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Will the U.S. Push Back Against Iran’s Nuclear Blackmail?

On January 12, 2016, sailors from Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) navy captured ten United States Navy personnel who were said to have strayed into Iranian waters.

Sen. John McCain (R – Ariz.), a member of the Senate Armed Forces Committee and himself a former prisoner of war, issued a statement the next day charging that the capture of the sailors, even if they had strayed into Iranian territorial waters, was a violation of international law.

“Under international law, sovereign immune vessels like navy ships and boats do not lose their sovereign immune status when they are in distress at sea,” the senator explained. “Under international law, sovereign immune naval vessels are exempt from detention, boarding, or search. Their crews are not subject to detention or arrest.”

McCain was not alone in this assessment. In March, at a Senate hearing, then Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter departed from his prepared remarks and said that the capture of the sailors was “outrageous” and “inconsistent with international law.” A few months later, U.S. Chief of Naval Operations Admiral John Ricardson said the Iranian forces “violated international law by impeding the boats’ innocent passage transit, and they violated our sovereign immunity by boarding, searching, and seizing the boats, and by photographing and video recording the crew.”

However, when the sailors were released, then Secretary of State John Kerry thanked the “Iranian authorities for their cooperation ‎in swiftly resolving this matter.” Kerry also credited the new closer relationship with Iran for the quick resolution of the crisis that ended with the release of the sailors.

It’s important to remember that January 12, 2016, was just days before Implementation Day of the nuclear deal with Iran. Implementation day was the day by which Iran had to comply with reducing the size of its nuclear program and when the U.S. would free up billions of dollars in frozen Iranian assets as well as end all nuclear-related sanctions.

Kerry’s apology was ridiculous. The issue wasn’t how fast the crisis was resolved, but that it happened at all. But, had Kerry been direct and expressed his outrage at the deliberate taking of American service members as hostage and called it a breach of international law, how politically palatable would it have been for the Obama administration to hand over billions of dollars to a regime it just called an international lawbreaker?

The capture of the sailors and the Obama administration’s timid response to it is an example of a phenomenon we’ve seen since the nuclear negotiations with Iran began. The Islamic Republic has engaged in nuclear blackmail, using the nuclear deal as a tool for extortion to protect Tehran against the consequences for disregarding international law.

There are other examples.

* Even before the public negotiations with began, Iran threatened to end secret negotiations with the U.S. if the Obama administration enforced its “red line” against Syria President Bashar al-Assad for using chemical weapons.

* Iran and Russia began to turn the tide against Syrian rebels after IRGC-Qods Force Commander Qassem Soleimani paid a visit to Moscow in July 2015 to map out a strategy to support the murderous Assad. Soleimani is under a UN travel ban for his support of terror, yet no penalty was imposed on Iran.

* Iran continues to use commercial planes to transport troops and weapons to Syria to support Assad. Meanwhile, Boeing and Airbus are seeking to sell Iran billions of dollars of aircraft.

Those who are invested in the nuclear deal do not wish for it to fail so they excuse Tehran’s ongoing bad behavior rather than call its bluff that it will leave the deal if it is penalized for its non-nuclear mischief.

It appears that the Trump administration is willing to end Iran’s nuclear blackmail.

U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley explained the problem earlier this month:

It is this unwillingness to challenge Iranian behavior for fear of damaging the nuclear agreement that gets to the heart of the threat the deal poses to our national security. The Iranian nuclear deal was designed to be too big to fail. The deal drew an artificial line between the Iranian regime’s nuclear development and the rest of its lawless behavior. It said “we’ve made this deal on the nuclear side, so none of the regime’s other bad behavior is important enough to threaten the nuclear agreement.” The result is that for advocates of the deal, everything in our relationship with the Iranian regime must now be subordinated to the preservation of the agreement.

The Iranians understand this dynamic. Just last month, when the United States imposed new sanctions in response to Iranian missile launches, Iran’s leaders threatened once again to leave the JCPOA and return to a nuclear program more advanced than the one they had before the agreement. This arrogant threat tells us one thing: Iran’s leaders want to use the nuclear deal to hold the world hostage to its bad behavior. This threat is a perfect example of how judging the regime’s nuclear plans strictly in terms of compliance with the JCPOA is dangerous and short-sighted. More importantly, it misses the point.

If news reports are accurate, the Trump administration is preparing to change this dynamic.

Foreign Policy reported this week that the administration is considering a “global economic embargo” on Iran, denying it access to the U.S. financial system. According to the author of the memo, if the U.S. takes such an action, Iran would fear that “the timeline of regime instability and economic collapse could be faster than nuclear ‘breakout.'”

The U.S. would use the embargo threat to demand a change in Iran’s behavior—stop its regional aggression, end its ballistic missile program, stop imprisoning foreigners—and to renegotiate weaknesses in the nuclear deal.

In the coming weeks, it would be up to the Trump administration to bring its European allies on board.

Already last month, the United Kingdom, France, and Germany signed onto a letter authored by the U.S. calling Iran’s continued ballistic missile testing “threatening and provocative,” and said that it defied UN Security Council resolution 2231.

Until now the U.S.’s European allies were looking forward to enjoying the economic fruits of trade with Iran and hesitated to challenge Iran. Will the Trump administration follow through and take the actions necessary to change the dynamic of the nuclear deal? It’s still to early to tell, but it appears that the Trump administration is willing to look at the totality of the Iranian threat to the U.S. and act accordingly to counter it.

Even Secretary of State Rex Tillerson who is said to favor keeping to the nuclear deal said Thursday, “President Trump has made it clear.… We must take into account the totality of Iranian threats, not just Iran’s nuclear capabilities — that is one piece of our posture towards Iran.”

If the memo reflects President Trump’s thinking, the U.S. is prepared to act on that assessment and end Iran’s nuclear blackmail.

[Photo: White House / YouTube]