, the likely outcome is that sanctions will at best, force a regime change but to a more militaristic and conservative regime, not one moving toward democracy.  The other alternative is that Iran reaches agreements with Europe, China and Russia, leaving the US in its own cold war having lost, yet again, prestige in the world and any semblance of the ability to resolve difficult and complex problems.

Mr. Owens is a former member of Congress representing the New York 21st, a partner in Stafford Owens in Plattsburgh, NY and a Senior Advisor to Dentons to Washington, DC.

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