November 6, 2019 | Memo

FDD Research Memo: What “Yes” With Iran Looks Like

Executive Summary:

  • Any sort of comprehensive agreement with Iran will need to follow a period of intense U.S. sanctions. 1
  • Washington must not only guard against premature diplomacy, which would undercut its leverage and lead to early sanctions relief, but a limited agreement that fails to address adequately both key nuclear and non-nuclear threats.
  • For Washington to know if an Iranian offer to negotiate is “genuine,” it will need to look for indicators of macro-economic contraction and political duress. The absence of those signs would surely mean that the offer is meant to buy time and offset sanctions pressure.
  • With any agreement, two mechanisms will govern the Islamic Republic’s concessions: the physical destruction of a capability or a political promise to forgo a certain activity. To avoid being bested at the negotiating table, Washington will have to know in advance what mechanism sufficiently addresses each threat.
  • There are at least three domains that a comprehensive agreement should seek to address: nuclear, missile/military, and regional/support for terrorism.
  • Should Washington and Tehran meet, the Trump administration should not hesitate to add human rights into the mix. Ignoring human rights and the cause of representative government would only vindicate the regime narrative that Washington does not really care about the plight of the Iranian people.


Even amid a flurry of press reporting about military escalation in the Persian Gulf,2 Donald Trump appears to remain committed to negotiations3 for a new deal with Iran. But what should the contours of such an agreement be, and how should the U.S. conduct diplomacy with the Islamic Republic? This memorandum aims to provide a crash-course in diplomacy with the Islamic Republic— the ways to address Iranian intentions, strategies, and capabilities.

Pressuring Iran And A Comprehensive Agreement

Since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, Tehran has attacked the United States directly and indirectly, created, and generously funded radical Islamic groups, developed the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) into an expeditionary military force, and in a multitude of other ways undercut U.S. interests and allied security in the Middle East.  The clerical regime has persevered in its ambitions even when Washington has marshaled considerable political, economic, and even military resources against it. We don’t know whether American and European sanctions or the concessions offered by Barack Obama in 20124 were the primary driver that inclined Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, to agree to nuclear diplomacy.  If it was both, then that underscores how massive the sanctions impact must be on the Islamic Republic to force the regime to ink a comprehensive agreement that terminates their nuclear advance and foreign interventions.

What the administration is asking for, as outlined in Secretary of State Michael Pompeo’s “12 point” speech, is the revocation of the regime’s revolutionary creed and four-decade-old foreign and security policy, which has now borne fruit in much of the northern Middle East.  If this American-directed “counter-revolution” can be accomplished through the use of economic coercion (and sanctions are likely the primary, if only, tool the administration will forcefully use), an agreement would have to release pressure slowly or risk Iranian recidivism.  Washington should avoid at all costs any immediate sanctions relief early in negotiations—the Obama administration released $7 billion with the interim nuclear deal in November 2013—since the White House must retain maximum leverage against the Islamic Republic throughout the talks.5

And any negotiations that split the nuclear question from the regime’s regional ambitions would repeat an even larger mistake made by the previous administration.  A new nuclear-only agreement would give a green-light to Iranian hegemonic aspirations, encourage the clerical regime to continue its mission to radicalize and dominate Arab Shiites, and suggest to Sunni-Arab states that the United States has no real intention to counter Tehran.  In all likelihood, such a deal would be born weak—the intestinal fortitude to obtain any “good” nuclear agreement surely overlaps with a willingness to check malevolent Iranian behavior globally.  President Obama’s Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) dovetailed with, if not obliged, a timid American approach towards Iran’s non-nuclear activities.  The more ardent supporters of the nuclear deal have understandably tried to recast the Islamic Republic as a tolerable, not particularly threatening “bad actor” in the Middle East—one certainly less troublesome than Saudi Arabia.6

Revisionist powers, let alone those motivated by a revolutionary religious ideology, do not pull back the limes of empire and influence unless troubles at home or a countervailing force abroad oblige them to do so.7 Any American policy attempting to negotiate with Iran would therefore have to push the clerical regime to the edge of collapse before the ruling clergy and the IRGC, who have overseen the nuclear advance, would contemplate abandoning a program backed consistently and ardently by all the factions of the ruling elite. A historical parallel: only when Iran’s military forces were cracking and fleeing, when the revolutionary clergy realized that a collapse on the front lines might topple the Islamic Republic, did Ruhollah Khomeini8 seek to end the Iran–Iraq War.9 The importance of the nuclear program to the Islamic Republic is probably similar to the importance that the ruling clergy attached to the campaign against Saddam Hussein.10

Assuming the Islamic Republic’s long-held belief that the ultimate U.S. policy towards Iran was, is, and will remain regime change,11 Tehran will want to make any potential agreement transactional and not transformational. This will lead them to 1) run the clock on any negotiations; 2) make any agreement that is reached limited in scope and phased in its implementation; and 3) resist strenuously trading away key capabilities, both nuclear and conventional, so as to retain leverage against American pressure.

Limited agreements are in Iran’s interest. On the nuclear front, the Islamic Republic has invested a lot of time, pride, principle, and money to develop an atomic-weapons capacity and nuclear-capable ballistic missiles. It has been an integral part of how the regime has approached its defense budget and security strategy for over twenty years. Khamenei and President Hassan Rouhani have both been involved with this effort since the beginning; they both can lay claim to being among its founding fathers.

That’s where Iranian personnel matter just as much as policy. The principal reason Rouhani is in any negotiation more dangerous that his Holocaust-denying predecessor is because he is more competent. The same is true for the foreign minister, Mohammad-Javad Zarif, who is socially the polar opposite of Iran’s preceding nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, the one-legged, reverently religious war veteran who loathed being in the company of Westerners. Until Trump’s decision to withdraw from the JCPOA, Rouhani and Zarif could position themselves domestically and internationally to make the case for a limited nuclear agreement. To foreigners they could present themselves as the best hope for a more responsible Iran without actually needing to deliver, and at home they could say to the ruling elite how they got rid of the bulk of sanctions without requiring the Islamic Republic to change fundamentally and end its nuclear ambitions.  This duo will surely try to resurrect the same approach with the Trump administration if the White House and Tehran engage diplomatically.

Assuming the supreme leader can overcome his pride and any domestic political calculation that would prevent him from engaging Trump, he is sure to put down a red line against any comprehensive settlement with the United States.  He will want what he had before with the JCPOA: Tehran could inflame areas not covered by a nuclear deal while actually adhering to the accord—as it did during the JCPOA with Syria, missile testing, the cyber domain, and the general expansion of Shiite proxies in the Middle East. The replication of Iran’s proxy strategy (popularly known as the Hezbollah model), has given the clerical regime considerable low-cost, expeditionary power.12 What the Islamic Republic seeks from any agreement is to relieve or offset U.S. pressure while maintaining its long-established strategic goals.  If the regime again gets sanctions relief from Washington in one area, it will inevitably try to use that relief to expand its influence in other areas, as it did with the JCPOA. Broadening the scope of issues with Iran while increasing pressure tells Tehran one thing: if the regime wants an end to economic pain, then it must reconsider its foreign and security policies wholesale, not selectively.  If it is unprepared to do so, then the United States is willing to maintain severe economic pressure and check Iran’s ambitions with the means required.  Tehran will surely test Washington’s mettle to see if it is prepared to do what is required to block the clerical regime’s ambitions.

How To Know If An Iranian Offer To Talk Is “Genuine”

Just because Iran comes to the table or offers to talk does not mean an Iranian offer to negotiate is genuine. Iran is more cognizant of American domestic politics13 than ever before, and has every incentive to run the clock using talks until the 2020 election to see if its position can improve with the next, hopefully Democratic,14 administration.15 Washington can use the following areas as markers to assess if the clerical regime is serious about negotiations that could yield a comprehensive agreement.

Taken together, the presence of all markers would indicate that Tehran is under significant political duress and severe macro-economic contraction. Thus, the regime would be more likely to negotiate seriously since the possibility for collapse is higher. Entering into negotiations with Tehran absent most of these conditions would likely end badly for the United States. To be clear, the duration these markers need to be in effect is not the result of a rigorous calculation, but rather a rough, or “back of the envelope,” analysis based on internal FDD assessments about the state of Iran’s economy and society.

While Washington formally left the JCPOA on May 8, 2018, it gradually restored economic pressure on Iran in two tranches, in August and in November, 2018.16 This phased implementation, coupled with oil sanctions exemptions for six months,17 meant that the administration’s “maximum pressure” policy took full effect about a year after the U.S. left the nuclear deal – around the time when Washington revoked waivers for purchasing Iranian oil.18 Hence, for those assessing macro-economic contraction, 2019 should be considered the baseline.

The markers below do not precisely account for perhaps the most significant political factor: regime consensus on the advantages to be gained from negotiations and its assessment of the American president, on whether he is resolute or likely to make concessions. Obama clearly signaled in 2012 that he was willing to give the clerical regime uranium enrichment, a position that no Western power had hitherto granted.19 The Trump administration has a much harder task:  it must signal that the Iranians cannot get what they want and that eventual economic ruin awaits them. The markers:

Domain Marker Visibility Duration Current Status
Political Ruptures/divisions among political/military/religious elites Public (but can happen behind closed doors) N/A, but preferably since May 2018 While some elites have rallied,20 Iran’s Supreme Leader is looking to deflect blame.21
Political Continued protests showing dissonance between state policy and society Public Throughout the entirety of the maximum pressure campaign Continuing,22 though on a smaller scale than December 2017
Political Iran’s regional proxies/partners bemoaning their financial situation Public (but can happen behind closed doors) N/A, but should be increasing since November 2018 Hezbollah is facing financial shortages23 and is relying on donations.24
Economic Oil (crude and condensate) exports well below 1 million barrels per day (BPD) Mostly-public (relies on tanker tracking services) At least six months Administration terminated oil waivers, but reports exist about Iran exporting 250,000-500,00 BPD,25 as well as finding ways around sanctions like ship-to-ship transfers26
Economic Significant Rial (unofficial rate) depreciation relative to the U.S. dollar Public At least six months Ongoing
Economic Confirmation that escrow accounts/humanitarian exemptions were/are not used to bust sanctions and have successfully “locked-up” Iranian revenue and prevented repatriation Private N/A, but preferably the entire time this payments system was in effect N/A
Economic Significantly diminishing foreign exchange reserves Private N/A, but a downward trend since May 2019 N/A, but assuming declining reserves
Economic Negative Iranian GDP growth Public A downward trend for at least three to six months since May 2019 According to the World Bank, Iran’s GDP is will contract by 3.8%27

How Does Iran Actually Agree?

Under the auspices of a genuinely comprehensive deal, one of the following two mechanisms will govern Iran’s concessions.

  1. Physical:The removal, destruction, dismantlement, or erosion of an existing capability
    a. Examples: Destroying centrifuges, shipping out low-enriched uranium, complete, unchallenged access to Revolutionary Guard sites where we have long suspected nuclear activity, or the elimination of missiles that meet the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) “nuclear capable” threshold.28
  2. Political: Adhering to a commitment to constrain or not use present capabilities and to forego their use in the future:
    a. Examples: Retaining small arms production capability but not transferring weapons already produced, retaining the knowledge about how to enrich uranium without doing it, or retaining missiles that fall under the MTCR threshold without testing or transferring them.

For any comprehensive agreement to hold, Washington will have to make Tehran see the utility of agreeing to, where necessary, destroying physically certain infrastructure or foregoing select activities if it wants its regime to remain intact.  More importantly, Washington will have to know in advance which mechanism it believes sufficiently deals with each sort of Iranian threat, and then hold the line. Conversely, Iran will have every incentive to turn physical constraints into political ones.

The JCPOA experience can again be instructive. While the Obama administration once claimed that the “size and configuration” of the underground Fordow enrichment plant was “inconsistent with a peaceful program,”29 it ultimately caved in negotiations to Iran30 and enabled the clerical regime to keep the facility open (so long an no uranium was enriched there until 2030). This is exactly the maneuvering that Washington must guard against in a new deal.

Getting the clerical regime to agree to an agreement that has both restraining mechanisms will be challenging. Tehran will counter American demands with a narrative about not needing to give up select materials, technologies, and weapons because of legitimate defensive and scientific needs. Washington should be prepared for an Iranian public-relations onslaught, which some Europeans may second. Although the Europeans, especially the French, have had deep reservations about many aspects of Tehran’s nuclear program and regional aspirations, revisiting these concerns now, during a Trump administration, will be extremely difficult. Washington must be prepared to make its argument in Europe with vigor.31 French officials were not cracked up about the verification weaknesses of the JCPOA.  It behooves the administration to highlight now all of the verification flaws in the accord even if that highlights the possibility that the Islamic Republic currently has an unchecked clandestine nuclear-weapons program. Restoring apolitical integrity to the inspections of the International Atomic Energy Agency ought to be a desired byproduct of the administration’s Iran policy in Europe (the Iranian nuclear file should no longer be exempt from standard IAEA verification practices).

The administration should, accordingly, highlight all illicit Iranian actions on European soil.  For example:  The recent attempted assassinations of Iranian dissidents in Europe,32 which could have led to the death of prominent American citizens at an attempted bombing of an opposition rally in Paris, were, in all probability, authorized by Khamenei, whose contempt for the Europeans has grown noticeably since they failed to counter effectively the resurrection of American sanctions. European intelligence and security officials are often not as nonchalant as the European political elite about the Islamic Republic. Senior officials in Washington should ensure that such Iranian actions remain in the limelight. Part of any successful public effort against the clerical regime ought to include a relentless European campaign since the Iranians, especially the supreme leader, see the Europeans as reflexively hostile to the Islamic Republic.33 That distaste should be accentuated.

Issue Areas And Policy Goals

The goal of this section is to provide baselines for any “good” comprehensive settlement with the Islamic Republic. In so doing, it first identifies threats divided by domain (nuclear, missile/military, and regional), a rationale for what drives each threat, and at least one policy option. The options below are designed to address the issues raised in Secretary Pompeo’s “12 point” speech on Iran.34 For threats where more than one option is provided, these are, more often than not, complementary.




Threat:The domestic enrichment of uranium
Driver:Iran’s desire to enrich uranium is driven by ideology, security, and pride.
Option:Domestic enrichment should be prohibited in Iran at all costs, and the Islamic Republic should be forced to shutter any subterranean uranium enrichment facilities and either scrap or ship-out all material related to enrichment (be it hardware, software, or research material).  Although it will be tempting in any negotiation to allow the clerical regime enrichment on a low-level, for example, with primitive IR-1 centrifuges, this opens up a technical slippery slope. Any American compromise opens up the possibility of further research and development of advanced centrifuges and the dual-use import of nuclear-related materiel.  There is an abundant supply of enriched uranium on the open market that Tehran can buy for legitimate scientific and medical purposes.  A peaceful program doesn’t require domestic enrichment.
Results:If the United States can eliminate the Islamic Republic’s ability to produce low-enriched uranium, it effectively closes the uranium route towards a domestically-produced nuclear weapon, which is the pathway most likely to produce a clandestine atomic capacity once the Iranian regime can develop more advanced, small-cascade centrifuges.

Threat:Other nuclear fuel-cycle-related activities and research
Driver:The Islamic Republic’s interest in nuclear-related research and development serves as a hedge, offering it knowledge about the nuclear fuel-cycle on a smaller scale, thereby letting Tehran mask its interest in atomic weapons under the guise of scientific research.
Option 1:Tehran must halt all fuel-cycle related activities, including centrifuge production, testing, operation, as well as modeling. It must also move to shut down any labs connected with the regime’s nuclear program as well as its network of domestic suppliers.
Option 2:Iran may only resume nuclear research and development after the IAEA has come to a “broader conclusion” about the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program and can verify, through extensive inspections and interviews, that it is fully peaceful, and has resolved all outstanding questions related to the possible military dimensions of Iran’s atomic program.
Results:Having the IAEA give Iran a clean bill of health would be the predicate to permitting Iran to have a civilian nuclear program that includes narrowly circumscribed research and development. In the absence of that clean bill of health, it makes no sense to permit the Islamic Republic this technology.

Threat:A heavy-water reactor in Iran
Driver:Offers the Islamic Republic redundancy in its nuclear program, opening the door to a potential plutonium pathway for fissile material.
Option :Rather than filling the core of the reactor with cement, or disabling tubes that feed into the reactor core, all heavy-water reactors should be converted to light-water reactors to reduce the proliferation risk and have a fueling arrangement established by the IAEA through a competent national government approved by the Western nuclear powers.
Results:By converting Iran’s heavy-water reactor to light-water, the plutonium pathway is effectively cut-off.

Threat:Poor adherence to an inspection and verification regime
Driver:Iran has long taken advantage of the lack of an enforcement mechanism in the inspection regimes used by the IAEA.  Tehran has consistently cheated, lied, and obfuscated.
Option 1:Before any sanctions relief is granted, the Iranian parliament—in other words, the supreme leader—must formally ratify the Additional Protocol and allow the IAEA to inspect the Islamic Republic as it would any other party that had ratified the protocol.
Option 2:Iran and the IAEA will have to negotiate a new inspections regime based on the full authorities of the IAEA pursuant to the Additional Protocol and the Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement that Tehran (CSA) has inked/ratified.  Iran is a party to the CSA, which is part of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which mandates that the clerical regime abide by the normal inspections requirements of those agreements—something Tehran has so far refused to do—let alone the more rigorous measures in the Additional Protocol.  Given the Islamic Republic’s nuclear history, the regime will need to agree upfront to anytime-anywhere inspections, including military bases and facilities not described as “nuclear” only.  This would need to include a full declaration of every single piece of material, person, paper, and supplier for its atomic program and agree to let all of its scientists and engineers be interviewed and assessed by the IAEA.  Using the nuclear archives snatched by Mossad would be instrumental in this verification process.
Results:Having Iran come clean about its nuclear past and establishing much more rigorous inspection-and-verification procedures are the first steps towards a peaceful resolution of the Iranian nuclear crisis. Absent this full accounting, America and the international community can neither have a baseline for the program nor trust that it will be peaceful.


Threat:Iranian military modernization
Driver:Despite remaining an asymmetric rather than classic, conventional military power, Tehran seeks to upgrade and modernize select systems, improving parts of its arsenal to enhance its deterrent and coercive capabilities vis-à-vis its neighbors and even the United States.
Option:Washington should work to extend the existing international arms embargo on the Islamic Republic through both formal and informal means. This requires working to get a new UN Security Council resolution that enshrines a new embargo on Iran for at least another decade, while working with jurisdictions such as Germany35 and Ukraine,36 countries where the Islamic Republic has traditionally gone arms shopping, to restrict the flow of used weapons and components through enhanced export controls and customs training. Tehran should be made to understand that the U.S. will impede—at the global level—the clerical regime’s attempts to acquire advanced military capabilities for as long it is a state sponsor of terrorism and dispatches expeditionary forces throughout the Middle East.
Results:Limiting the capabilities of Iran’s conventional forces puts a lid on the conventional threat posed by the Islamic Republic to other Middle Eastern states.

Threat:Iranian ballistic missile flight-testing
Driver:Iran flight-tests its ballistic missiles both as a show of defiance and signal of resolve to domestic and foreign audiences, as well as to make the region’s largest ballistic-missile arsenal more battlefield ready, reliable, and durable should Tehran need to use them quickly.
Option 1:Iran must provide full schematics of all of its re-entry vehicles to the IAEA to see which ones can fit known Iranian bomb designs, and those classes of missiles must be eliminated altogether from Tehran’s inventory.
Option 2: Iran must suspend in perpetuity the flight-testing of any system that meets the MTCR thresholds in terms of payload and range.
Option 3:Iran should be made to the join the MTCR and the Hague Code of Conduct (HCOC)37 as a predicate to the waiving of sanctions.
Option 4:
Iran must refrain from all flight-tests of missiles with a ballistic trajectory for the duration of time that the IAEA is attempting to come to a broader conclusion about its nuclear program.
Results:Restraining or cancelling flight-testing by the Islamic Republic makes its missiles less reliable, which in turn has ramifications for their efficacy as weapons of deterrence, coercion, conventional war, and delivery vehicles for atomic weapons.

Threat:Iranian (ballistic- and cruise-) missile development
Driver:Missiles not only serve as a powerful tool of coercion and deterrence for the Islamic Republic, but they also can be proliferated to non-state actors in the region to increase their lethality and change the regional power balance in Iran’s favor.
Option 1:The Islamic Republic must end the development (as well as research, design, testing, and procurement) of any new ballistic- or cruise-missile systems that meet or exceed the MTCR thresholds.
Option 2:While the IAEA is attempting to come to a broader conclusion about the Iranian nuclear program, the clerical regime must not produce or test a new surface-to-surface missile system.
Results:A more limited38 Iranian missile program is in the U.S. national security interest, offering the regime fewer possible delivery vehicles for atomic arms.

Threat:Iranian Space/Satellite–Launch Vehicles (SLV)
Driver:Iran’s SLV program is a cover for the regime’s long march towards a potential intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capability.39
Option 1:Iran must cease all SLV tests.
Option 2:Iran must not produce any new SLV systems, and must dismantle any SLV that uses North Korean missile technology and engines.
Results:Thwarting Iran’s space program is one way to put the brakes on the regime’s long-range missile aspirations.40

Regional Activities/Support for Terrorism

Threat:Iranian arms transfers
Driver:Iran’s proliferation of weapons (be they small arms, rockets, or even ballistic and cruise missiles)41 is a driver of much of the region’s security concerns and permits the Islamic Republic to partake in conflicts without directly involving its personnel.
Option 1:
Iran must cease the proliferation of weapons across the Middle East, be it to state or non-state actors, and commit to not exporting military equipment or technology.
Option 2:The U.S. must work to get a new UN Security Council resolution that enshrines a new arms export ban on the Islamic Republic for at least another decade.
Option 3:The U.S. must work with international partners to generate the authorities—at the national and international levels—to be able to interdict Iranian arms shipments across the Middle East and at sea.
Results: Fewer Iranian arms in the Middle East’s various war-zones means a more peaceful region and one less likely to have conflicts spiral out of control due to Tehran’s desire to bleed its regional adversaries in proxy wars.

Threat:The establishment and use of Shiite militias
Driver:The Islamic Republic’s ability to marshal zealous Shiites to fight and die helps insulate it from charges that it is fighting abroad, and also enables it to intervene more easily in multiple theaters concurrently.
Option 1:Every Iranian-backed Shiite militia member, be they Arab or non-Arab, must leave Syrian territory.
Option 2:Iran should work to demobilize the Iraqi Shiite militias that are subordinate to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds-Force (IRGC-QF).
Option 3:A special UN mechanism should be established to deal with Iran’s abuse of refugee populations from South Asia (Afghanistan-Pakistan) and find ways to disarm and repatriate those that the clerical regime has taken into combat or trained to fight in Syria.
Results:The Islamic Republic, if it cannot deploy an array of multi-ethnic all-Shiite proxies, would be forced to deploy Iranian military personnel abroad, raising the chances of detection and retaliation against Tehran directly, something the regime has long sought to avoid. A diminished Shiite militia presence—particularly in Syria and Iraq—can significantly aid U.S. policy in both countries.

Threat:Persian Gulf naval harassment42
Driver:Iran has harassed Persian Gulf traffic and U.S. naval vessels in particular as means of signaling resolve and retaliating against Western pressure.
Option:Cessation of harassment of U.S. military and commercial vessels in the Persian Gulf and a commitment to develop rules of the road with local navies for navigating shared waters. Iran should also accept a de-confliction hotline-red phone between the IRIN/IRGC-N and the U.S. Navy.
Results:Should Iran adhere to this, the result could be a more navigable and clear Persian Gulf transit route for military and commercial vessels of all nations, including the Islamic Republic.

Threat:Political and material support for terrorism43
Iran remains the world’s foremost state sponsor of terrorism, enabling the Islamic Republic to both export its revolution and strike at targets belonging to its adversaries. What a declassified CIA report from 1987 states is still true:  “Terrorism is an important instrument of Iranian foreign policy… Tehran has never been made to pay a significant price for the use of terrorist tactics as a political weapon, a factor that reinforces its willingness to use them.”44
Option 1:In order to receive sanctions relief, Iranian banks—especially if they are tied to the Iranian government—must be able to demonstrate that they have not supported the regime’s proliferation, paramilitary activities, underwriting of terrorism, or any illicit financial activities that pose a threat to the integrity of the global financial system. Formally, the regime must renounce support for any entity or person that is designated by any branch of the U.S. government (State of Treasury) under anti-terrorism authorities.
Option 2:The Islamic Republic must commit to respecting the sovereignty of its Arab and non-Arab neighbors (i.e., Syria, Iraq, Bahrain, Yemen, Lebanon, Afghanistan, and the Palestinian Territories). In each country that means removing all intelligence and military assets. The clerical regime must commit to recalling any ambassador it has that was a member of, or has been affiliated with, the IRGC-QF.
Results:An end to Iran’s sponsorship of terror coupled with a diminishing footprint in the region through the termination of its proxy and patronage networks creates the space for more stable and sovereign governments.

Making Space For More Than Just The 12 Points

If Washington and Tehran diplomatically engage, the White House should continuously assess whether it is trading away the United States’ considerable soft power for little gain.45 America’s prestige in Iran has only risen since the revolution: as the theocracy has lost support among Iranians, the regime’s primary enemy has accordingly gained ground. The massive pro-democracy Green Movement street demonstrations in 2009 directly appealed to President Obama for support—not to European leaders—precisely because the United States, not the European Union, is seen as the loadstar of democracy. America still has at least the illusion of power and moral purpose; the Europeans do not. Pompeo’s 12 points cover a broad array of Iranian threats. They almost exclusively focus, however, on Tehran’s foreign actions, not the plight of the Iranian people at home.

In any engagement, Washington should seek to address human rights and the century-old Iranian quest for constitutional, representative government.  Even “mainstream” Western analysis of Iranian foreign policy sees the connection between a different government (perhaps one more in line with the demands of those who have engaged in protests since 2009) and a friendlier, less anti-American foreign policy.46 Although under the current administration Washington may not be seen as an avatar of democracy overseas, this contradiction may matter little to Iranians struggling against tyranny.  We have so far seen little anti-Americanism in the demonstrations since December 2017, which the Western and official Iranian media usually describe as economically motivated.47 JCPOA proponents, as well constellation of actors in the West, depict the Trump administration’s sanctions as cruel, inflicting great suffering on the Iranian people.48 And yet the same people in Iran have so far not spontaneously risen against Trump. Regime-directed demonstrations against America appear small and feeble when compared to the large Stars-and-Stripes-burning festivals of yesteryear.  As discordant as it may seem to some, Trump could probably use human rights and Iranian democratic aspirations effectively against the Islamic Republic’s ruling elite. To that effect, Washington should consider adding to Pompeo’s 12 points a demand for free and fair elections where the Guardian Council no longer approves candidates. Washington should also demand that international election monitors assess the openness and integrity of presidential and parliamentary elections in Iran.


The more forcefully, publicly, and continuously the Trump administration makes a detailed case against the Islamic Republic, for both its nuclear and non-nuclear transgressions, the more difficult it will be for any subsequent administration to embrace blindly the JCPOA. As long as the administration is prepared to approach concurrently and inseparably the nuclear and conventional threats posed by the clerical regime in any direct diplomacy, then talks with Tehran need not lead to the large concessions made by the Obama administration. Broadening the scope of issues while increasing pressure is the only possible way the United States can severely weaken Iran’s theocracy, at home and abroad.

  1. here’s the note
  2. The authors believe these moves to be more a “course correction” for U.S. policy in the region that underwrites American deterrence. See: Leandra Bernstein, “Iran-US tensions escalate as Europeans warn of an ‘unintended’ conflict,” WJLA, May 13, 2019. ( They also concur with other Iran Watchers that the moves do not, at present, mirror the conditions that led to the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. See:
  3. Kylie Atwood, “White House passes phone number to Swiss, in case Iran wants to call,”CNN, May 10, 2019. (
  4. Hossein Mousavian, “It was not sanctions that brought Iran to the table,” Financial Times(UK), November 19, 2013. (; Paul Richter, “Key, secret concessions opened the way for Iran nuclear deal,” Los Angeles Times, July 14, 2015. (
  5. Mark Dubowitz and Orde Kittre, “A Weak Agreement Likely to Get Worse,” The Wall Street Journal, November 24, 2013.  (https:/
  6. See, for example, Peter Beinart, “Even Democrats Keep Thinking Iran Is Worse Than Saudi Arabia,” The Atlantic, May 21, 2019. (
  7. This is, of course, despite Iranian attestations to the contrary. See: “واکنش سردار جوانی به پیشنهاد ترامپ: ملت ایران به مذاکره تحت فشار تن نخواهد داد(The Response of Commander Javani: The Iranian Nation Will Not Turn To Negotiations Under Pressure),” Tasnim News Agency(Iran), May 10, 2019. (واکنش-سردار-جوانی-به-پیشنهاد-ترامپ-ملت-ایران-به-مذاکره-تحت-فشار-تن-نخواهد-داد)
  8. The founding father of Iran’s Islamic Republic.
  9. For more on the importance of the war (both in terms of understanding Iran, as well as potential historical parallel), see: Behnam Ben Taleblu, “The Long Shadow of the Iran-Iraq War,” The National Interest, October 23, 2014. ( Note that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has likened the current sanctions regime to being tougher on Iran than the pressure Iran felt during that war. See: Vivian Yee, “U.S. Sanctions Cut Deep, but Iran Seems Unlikely to Budge,” The New York Times, May 12, 2019. (
  10. Recall that Khomeini sought to export the Islamic Revolution to Iraq and topple the Ba’athist government. See: “Commentary Explains Forces’ Entry Into Iraq,” Tehran International Service in Arabic, as translated in Foreign Broadcast Information Service(hereafter FBIS) GF242020, October 24, 1983; and “Tehran Reaffirms Condition of Toppling Saddam,” Tehran International Service in Arabic, as translated in FBISGF011852, June 1, 1985.
  11. Indeed, Hossein Salami, the new commander of Iran’s IRGC said one aim of the “maximum pressure” policy was to “create insecurity in minds and hearts.” See: “سرلشکر سلامی: دشمنان ایران از درون دچار پوکی استخوان هستند(Commander Salami: Iran’s Enemies Suffer From Hollow Bones [lit. Osteoporosis] From Within), Tasnim News Agency(Iran), May 15, 2019. (سرلشکر-سلامی-دشمنان-ایران-از-درون-دچار-پوکی-استخوان-هستند). Also see: “Khamenei: U.S. would overthrow Iranian government if it could – media,” Reuters, February 8, 2014. (

  12. Dan De Luce and Robert Windrem, “Iran uses proxies to punch above its weight in the Middle East, experts say,” NBC News, May 24, 2019. (
  13. Note the Zarif-Kerry meetings, for instance: “Report: Kerry Met Iranian Foreign Minister In Attempt To Salvage Nuclear Deal,” The Jerusalem Post(Israel), May 5, 2018. (; “Kerry Admits Meeting With Zarif Several Times, Says Did Not ‘Coach’ Him,” Radio Farda, September 13, 2018. (; “Trump Again Accuses Kerry Of ‘Talking To Iran’, ‘Violating’ The Law,” Radio Farda, May 10, 2019. (
  14. See references to the candidates in the democratic field that wish to return to the JCPOA: Bryant Harris, “2020 Democrats vow to re-enter Iran nuclear deal, Al Monitor, March 19, 2019. (
  15. This is built into the Iranian argument for “patience” when confronted with the “max pressure” policy. See commentary in: Betsy Woodruff and Adam Rawnsley, “Trump Admin Moves Fueled Iran’s Aggression, U.S. Intel Says,” The Daily Beast, May 16, 2019. ( Also see: Henry Rome, “Why Iran Waits,” Foreign Affairs, January 10, 2019. (
  16. Kevin Breuninger, “Here are the sanctions that will snap back into place now that Trump has pulled the US out of the Iran nuclear deal,” CNBC, May 9, 2018. (
  17. “U.S. grants temporary Iran oil waivers to eight countries including China: Pompeo,” Reuters, November 5, 2018. (
  18. Tom DiChristopher, “Trump aims to drive Iran’s oil exports to zero by ending sanctions waivers,” CNBC, April 22, 2019. (
  19. As a reminder, as late as 2010, the UN continued to call for Iran “to suspend all reprocessing, heavy water-related and enrichment-related activities.” See: United Nations, Security Council, “Resolution 1929 (2010),” June 9, 2010, page 4. (
  20. For example, “Iranian Lawmakers Wear Guard’s Uniforms As Show Of Support For IRGC,” Radio Farda, April 9, 2019. (
  21. For example: Amir Vahdat And Jon Gambrell, “Supreme leader criticizes Iran’s politicians amid US tension,” AP, May 22, 2019. (
  22. Get tweets from Alireza Nader re top 3 videos
  23. Liz Sly and Suzan Haidamous, “Trump’s sanctions on Iran are hitting Hezbollah, and it hurts,” The Washington Post, May 18, 2019. (; Ben Hubbard, “Iran’s Allies Feel the Pain of American Sanctions,” The New York Times, March 28, 2019. (; Joyce Karam, “US envoy Brian Hook: Sanctions are hurting Iran’s $700m support for Hezbollah,” The National (UAE), March 29, 2019. (
  25. Alex Lawler, “Iran’s crude exports slide to 500,000 bpd or less: sources,” Reuters, May 17, 2019. (
  26. Roslan Khasawneh and Muyu Xu, “Exclusive: Tanker unloads Iranian fuel oil at China port after near five-month trek – data,” Reuters, May 15, 2019. (
  27. Dalga Khatinoglu, “World Bank And IMF More Pessimistic About Iran’s Economy,” Radio Farda, April 9, 2019. (
  28. Kelsey Davenport, “The Missile Technology Control Regime at a Glance,” Arms Control Association, July 2017. (
  29. President Obama, in: The White House, Office of the Press Secretary, “Statements By President Obama French President Sarkozy And British Prime Minister Brown On Iranian Nuclear Facility,” September 25, 2009. (
  30. Michael Singh, “Is Iran out-negotiating the Obama administration?,” Foreign Policy, March 4, 2013. (
  31. Examples of such arguments could include getting European powers to sanction Iran on missile grounds: Behnam Ben Taleblu, “As Europe Dithers, Iran’s Arsenal Gets More Deadly,” Bloomberg, December 13,2018. ( Elsewhere, it means praising/supporting Europe when it takes steps in the right direction. See: Behnam Ben Taleblu, “European powers express growing concern about Iranian missiles,” Axios, April 8, 2013. (
  32. “EU sanctions Iran over assassination plots,” France 24(France), January 9, 2019. (
  33. “بیانات در اجتماع زائران و مجاوران حرم مطهر رضوی(Statements in the Gathering of Pilgrims and Neighbors of the Razavi Holy Shrine),” Khamenei Website(Iran), March 21, 2014. (; Parisa Hafezi, “Iran’s Khamenei warns government about deception by Europeans,”Reuters, February 18, 2019. (
  34. See: U.S. Department of State, Michael R. Pompeo, “After the Deal: A New Iran Strategy,” Remarks at the Heritage Foundation, May 21, 2018. (
  35. For a steady stream of annual reported procurement attempts using Germany, see: Ryan Browne, “German intelligence: Iran may have tried to violate nuclear deal,” CNN, July 8, 2016. (; Andrea Shahlal, “Iran still trying to buy items for missile development: Germany,” Reuters, October 11, 2017. (; “German intelligence: Iran still working to acquire WMD technology,” The Times of Israel(Israel), June 2, 2018. (; and Benjamin Weinthal, “Germany Refuses To Disclose Iranian Attempts To Buy Nuclear, Missile Technology,” The Jerusalem Post(Israel), March 25, 2019. (
  36. For Ukraine examples, see: Paul Kerr, “Ukraine Admits Missile Transfers,” Arms Control Association, accessed April 23, 2019. (; Betsy Woodruff and Adam Rawnsley, “Ukraine Intel: We Caught Iranians Smuggling a Ship-Killing Missile,” The Daily Beast, March 30, 2018. (
  37. For more, see: U.S. Department of State, Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation, “Hague Code of Conduct Against Ballistic Missile Proliferation (HCOC),”accessed April 23, 2019. (
  38. For more prospects and policy ideas, see: “More Eyes on More Data: Prospects for Restricting Iran’s Missile Program Using Open Sources,” Iran Watch, February 13, 2019. (
  39. For a potential historical source of concern re the SLV-ICBM connection, see: “Indian Missiles,” Federation of American Scientists, May 30, 1998. (
  40. For more between the linkages, see: “2017 Ballistic and Cruise Missile Threat,” National Air and Space Intelligence Center, accessed April 23, 2019. (
  41. For example, see systems referenced in: Jim Garamone, “DoD Shows Iranian Weapons as Proof of Tehran’s Duplicitous Ambitions,” U.S. Department of Defense Website, December 14, 2017. (
  42. Courtney Kube, “Iranian boats approach Navy ship in Persian Gulf while U.S. general aboard,” NBC News, October 26, 2018. (; Jonathan Swan, “Inside the Oval: How Trump tormented Mattis,” Axios, January 13, 2019. (
  43. U.S. Department of State, “Country Reports on Terrorism,” September 2018, page 28. (
  44. Director of Central Intelligence, “Iran’s Use of Terrorism: Interagency Intelligence Assessment,” September 1987, approved for release December 4, 2013. (
  45. That’s because Washington is essentially offering a “big-for-big” proposal with Iran. Moreover, the notion of an unequal or unfair trade-off between U.S. and Iranian concessions was the primary reason (not noncompliance) that was invoked by the Trump administration when it left the JCPOA in May 2018.
  46. For example: Kenneth Katzman, “Iran’s Foreign and Security Polices,” Congressinal Research Service, May 8, 2019, page 66. (
  47. Despite their slogans quickly turning into political attacks on the legitimacy of the regime. For more, see: Marwa Eltagouri, “Tens of thousands of people have protested in Iran. Here’s why.” The Washington Post, January 3, 2018. (
  48. Jason Rezaian, “Who will Trump’s new Iran sanctions hurt most? Hint: It’s not the mullahs.,” The Washington Post, May 9, 2018. (; Dalia Dassa Kaye, “Sanctions mean all pain for Iranian people, no gain for US,”The Hill, August 7, 2018. (; Barbara Slavin, “How U.S. Iran Policy Hurts Iran and America,” The American Conservative, July 3, 2018. (