Don’t End the Iran Deal, Fix It

By Michael Doran

Wall Street Journal

January 9, 2018

To waive or not to waive. President Trump again faces that question Thursday, a legislatively mandated deadline to waive or reimpose sanctions on Iran. The protests that have shaken the Islamic Republic over the past two weeks have invested this deadline with particular significance. They have raised the stakes and sharpened the debate.

On one side are those who advocate reimposing the sanctions—in effect scrapping the nuclear deal entirely. The arguments for this approach are familiar. The deal puts Iran on a glide path to a bomb. It has led America to turn a blind eye to Tehran’s malevolent behavior in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen. It has strengthened a regime that is brutally repressing dissent at home. It is no accident, the critics say, that the strongest supporters of the nuclear deal are also the ones arguing that U.S. leaders should stay silent about the protests. How can we continue to engage with a regime that is killing people in the streets?

Those who favor waiving the sanctions and engaging with the regime argue that the protests prove the nuclear deal did not strengthen the Islamic Republic, as critics claimed it would. On the contrary, it heightened the reform expectations of ordinary Iranians—expectations embodied by President Hassan Rouhani. The job of the West, therefore, is to help build up Mr. Rouhani the reformer against his putative rivals, the hard-liners.

The protesters themselves offered the most elegant refutation of this policy. Their chant—“Death to the dictator! Death to Rouhani!”—reminded us that the Iranian president is the front man for a brutal dictatorship, not a reformer.

Still, nullifying the deal would not end the conflict with Iran, and it would risk undercutting domestic and international support for the administration’s approach. Russia and China would inevitably come to the regime’s aid, and Tehran would seek to pressure the international community by redoubling its nuclear efforts. Moscow, Beijing and Tehran would all blame Mr. Trump who for the renewed conflict, and Europeans and congressional Democrats would agree.

Mr. Trump does, however, have a third alternative: fixing the deal. As he suggested in October, he and Congress could eliminate the nuclear deal’s sunset clauses—its most dangerous provisions—by making restrictions on the Iranian nuclear program permanent in U.S. law and requiring more robust inspections. Failure by the Iranians to comply with such a law would bring about an immediate snap-back of the most debilitating sanctions.

The Trump administration has been conducting quiet conversations with Capitol Hill about such an approach, and in recent weeks the possibility of reaching an agreement has improved markedly. It would be a mistake if Mr. Trump, merely in order to meet an arbitrary legislative deadline, were to cut off this option, which offers the possibility of forging a new bipartisan consensus on Iran.

The old consensus generated great benefits. Between 2006 and 2013, the sanctions, supported by Democrats and Republicans alike, succeeded in bringing enormous pressure to bear on the Islamic Republic. While the nuclear deal prevents the administration from reconstituting the sanctions regime as it existed then, it does not preclude new sanctions—not to mention other measures—designed to curb Iran’s ballistic-missiles programs, its human-rights abuses, and its malevolent behavior abroad. The first priority of the Trump administration should be to forge a new containment coalition.

To be sure, rebuilding a consensus is a 50% solution. But it is preferable to a maximalist solution enacted unilaterally. While consulting Capitol Hill, the Trump administration has also been sounding out the Europeans, who would likely support the envisioned fix to the nuclear deal.

Moreover, the 50% solution need not betray the protesters, as some are arguing. There are steps the administration can take to send a strong message of support for the brave men and women in the streets. Among them: imposing sanctions against individuals responsible for repressing the protests, putting a spotlight on the regime’s corrupt practices, and working with allies in Iraq, Syria and Yemen to disrupt the activities of the Republican Guards, the regime’s mainstay and a main target of the protesters’ anger.

Mr. Trump should play a long game. By signing a waiver on Thursday, the president would neither commit himself to nor foreclose any future course of action. Axing the deal might be momentarily satisfying, but it’s no substitute for long-term strategy.