The Need for a Serious New Strategy to Deal with Iran and the Gulf

By Anthony Cordesman

Early in the Trump Administration, the President signed Executive Orders calling for the development of a new strategy to deal with Iran and the defense of the Gulf. The White House announced what it said was a broad outline of such a new strategy for Iran on October 13, 2017—implying that it was going to go far beyond expected focus on failing to certify Iran's compliance with the Iran nuclear arms agreement with the UN—the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA.

The White House Outline of the New Strategy

In practice, however, the White House announcement was more of a broad indictment of Iran than a new U.S. strategy. Its press release said that the strategy had seven core elements:

  • The United States’ new Iran strategy focuses on neutralizing the Government of Iran’s destabilizing influence and constraining its aggression, particularly its support for terrorism and militants.
  • We will revitalize our traditional alliances and regional partnerships as bulwarks against Iranian subversion and restore a more stable balance of power in the region.
  • We will work to deny the Iranian regime—and especially the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)—funding for its malign activities, and oppose IRGC activities that extort the wealth of the Iranian people.
  • We will counter threats to the United States and our allies from ballistic missiles and other asymmetric weapons.
  • We will rally the international community to condemn the IRGC’s gross violations of human rights and its unjust detention of American citizens and other foreigners on specious charges.
  • Most importantly, we will deny the Iranian regime all paths to a nuclear weapon.

The White House summarized the need for this strategy as follows—criticizing both the Bush and Obama Administrations:

  • The previous Administration’s myopic focus on Iran’s nuclear program to the exclusion of the regime’s many other malign activities allowed Iran’s influence in the region to reach a high-water mark.
  • Over the last decade and a half, United States policy has also consistently prioritized the immediate threat of Sunni extremist organizations over the longer—term threat of Iranian-backed militancy.
  • In doing so, the United States has neglected Iran’s steady expansion of proxy forces and terrorist networks aimed at keeping its neighbors weak and unstable in hopes of dominating the greater Middle East. Recently, the Iranian regime has accelerated the seeding of these networks with increasingly destructive weapons as they try to establish a bridge from Iran to Lebanon and Syria.
  • The Trump Administration will not repeat these mistakes.
  • The Trump Administration’s Iran policy will address the totality of these threats from and malign activities by the Government of Iran and will seek to bring about a change in the Iranian’s regime’s behavior.
  • The Trump Administration will accomplish these objectives through a strategy that neutralizes and counters Iranian threats, particularly those posed by the IRGC.

The White House announcement did not, however, really set forth a strategy. The press release instead focused in general terms on describing two key aspects of the Iranian threat: Iran's nuclear program and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).

When it came to the Iranian Nuclear Program and the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the White House stated that,

  • The Iranian regime’s activities severely undercut whatever positive contributions to “regional and international peace and security” the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) sought to achieve.
  • Even with regard to JCPOA itself, the Iranian regime has displayed a disturbing pattern of behavior, seeking to exploit loopholes and test the international community’s resolve.
  • Iranian military leaders have stated publicly that they will refuse to allow International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspections of their military sites. These statements fly in the face of Iran’s commitments under JCPOA and the Additional Protocol. Not long ago these same organizations hid nuclear facilities on military sites.
  • This behavior cannot be tolerated; the deal must be strictly enforced, and the IAEA must fully utilize its inspection authorities.

When it came to IRGC, the White House announcement of the new strategy stated that:

  • The IRGC is Supreme Leader Khamenei’s primary tool and weapon in remaking Iran into a rogue state has been the hardline elements of the IRGC.
  • The IRGC’s stated purpose is to subvert the international order. The IRGC’s power and influence have grown over time, even as it has remained unaccountable to the Iranian people, answering only to Khamenei. It is hard to find a conflict or a suffering people in the Middle East that the IRGC’s tentacles do not touch.
  • Unaccountable to Iran’s elected leaders or its people, the IRGC has tried to gain control over large portions of Iran’s economy and choke off competition, all the while working to weaken and undermine Iran’s neighbors and perpetuate the chaos and instability in which it thrives.
  • The IRGC has armed Bashar al Assad and guided his butchering of his own people in Syria and has cynically condoned his use of chemical weapons.
  • The IRGC has sought to undermine the fight against ISIS with the influence of militant groups in Iraq under the IRGC's control.

In Yemen, the IRGC has attempted to use the Houthis as puppets to hide Iran’s role in using sophisticated missiles and explosive boats to attack innocent civilians in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, as well as to restrict freedom of navigation in the Red Sea.

  • The IRGC has even threatened terrorist attacks right here at home. Senior IRGC commanders plotted the murder of Saudi Arabia’s Ambassador to the United States, Adel Jubeir, on American soil in 2011. But for exceptional work by our law enforcement and intelligence officers to detect and disrupt this egregious act, the IRGC would have conducted this terrorist attack and assassination in our own capital and would have killed not only a Saudi Arabian diplomat, but a host of other innocent bystanders at a popular restaurant in Washington, D.C.
  • The IRGC, which repeatedly displays reckless hostility and disregard for the laws and norms that underpin the international order, threatens all nations and the global economy.
  • Our partners in the international community agree with us that the IRGC’s reckless behavior threatens international peace and security. They agree that the IRGC is fanning sectarianism and perpetuating regional conflict. They agree that the IRGC is engaged in corrupt economic practices that exploit the Iranian people and suppress internal dissent, human rights, and Iran’s economic prosperity.
  • For all these reasons, we want to work with our partners to constrain this dangerous organization, for the benefit of international peace and security, regional stability, and the Iranian people.

A Broad Indictment of the JCPOA is Not a Strategy

The good news is that the White House summary of the new strategy did look beyond the narrow issue of certifying the JCPOA, and this is critical to developing an effective U.S. policy for dealing with Iran. Politics and ideology are the natural enemies of strategy and common sense. The debate over the Iran nuclear arms agreement with the UN—the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA—had become a case in point.

Much of the debate over certifying the JCPOA had become so polarized that lost sight of the art of the possible and the need for a broader strategy to deal with Iran. On the one hand, opponents of the JCPOA exaggerated the flaws in an agreement that had achieved major short term benefits. On the other, it led far too many supporters of the agreement to ignore just how serious the range of challenges from Iran really are. The White House announcement of a new strategy for Iran avoided these extremes, but provided now specifics and criticized more for what it was not, than for the actual limits to its content.

The real world limits to the JCPOA are important. Serious critics of the JCPOA—like David Albright of ISIS—have raised serious issues about the current limits of the agreement, Iran's behavior, and the need to negotiate changes over time. The fact remains, however, that a valid U.S. strategy must also be based on the JCPOA's strengths and advantages. It must recognize that that all arms control agreements that have a serious impact on the military capabilities of potentially hostile powers only cover part of the problems between the powers that negotiate them. involve awkward compromises, and need to be renegotiated over time.

No international agreement made at a given point in time can ever bind the future. From the Washington Naval Arms Agreement through SALT/START, the ABM Treaty, and CFE—every major arms control agreement has either had to evolve or been overtaken by events, and every agreement has focused on limited aspects of the tensions and potential conflicts between states—not every aspect of the threat.

It was clear from the start that the JCPOA would require constant efforts at verification, on ongoing going dialogue and future negotiating efforts, and could only deal with one narrow—if critical—part of the differences between Iran, its neighbors, the U.S, and other outside powers. No one who seriously looked at the tensions involved could really believe that it would hold unless it became part of a broader improvement in Iran's relations with other states and Iran's regime came to focus more on Iran's people and development.

The advantage of the JCPOA that a new U.S. strategy should reflect is that the JCPOA did produce some key near—term benefits. The JCPOA only went into force in January 2016 after an "Implementation Day" when Iran had already had to give up many critical aspects of its nuclear program.

Iran had to modify its Arak heavy water reactor so it could not produce weapons grade plutonium, it had to accept tight controls on its stocks and use of heavy water and its other reactors. I t had to accept 15 years of limits on its spent fuel reprocessing and on its centrifuge enrichment capacity. It had to accept limits to its centrifuge production, research and development. It had to cease all uranium enrichment activity at its mountain facility a Fordow for 15 years.

Iran had to accept nationwide limits on all enrichment activity and on the size and level of enrichment of all its uranium holdings, as well as 25 years of limits on its uranium ore concentrates. It had to accept anew inspection protocol, accept more inspectors and new electronic seals, guarantee access for inspections, provide transparency in other areas like centrifuge manufacturing components. It had to address all of the areas of concern in past International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reports, and agree to not carry out a wide range of weapons design related research and test activities.

Moreover, rather than providing a flood of money for Iran—money that was technically already Iran's and was simply being blocked from Iran's use—its impact was offset by external factors that no one had fully considered during the negotiations. Iran faced a massive collapse in its petroleum export in come because of cuts in world prices that more than offset any benefits from the JCPOA. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, Iran's petroleum export revenues dropped from a pre-sanctions height of $92.8 billion in 2011, and a sanctions height of $86.4 billion in 2014, to only $36.2 billion in 2016, and seemed likely to remain below $55 billion in 2017. It still faces major economic stresses for a country of more than 82 million.

Iran does have some options to cheat—or edge around—the limits to the agreement. There is a real world need for the certification effort—although one that provides both classified and public in-depth assessments based on U.S. intelligence efforts to determine how well Iran complies that are independent from those of the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency, that are fully credible, and that make positive and potentially negotiable suggestions about improving the details of the agreement.

Making the certification effort a source of hardline politics and ideological extremism can do little more than discredit U.S. views and influence and given Iran a kind of justification for it actions. Moreover, the JCPOA at least defers the kind of crisis the U.S. now faces in dealing with North Korea, and the threat that other Gulf states will go nuclear. And, the U.S. and its allies have other priorities that pose much more immediate need for an effective U.S. strategy for Iran and the region.

Accusations Against theIranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) are Even Less of a Strategy

The litany of charges against the IRGC was largely accurate, but also largely irrelevant to providing any real indication of a new strategy. It did nothing to define a strategy for Iran or the region. it also ignored the fact that it has been all too clear over the last few years, that the U.S. needs a broader strategy that focuses on the following critical challenges:

  • Iran's ability to exploit the "game of thrones" between Arab states like Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE and factions, and take advantage of their self-inflicted wounds. It is hard to blame for taking advantage of the consistent self-destructiveness of the Arab world, its failure to check religious extremism, and the civil wars and conflicts in Arab states. Unless the U.S. can find ways of help its Arab strategic partners unite, Iran will continue to be able to exploit the fact that Arab unity is a strategic myth, and Arab alliances like Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) has become a hollow shell.
  • Iran's ability to exploit key fault lines, and political, sectarian, and ethnic divisions in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Bahrain, and Kuwait. there is a serious risk that the U.S has helped empower a defeat of ISIS in Syria and Iraq that will help Iran create a corridor of lasting strategic influence that will divides the Arab world from through Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon all the way to the Mediterranean. Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and Al Quds force, train and assist efforts, use of Iranian volunteers and ties to Lebanon's Hezbollah, shipments of arms, and funding of non-state actors all give it broad, strategic leverage to intervene in other states.
  • Iran is building up as mix of aircraft anti-ship missiles, naval forces, smart mines, submarines, and surface forces that poses a growing threat to all naval traffic in the Gulf.This includes Arab, U.S., British, and French naval forces in the Gulf, but also the shipping traffic critical to all Gulf economies, and the export of some 18.5 million barrels of oil per day and major liquid gas exports. These exports are critical to the global economy and major Asian exports to the U.S. The U.S. not only needs to ensure it can meet these threats but again deal with the self-destructive divisions between its Arab strategic partners.
  • Iran's ties to the Houthi and other elements in Yemen pose a growing potential threat to traffic through the Red Sea and Suez Canal. include the supply of land attack and anti-ship missiles and missile components, some of which are now being smuggled through Oman. Iran presents a potential threat to shipping through the Bab el Mandab at the entrance to the Red Sea, where an Iranian-dominated facility could threaten virtually all shipping through the Suez Canal, including some 3.9 million b/d worth of petroleum and other liquids (crude oil and refined products) and LNG — which accounted for 17% and 6% of total Suez cargoes. In addition, the EIA estimates that 1.6 million b/d of crude oil was transported through the Red Sea to the SUMED Pipeline that runs parallel to the Suez Canal to the Mediterranean Sea, and then loaded onto tankers for seaborne trade. Total oil flows via SUMED and the Suez Canal were 5.5 million b/d in 2016, 100,000 b/d more than in 2015.
  • Iran's nuclear weapons potential will increase with time if the JCPOA ceases to limit its options. Iran had moved to the breakout point in terms of the development of nuclear weapons before it agreed to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). It now has all of the technology needed to develop fission weapons, and possibly boosted weapons. Its nuclear agreement with the 5+1—the JCPOA — has led to the dismantling or modification of most of its major facilities. However, Iran can continue some key dual-use activities like centrifuge development, has shown it will continue its missile developments, and may be able to arm its missiles and aircraft with chemical and biological weapons.
  • Iran's ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, long-range artillery rockets, and unmanned aerial combat vehicles (UCAVs) are steadily improving their precision strike capability with conventional warheads, and will pose a growing threat to critical infrastructure and military facilities. It was clear throughout the JCPOA negotiations that Iran would not accept limits on its conventional missile capabilities, that it was seeking to develop precision strike capability, and that the Arab states would need integrated theater missile and air defense capabilities. One again, the U.S. faces growing divisions between them that limit both their ability to deal with a growing conventional threat and an y Iranian nuclear deployments.
  • Iran seems to be making significant gains in its relations with Russia, China, and Turkey that will expand its ability to acquire advanced arms and exploit the many divisions within the Arab world. The Russian sale of S300 advanced surface—to—air missiles may only be the first example of advanced arms transfer to Iran, and the JCPOA would eventually allow transfers of virtually any advanced weapon—or its related technologies—to Iran.
  • Iran exploits the serious strategic mistakes of the United States. The U.S. invasion of Iraq removed a dangerous dictator, but also left Iraq deeply divided, with limited military and security capability to provide either internal security or deter and contain. The U.S. military has developed good working relations with its Arab strategic partners, but broader U.S. policymaking has not provided convincing security guarantees, and has been erratic in dealing with crises in countries like Libya, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen.
  • Past U.S. efforts to aid Egypt or help create a stronger and more unified GCC have had mixed success at best, the GCC now risks becoming a near total failure, and the U.S. has no clear regional strategy for Iraq or the more fragile states in the region that extends beyond the defeat of ISIS. Despite U.S. success in helping Iraq defeat ISIS, it has no credible strategy designed to help Iraq recover from war and develop. More broadly, it has no credible strategy to help bring both security and civilstability to the MENA region and key strategic partners within it.
  • Russia is becoming a major force in the region while our European allies seem to lack any coherent set of U.S. efforts to tie them to a common strategy. Iran's links to a steadily more influential Russia present further challenges, as do Assad's links to Russia. At the same time, individual European countries—and other countries like Canada and Australia—have contributed forces to the fight against ISIS and terrorism in Iraq and other MENA states, but Europe has failed to take any meaningful cohesive action to deal with instability and conflict in any MENA state, and cuts in defense spending has steadily reduced to power projection capabilities of key European states like Britain and France.

Creating a tempest in a tirade over the JCPOA or the IRGC ignores the need for effective U.S. strategic planning and diplomacy in all of these areas—a need President Trump did recognize in his early Executive Order calling for such a strategy.

Focusing on the nuclear dimension and the IRGC in general terms singles out one narrow—and more deferrable—part of the Iranian threat. It makes no effort to offer Iran any kind of incentive or alternative to moderate its behavior. It also ignores the fact the U.S. cannot have an Iran strategy without a strategy to gain positive European support, unite America's Arab strategic partners, a strategy to deal with Iraq and Syria after the defeat of ISIS, and one that addresses the new challenges from Russia and Turkey.

Yes, the future of the JCPOA is important, but the current focus on it to the apparent exclusion of every other critical aspect of regional strategy is the last approach the U.S. should take to Iran and the region.