On September 23, a bipartisan group of more than 50 American national security experts encouraged the Trump Administration to combine pressure and diplomacy in its approach to Iran. “The Trump Administration’s Iran strategy is to assert maximum economic, political and military pressure to change Iran’s behavior and threaten, if not cause, collapse of the regime. But since it has not undertaken diplomatic engagement on any of its twelve demands on Iran, the Administration has left Iran the option of either capitulation or war,” they warned. Signatories to the statement included former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, former Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neil, and former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, as well as Commander of Special Operations Command Admiral Eric Olson (ret.) and Deputy Commander in Chief of U.S. Forces in Europe General Chuck Boyd (ret.). Former Democratic and Republican senators and representatives, including Richard Lugar (R-IN) and Carl Levin (D-MI) also endorsed the statement below.
Assessing the Trump Administration’s Iran Strategy
The Trump Administration’s Iran strategy is to assert maximum economic, political and military pressure to change Iran’s behavior and threaten, if not cause, collapse of the regime. But since it has not undertaken diplomatic engagement on any of its twelve demands on Iran, the Administration has left Iran the option of either capitulation or war. The U.S. withdrawal from the nuclear agreement (the JCPOA) does not advance the achievement of any of the U.S.’s objectives.
OBJECTIVES: We support some of the Administration’s objectives but believe they can only be achieved through a strategy that is both multilateral—engaging close allies and other powers— and which combines pressure and diplomacy. We outline here such an alternative approach to achieve six of the key U.S. goals.
• Preventing Iran from having a nuclear weapon over the long-term. The JCPOA severely limits Iran’s ability to acquire enough fissile material for even one nuclear weapon for the next decade. By returning to compliance with the JCPOA, the U.S. can negotiate improvements through follow-on agreements with Iran and other signatories.
• Curbing the proliferation and testing of ballistic missiles. Iran has recently reduced its testing of ballistic missiles but preventing Iran’s export of them to others will require a multilateral strategy of coercion and diplomacy and, in the future, regional ballistic missile arms limitations agreements.
• The release of U.S. citizens imprisoned in Iran. This will require direct, bilateral and quiet diplomatic contact with Iran.
• The cessation of Iran’s support for Hezbollah, Hamas and the Islamic Jihad. Iran will not discontinue this fundamental part of its national strategy by U.S. ultimatum alone. Success will require careful crafting of pressure and incentives.
• The cessation of Iran’s support for insurgents in Yemen and the removal of Iran’s forces from Syria and Iraq. This too will require sustained, multilateral diplomacy and pressure tailored to resolve each of these unique conflicts. Tehran’s involvement in any political settlement will be necessary.
• Reducing Iran’s threats and provocations against U.S. regional partners like Israel and Saudi Arabia. This change will likely occur only when Iran and other states realize that the costs and risks of continuing conflict are too high and diplomacy could produce positive results. The U.S. should play an active diplomatic and political role in resolving regional conflicts and pressing all regional states toward diplomatic engagement.
SANCTIONS. The Administration’s maximum sanctions program will not by itself achieve the U.S.’s desired objectives.
• Multilateral sanctions helped induce Iran to negotiate the JCPOA because the goal of blocking an Iranian nuclear weapon had broad international backing and sanctions were linked to a realistic promise of a negotiated outcome. With the Administration’s withdrawal from the JCPOA and without a credible offer of benefit for Iran’s economy, the U.S. will not be able to bring together the coalition required to renew multilateral sanctions and get Iran back to the negotiating table.
• U.S. secondary (extra-territorial) sanctions are effective in weakening Iran’s economy, but they also bring the U.S. into confrontation with allies and partners, thereby weakening their support for other U.S. objectives. They also spur blocking laws to shelter firms against U.S. action, put the U.S. into potential violation of its trade agreements and contribute to the weakening of the U.S. dollar.
• Unilateral sanctions are more difficult to enforce, foster widespread corruption and encourage efforts to evade U.S. laws. While these sanctions undermine the economies of the targeted state and cause great hardship for the country’s population, historically they have not resulted in major behavioral shifts or the demise of the targeted regime, for example in places like North Korea, Iraq and Cuba.
THREATS. The Administration’s emphasis on coercion and threats of military action without diplomatic engagement provides no exit ramp to avoid collision.
• The mounting threats serve to unite Iran’s political factions against external threat, empower its hardliners and undermine the long-term U.S. objectives of seeking a less aggressive Iran without nuclear weapons. Threats also encourage common cause among the Europeans, Russia and China in opposition to the U.S. If, in response to the U.S. violation of the JCPOA, Iran decides to exceed the nuclear limits established by the agreement, its capacity to produce a nuclear weapon would significantly increase.
• The Administration’s suggested policy of regime change in Iran reflects wishful thinking and a flawed interpretation of intelligence about Iran’s vulnerability. While Iran’s economy is under increasing stress and there are many signs of discontent among its population, the regime remains strong, well-armed and united against outside threat. The 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq remains a striking reminder of our inability to estimate accurately the long-term impact of U.S. actions.
• The intentional escalation of tensions and promotion of brinksmanship between the U.S. and Iran significantly increases the risk that neither side will be able to prevent a small, unintended clash from spiraling into a large, strategic conflict. Such a possibility is particularly dangerous now that the U.S. and Iran have limited means of direct communications for early de-escalation.
CONCLUSION: Pulling out of the JCPOA makes achieving U.S. objectives with Iran much more difficult. Applying pressure and unilateral sanctions without viable diplomatic options is highly unlikely to produce the desired outcome and could lead to a more dangerous, destructive and enduring regional conflict with Iran. A more balanced strategy that couples pressure with effective diplomacy, coming not just from the U.S. but from around the world, will be necessary to achieve U.S. objectives while showing an Iran without nuclear weapons a way forward to integration into the region. A decision by the Administration to move toward a more balanced approach, including agreeing to comply with the JCPOA, would be welcomed by the international community and put the U.S. on a better path to achieve its objectives.
Ambassador (ret.) Morton Abramowitz, Assistant Secretary of State for Intelligence and Research; Ambassador to Thailand and Turkey
Madeleine Albright, U.S. Secretary of State
Vice Admiral Donald Arthur (ret.), U.S. Navy and 35th Surgeon General of the U.S. Navy
General Chuck Boyd (ret.), U.S. Air Force and Deputy Commander in Chief of U.S. European Command
Ambassador (ret.) Nicholas Burns, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs and Ambassador to NATO and Greece
Joseph Cirincione, President of the Ploughshares Fund
Lieutenant General James Clapper (ret.), U.S. Air Force and Director of National Intelligence
Ambassador (ret.) James F. Collins, Ambassador at Large for the New Independent States and to the Russian Federation
Ambassador (ret.) Ryan Crocker, Ambassador to Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Syria, Kuwait and Lebanon
Ambassador (ret.) Walter Cutler, Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Tunisia and Congo-Zaire
Tom Daschle, U.S. Senate and Senate Majority Leader
David Dreier, U.S. House of Representatives and Chairman of the House Committee on Rules
Robert Einhorn, Assistant Secretary for Non-proliferation and the Secretary of State’s Special Advisor for Non-proliferation and Arms Control
Lieutenant General Robert Gard (ret.), U.S. Army and President of the National Defense University
Lieutenant General Walter Gaskin (ret.), U.S. Marine Corps and Deputy Chairman of the NATO Military Committee
Leslie Gelb, Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs and Director of Policy Planning and Arms Control at the Department of Defense
Ambassador (ret.) James Goodby, Ambassador to Finland and Deputy Chief of the U.S. delegation to the START talks
Vice Admiral Kevin P. Green (ret.), U.S. Navy and Deputy Chief of Naval Operations (Plans, Policy and Operations)
Lee H. Hamilton, U.S. House of Representatives, Chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs and Vice Chair of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States
Ambassador (ret.) William C. Harrop, Ambassador to Israel and Inspector General of the Department of State
Gary Hart, U.S. Senate and U.S. Special Envoy to Northern Ireland
Stephen B. Heintz, President of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund
Ambassador (ret.) Carla A. Hills, U.S. Trade Representative
James Hoge, Former Editor of Foreign Affairs Magazine
Lieutenant General Arlen D. Jameson (ret.), U.S. Air Force and Deputy Commander of U.S. Strategic Command
Lieutenant General Frank Kearney (ret.), U.S. Army and Deputy Director for Strategic Operational Planning of the National Counterterrorism Center
Lieutenant General Claudia Kennedy (ret.), U.S. Army and Deputy Chief of Staff for Intelligence, U.S. Army
Daryl G. Kimball, Executive Director of the Arms Control Association
Ambassador (ret.) Daniel Kurtzer, Ambassador to Israel and Egypt
Ellen Laipson, Vice Chair of the National Intelligence Council
Carl Levin, U.S. Senate and Chairman of the Senate Committee on Armed Services
Ambassador (ret.) John Limbert, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Iran
Ambassador (ret.) William H. Luers, Ambassador to Czechoslovakia and Venezuela
Richard G. Lugar, U.S. Senate and Chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations
Jessica T. Mathews, Director of the Office of Global Issues of the National Security Council
Ambassador (ret.) Richard W. Murphy, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs and Ambassador to Saudi Arabia
Richard Nephew, Deputy Coordinator for Sanctions Policy at the Department of State and Director for Iran of the National Security Council
General Lloyd W. Newton (ret.), U.S. Air Force and Commander of Air Education and Training Command
Joseph Nye, Assistant Secretary of Defense and Chairman of the National Intelligence Council
Paul O’Neill, Secretary of the Treasury
Admiral Eric Olson (ret.), U.S. Navy and Commander of U.S. Special Operations Command
Ambassador (ret.) Thomas Pickering, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs and Ambassador to Israel, Russia, India, El Salvador, Nigeria, Jordan and the United Nations
Paul R. Pillar, National Intelligence Officer for the Near East and South Asia
Chuck Robb, U.S. Senate and Governor of Virginia
Lieutenant General Norman R. Seip (ret.), U.S. Air Force and Commander of the 12th Air Force
Rear Admiral Joe Sestak (ret.), U.S. Navy and Deputy Chief of Naval Operations for Warfare Requirements and Programs
Gary Sick, Director for Iran and the Persian Gulf of the National Security Council
Rear Admiral Michael Smith (ret.), U.S. Navy and President of the American College of National Security Leaders
Mark Udall, U.S. Senate
Ambassador (ret.) Edward S. Walker, Jr., Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs and Ambassador to Israel, Egypt and the UAE
James Walsh, Research Associate at MIT’s Security Studies Program
Timothy E. Wirth, U.S. Senate
Ambassador (ret.) Frank Wisner, Under Secretary of State for International Security Affairs and Ambassador to India, Egypt, the Philippines and Zambia
* The signers of this statement were either former senior officials of the U.S. government or prominent national security leaders who have not held senior government positions. The positions listed after the names of the former government officials are senior posts held while in office. The positions listed after the names of those who were not from the government are listed with their current position. Institutions are listed for identification purposes only.