Democrats are talking about re-entering the 2015 Iran nuclear deal if they defeat President Trump next year. At least three challengers—Sens. Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren say they’ll do so, and the Democratic National Committee passed a resolution in February calling for a return to the agreement.
But the deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, is about to get sweeter for Tehran. Key restrictions on Iran’s nuclear and missile programs and access to heavy weaponry begin to lapse in 2020, when the United Nations conventional-arms embargo ends. By 2023 the U.N. missile embargo also disappears. Also in 2023 Tehran can begin installing advanced centrifuges, which lower the breakout time for a bomb. Because these machines are more efficient, Iran requires a smaller number to produce weapons-grade uranium and the effort is easier to hide. Even more restrictions vanish in 2025-30, as Iran will be permitted to expand its enrichment and plutonium-reprocessing capabilities, essential for the production of atomic weapons.
If the U.S. re-enters the deal in 2021, it will provide enormous sanctions relief to an increasingly aggressive adversary. Proponents of the JCPOA argued in 2015 that the deal might buy some time for the “moderate” President Hassan Rouhani to achieve reforms. Iran has only become more hostile since Mr. Rouhani’s election in 2013, and his presidency ends in 2021.
In response to these realities, the Trump administration has waged a pressure campaign to hasten the regime’s collapse or at least force it to agree to a comprehensive deal addressing nuclear and nonnuclear threats. So far Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader, has rejected new negotiations. And why not? With Democratic candidates signaling a no-conditions return to the JCPOA, it seems sensible to wait for a more flexible American president.
There’s plenty more the Trump administration can do. The U.S. could combine economic coercion, including driving Iranian oil exports to zero (as administration officials have promised to do), with greater support for Iranians, who have protested on the streets since December 2017. Trump officials should consider extensive support to Iranian labor unions, including paying more Iranians to go on strike through a covert fund run by the Central Intelligence Agency. The CIA and the AFL-CIO labor federation provided extensive technical and financial support in the 1980s for the Solidarity movement in Poland to great success, though there’s no public evidence they explicitly funded labor strikes. That might cripple key sectors of the economy and lead to larger protests, similar to those that hit the shah in 1978 and 1979. Even if the theocracy survives, the resulting economic and political instability could be leverage for a better, comprehensive deal.
The administration could also build a wall of additional sanctions that a pro-Tehran successor could not easily dismantle. These sanctions would be directed not against the nuclear program but the regime’s role as the leading state sponsor of terrorism, including its terror-financing central bank; its missile program, which is progressing toward an intercontinental ballistic missile; and its human-rights abuses and corruption.
Mr. Trump could direct the Treasury to designate the Central Bank of Iran for its role in financing Lebanese Hezbollah. When Congress imposed sanctions on the bank in 2011, it did so on multiple grounds—terrorism, money laundering as well as the financing of nuclear and missile development. In 2015, in a legal sleight of hand, President Obama classified all this as a “nuclear sanction” and lifted the central-bank sanction as part of the JCPOA. Mr. Trump reinstated it when he withdrew from the nuclear deal but a Democratic president could lift it again. New central-bank sanctions based solely on terrorism would be more difficult for a future president to remove. Though the Obama administration opposed the 2011 sanctions, they had bipartisan support in Congress and passed 100-0 in the Senate.
The government could also impose sanctions on the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in its entirety as a foreign terrorist organization, adding it to the same State Department list as Hezbollah, Hamas and al Qaeda. The IRGC is the dominant force in Iran’s economy, and the U.S. FTO law is so wide-reaching and punitive for anyone providing material support to a terrorist organization that international companies would stay out of Iran. Mr. Trump could hit the regime again with sanctions for terrorism and corruption on the vast wealth held in foundations by Iran’s supreme leader and other insiders.
In addition, Trump officials could impose sanctions on key sectors of Iran’s economy, including mining and metallurgy, chemicals, telecommunications, computer science and construction, which provide critical products and technologies for Iran’s missile program.
Politically, it would be hard to make the case for dismantling these sanctions, since all evidence points to Tehran’s wrongdoing. If blocked from delivering sanctions relief to Iran, the next administration would have little choice but to wield U.S. economic leverage and negotiate a follow-on agreement that addresses the fundamental flaws of the JCPOA. Mr. Trump may well be re-elected, but the additional sanctions would serve America well in that case too.