Within hours of learning that Bashar al-Assad launched another horrific chemical-weapons attack on his own people, President Trump tweeted there’d be a “big price to pay.” He should follow his instincts by holding Assad accountable, increasing his leverage over Vladimir Putin and breaking Iran’s strategic foothold in Syria.
The second was Obama’s decision to waive US sanctions on the Central Bank of Iran, which gave the Islamic Republic hundreds of billions of dollars to bolster the Assad regime both financially and militarily.
Trump now has an opportunity to reverse both mistakes. First and foremost, he should respond militarily to Assad’s crimes.
Obama’s failure to establish a US military deterrent emboldened Iran, North Korea, Russia and China to challenge America at every turn. Trump can ill afford to make the same mistake, particularly at a time when many question his resolve.
Last April, Trump responded to Assad’s chemical-weapons use by launching 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at a Syrian airbase used to stage an attack. Since then, Iran’s military presence in Syria has expanded. America needs more than a once-a-year cruise-missile strike to defend the full range of our national-security interests.
Trump should start with strikes against the Assad regime’s chemical-weapons delivery infrastructure. The president should also make clear he won’t withdraw from territories the US military and its allies liberated from ISIS in eastern Syria until all our national-security objectives are achieved.
These territories constitute 30 percent of Syria’s land mass and put America and our allies in control of 70-90 percent of its pre-war oil production. That’s the kind of leverage over Putin that Trump needs in order to negotiate an end-state in Syria that doesn’t include Assad, Iran or ISIS.
The president should then target the financial lifeblood of Iran’s strategic hold on Syria: the Central Bank of Iran. In January, Trump promised to stop waiving sanctions on the bank unless Europe helped him fix Obama’s nuclear deal. But the deal can never be truly fixed so long as Iran can use its central bank to spread evil outside its borders.
It’s time for Trump to signal his intention to allow the sanctions waiver to expire.
Rather than use the windfall of sanctions relief provided under the nuclear deal to stabilize its economy, Iran’s central bank doubled down on sponsoring terrorism. In addition to financing the regime’s illicit missile program, proxy war in Yemen and repression at home, the Central Bank of Iran underwrites Hezbollah and the Revolutionary Guard Corps in the war for Assad’s survival.
In effect, Assad’s use of chemical weapons is enabled if not directly subsidized by the bank.
If terrorism, missiles and domestic repression weren’t enough reasons for France, Germany and Britain to support the re-imposition of sanctions against the bank, perhaps the financing of crimes against humanity will be. When French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel visit the White House later this month to ask for exceptions to these sanctions, Trump should push back hard.
Making exceptions to our Iran sanctions isn’t like making exceptions to steel tariffs. Every waiver helps Iran build another missile to wipe Israel off the map. Every exception increases the budget for Iranian terrorism. Every carve-out brings us more Shia militias and the threat of an ISIS resurgence in Syria.
The pressure campaign Trump built against North Korea should be replicated against the Islamic Republic — and that means not giving out exceptions.
The timing is perfect for the re-imposition of sanctions on the bank. This weekend, Iran’s currency cratered to a new record low. Protests are continuing throughout the country. The signs of regime instability and vulnerability to outside pressure are growing. Now is the ideal time to hit Iran’s central bank and shake the regime to its core.
For Trump, Iran’s use of the nuclear deal to expand its sponsorship of terrorism, missile development and proliferation were already reason enough to bring back these sanctions. This weekend’s barbaric attack in Syria gives him one more.
Richard Goldberg is a senior adviser at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @rich_goldberg.
Follow the Foundation for Defense of Democracies on Twitter @FDD. FDD is a Washington-based nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.