Over this past month, the Trump Administration has designated the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a foreign terrorist organization and refused to grant waivers for countries, including our allies and partners, to buy Iranian oil despite sanctions. These decisions seem to stem from longstanding aggression by the president, as well as National Security Advisor John Bolton, towards Tehran. After all, it was not long after Bolton entered the administration last April that President Trump withdrew the United States from the Iran nuclear deal, setting the stage for additional foolhardy decisions like those made this month.
Even as far back as the campaign trail in 2016, then-candidate Trump vehemently opposed the Iran deal, saying that it was “one of the dumbest deals I’ve ever seen” and made “at the highest level of incompetence.” However, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) — the organization monitoring and verifying Iranian compliance with the agreement — reported both before and multiple times since the presidential election that Iran took the necessary steps to implement the deal’s terms and has remained compliant since. The president’s claims, therefore, that Tehran was taking advantage of us do not hold any weight, and our allies have been the ones to suffer from the consequences of the administration’s withdrawal and continued, ill-conceived actions against Iran.
President Trump, with Bolton’s eager support, has demonstrated an evidently nonnegotiable hatred of Iran. With such sentiments fueling the president’s decisions — on top of our Gulf partners’ desire to change the regional balance of power and unwise provocations from Tehran itself — the administration must be careful as to not drag the United States into another war in the Middle East.
IRAN NUCLEAR DEAL
In May 2018, President Trump withdrew the United States from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran, otherwise known as the Iran Deal. The P5+1 world powers — including the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia, and China — announced the deal with Tehran two years previously. According to the terms, Iran received modest and steady sanctions relief in return for compliance with agreed-upon limits to its nuclear activities and the toughest inspections regime in the history of arms control. Since that time, the IAEA has confirmed Iranian compliance with the deal numerous times. The United States did as well, in April and again in July 2017.
The president, however, had the likes of Bolton whispering in his ear — a man who, in 2015, wrote an op-ed in The New York Times entitled, “To Stop Iran’s Bomb, Bomb Iran.” In this piece, Bolton wrote, “The inescapable conclusion is that Iran will not negotiate away its nuclear program. Nor will sanctions block its building a broad and deep weapons infrastructure. The inconvenient truth is that only military action… can accomplish what is required.” All of this proved to be untrue, but Bolton echoed this same sentiment last year in regard to North Korea. With this history, it is clear that once Bolton decides a country is a foe, he will veer entirely away from diplomacy and advocate for aggressive, military-based actions with little forethought.
In the months since U.S. withdrawal, the IAEA has continued to certify Iranian compliance with the deal, most recently this past March. The deal is accomplishing what it set out to do: More than 19,000 centrifuges and 95 percent of Iran’s highly enriched uranium stockpile have been removed, and Iran’s only plutonium reactor has been disabled. Trust in Tehran’s word is not needed to verify these achievements because the best nuclear inspectors in the world are on the ground, watching Iran’s uranium from the mines to the laboratories. Plus, in addition to the IAEA, the U.S. intelligence community and leading military figures in the Trump Administration — including former Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joseph Dunford — have also all at various times assessed that Iran remained in compliance and was not building a nuclear weapon.
When breaking the deal, President Trump not only ignored the facts on the ground, but also sacrificed our moral and strategic high ground. After all, the United States led the tough but principled negotiations that culminated in the agreement, and stepping away has left us dependent on our allies to ensure that Tehran does not revert back to building up its nuclear arsenal. Plus, the United States has since re-imposed sanctions on Iran — most recently on Iranian oil — which has opened the door to economic friendly fire on those very countries who are keeping the deal alive. All this means is that if Tehran does eventually break the deal (which, again, there is no indication that they are planning to do so), the world will likely blame Washington for breaking it first.
President Trump made an entirely unforced error when choosing to withdraw the United States from the Iran nuclear deal, leaving our allies with the power as we stand on the sidelines. This cannot stand: The administration must cease attacks on the deal itself as well as the leadership of those who have picked up what we abandoned, and Congress must check any such aggression emanating from the White House and ensure the United States does not get drawn into another war in the Middle East — whether as a result of a foolhardy president, urging from hawkish advisors in the White House or allies abroad, or even intentional provocations from hardliners in Tehran.
Unfortunately, the president increased the risk of such a war in the Middle East when choosing to, in the wake of withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal, re-impose sanctions on Tehran that were lifted as part of the deal.
Consequently, in August 2018, sanctions on Iranian products such as carpets and pistachios, as well as on key metals like gold and steel, went into effect. At the time, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo described the reimposition of these sanctions as part of an effort to “push back” against Tehran’s “malign activity” and to get Iran to “behave like a normal country.” Such remarks about so-called normal behavior from the Trump Administration, however, are strange when keeping in mind the administration’s withdrawal from effective deals made alongside our allies and choice to act unilaterally on the world stage.
Nevertheless, those sanctions went into effect, and then in November, the administration put into place another round. These included sanctions on Iran’s ports, central bank, and, most notably, oil. In the weeks leading up to that second round of sanctions, Iran — by word and action — expressed its frustration with the Trump Administration; for instance, in late August, Iran stated that it had full control of the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz — through which 20 percent of the world’s oil passes — and that the U.S. Navy does not belong there. This threatening of global oil trade is a dangerous move, and one that serves to underscore just how dramatically and quickly tensions can escalate as a result of deliberately inflammatory policies.
Meanwhile, reports emerged that the Trump Administration’s hostile Iran policy was widening a significant gap between the United States and our allies in Europe; after all, the nuclear deal was still working, but President Trump remained insistent on punishing Iran in ways that reverberated across Europe. Also important to mention is that, at this time, the United Nations’ International Court of Justice felt it necessary to make a (unbinding) ruling that the administration’s reimposition of sanctions on Iran should not affect humanitarian aid; medicines, medical supplies and equipment, food, and aviation safety equipment, they stated, must be allowed to enter the country. The fact that such a rule had to be issued against the United States was harrowing, to say the least.
On 04 November, the sanctions on Iranian oil officially were reimposed, with a statement from the president, saying, “Our objective is to force the regime into a clear choice: either abandon its destructive behavior or continue down the path toward economic disaster.” With this decision, it became clear that the administration refused to acknowledge that they were, instead of convincing Iran to change any of its behavior, pushing the country to view the United States as an enemy and alienating our closest allies. Though the U.S. government did grant exemptions from these particular sanctions for eight countries, they did so only in order to not destabilize the global oil trade right before the midterm elections and continued to push each country to steadily reduce its dependence on Iranian oil.
Then, just the other week, the Trump Administration announced that it will no longer grant waivers for those nations to buy Iranian oil despite sanctions and demanded that all countries bring their oil imports from Iran to zero. Three of those countries who received waivers — Taiwan, Italy, and Greece — have not used them, but the others — South Korea, Japan, Turkey, China, and India — have relied upon them. Predictably, oil prices quickly rose.
Without question, all of these decisions with regard to sanctions have opened the door to a Tehran even more hostile towards the United States, a sharp increase in global oil prices, the closure of the Strait of Hormuz, and economic friendly fire on our allies and partners.
FOREIGN TERRORIST DESIGNATION
Further aggravating the situation, in early April, the Trump Administration formally designated Iran’s military of about 125,000, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), as a foreign terrorist organization (FTO). In a statement, the White House said, “This action sends a clear message to Tehran that its support for terrorism has serious consequences. We will continue to increase financial pressure and raise the costs on the Iranian regime for its support of terrorist activity until it abandons its malign and outlaw behavior.”
This marked the very first time that the U.S. government designated part of a foreign government as an FTO, and the Trump Administration did so without any assurances that it would actually put pressure on Tehran. After all, any business with the IRGC was already subject to non-nuclear U.S. sanctions. In 2017, the IRGC was named a specially designated global terrorist (SDGT) and sanctioned by the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act. Furthermore, the IRGC endured little harm from those sanctions overall, leaving the Iranian people to suffer instead; Secretary Pompeo emphasized the designation as a way to weaken the IRGC, but the facts on the ground said otherwise. In essence, any economic or financial pressure on the IRGC that this designation might have will be minimal, while retaliatory action from Iran — which could, in turn, increase the likelihood of an outbreak of war — is assured.
Sure enough, almost immediately, Tehran responded to the FTO designation by having the country’s Supreme National Security Council name the U.S. Central Command and all its forces as terrorist organization in kind and label the United States as a “supporter of terrorism.” The retaliatory designation, signed into law by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on 30 April, essentially declared all U.S. forces operating in the Middle East and Afghanistan as terrorists. Though the exact consequences of this measure by Iran are still unfolding, it nonetheless endangers our military operating in the region — all so that the president could make a mainly only emblematic FTO designation.
WAR IS NOT THE ANSWER
While Secretary Pompeo keeps claiming that the United States “will always stand with the Iranian people,” the actions of the Trump Administration belie his words. Intentionally antagonizing Tehran — by way of withdrawing from the popular nuclear deal and designating the IRGC as an FTO — and threatening one of the country’s most important exports does nothing to help the Iranian people and certainly fails to instill confidence in the Iranian people that the United States is looking out for them.
Rather, this behavior by the administration suggests that the president and his advisors like Bolton aim for either a regime change in Iran or an opportunity to declare another war in the Middle East. These outcomes, however, will only endanger the United States and our allies in the region, not ensure our national security or our role as a world leader. In fact, withdrawing from agreements, made alongside longtime U.S. allies, undermines any claim by President Trump to global leadership and disrupts legitimate efforts to criticize Iran in coordination with our allies and the international system.
Moving forward, the United States must rejoin the Iran nuclear deal and reverse the imposition of Iranian sanctions that adversely affect its people. With such goals most likely only possible under a new administration in Washington, in the meantime, the Trump Administration must roll back its antagonistic decisions towards Tehran so as not to drag the United States into another war in the Middle East. Even in the face of provocations by Iran, the administration must work on behalf of our national security — not Bolton’s desire to go after Tehran no matter the cost.
Shannon Bugos is the Communications and Writing Manager at Truman National Security Project and the editor-in-chief of the Doctrine Blog. Views expressed here are her own.