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Topics / Arab Region Transitions

A Smart Strategy for the Middle East

The signing of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, often referred to as the Iran nuclear deal, were a demonstration of U.S. political polarization at its starkest

The months leading up to the signing of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, often referred to as the Iran nuclear deal, on July 14, 2015 were a demonstration of U.S. political polarization at its starkest. The debate between those who praised the agreement as a historic achievement and those who denounced it as an epic blunder continued making headlines until the September 17 deadline for Congress to block the deal had passed. Though opinions remain strong, it has now been accepted that the deal is moving forward as planned (at least until a new president takes office in 2017) and attention has shifted to next steps.

While the agreement intentionally focused only on Iran’s nuclear program, its implementation will have significant implications for a range of issues in the Middle East and must be integrated into a revamped U.S. regional strategy. Through a project supported by the Carnegie Corporation of New York’s Nuclear Security grantmaking, six experts at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) produced a report — After the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action: A Game Plan for the United States — that proposes how to do just that (full report here). Their analysis looks at the big picture: laying out conditions to effectively enforce the deal and strengthen nonproliferation norms; outlining differentiated approaches for cooperation with Sunni allies, Israel, and Iran to increase stability in the Middle East; and suggesting ways to use the deal to bolster the U.S.’s position on the global stage. The authors consider the military, political, and economic dimensions of the long-term challenges and opportunities coming out of the agreement to offer a perspective that is both comprehensive and nuanced. They also make excellent use of summaries throughout the report, allowing readers to choose between an in-depth perusal or a snapshot of each topic.

I discussed the report with two of its authors, Ilan Goldenberg and Elizabeth Rosenberg. Goldenberg says one of the major added values of the report is that it provides “specific, clear, and actionable policy recommendations.” He and Rosenberg have shared those recommendations with key audiences, including those in the White House, Congress, Department of State, Department of Defense, media, think tanks, and academia. Their ideas on regional engagement and terrorism, which are based on maintaining a careful balance of pressure and cooperation with Iran, elicited particular attention among policymakers. On the one hand, the U.S. would increase cooperation with Iran in specific spheres of common interest and help ensure that Iran will receive the economic benefits promised by the agreement. At the same time, the U.S. would maintain sanctions targeting Iran for its support of terrorism, and deepen coordination with Sunni Arab allies and Israel to counter undesirable Iranian actions in the region. The report also recommends limiting collaboration with Iran on the issue of ISIS in Iraq and Syria unless and until Iran proves itself to be a more constructive partner. With partisanship on both sides easing now that outright rejection of the deal is no longer on the table, Goldenberg and Rosenberg have sensed greater receptiveness to this balanced approach; the trick, they say, will be to maintain high standards of accountability for Iran without sinking the deal.

Several important developments have happened in the region since the report came out in October. Russia began a military intervention in Syria, exacerbating tensions with the West. Turkey’s shooting down of a Russian fighter jet was another sign of escalation in an already messy and deadly conflict. A wave of attacks in the Sinai, Beirut, Paris, and San Bernardino sparked renewed discussion about how closely the West should cooperate with Russia and Iran in the fight against terrorism despite disagreements in other areas. Although these developments have certainly complicated regional dynamics and made success even more difficult, Goldenberg and Rosenberg say they wouldn’t change their recommendations or the report’s core strategy.

Like any plan for long-term implementation of the JCPOA amid the chaos of the Middle East, that proposed by this report will involve numerous hurdles. Goldenberg and Rosenberg highlight three as the top ones to watch: (1) First and foremost will be Iran’s ability to follow through on its obligations under the deal given its domestic political context. As the party whose nuclear program is in question, the greatest responsibility for the success of the agreement falls on their shoulders. (2) On the U.S. side, the highest political risk will be failing to maintain the necessary level of commitment to sustain effective implementation after a change in presidential leadership. To that end, it is vital that functioning structures, processes, and lines of communication be established while the agreement remains high on the list of foreign policy priorities. (3) In economic terms, the most significant challenge for the U.S. will be to create the legal and practical mechanisms necessary for businesses to invest meaningfully in Iran with the lifting of nuclear-specific sanctions. These efforts will be complicated not only by the risk of a snapback in sanctions, but also by anxiety over Iran’s poor performance on corruption and transparency indices.

Reflecting on the views of the experts, it is clear that arduous though the process of getting to a signed JCPOA was, the hardest work is just now beginning. If obstructive party politics can further give way to the productive consideration of options such as those offered by the experts at CNAS, U.S. leaders will be better able to move forward with a smart strategy for the Middle East.