German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel is worried once again that President Donald Trump will blow up the Iran nuclear deal.
It’s not just that the Europeans assert that Iran is complying with the terms of the 2015 accord. It’s also that Gabriel believes exiting the agreement would send the wrong message to North Korea. “It’s absolutely necessary to have the signal that it’s possible by diplomatic approaches to prevent the development of nuclear weapons in a time when other parts of the world are discussing how to get nuclear weapons into force,” he told reporters at a meeting with his Iranian and European counterparts Thursday in Brussels.
It may seem that Trump and Gabriel are on opposite sides. But they are both stuck in a familiar policy cycle when it comes to rogue proliferators: threaten, punish and negotiate. As the nuclear bargain showed, it’s possible to get predator states like Iran to temporarily pause nuclear programs in exchange for lifting sanctions and promises of investment. And yet the root of the problem in Iran remains the regime itself.
A new approach is required, particularly in light of the demonstrations that have rocked Iran’s regime in the last two weeks. The dictatorship cannot be separated from its proliferation. Indeed, the nuclear program is the dictator’s insurance policy. Imagine if Iran did not have a nuclear card in 2009, when hundreds of thousands of Iranians came into the streets to protest a stolen presidential election? Western pressure would have been rightly focused over time on releasing the leaders of the Green Movement, who to this day remain under house arrest or in prison. Instead that issue was dropped by Europe and America, and we ended up with the nuclear deal.
It’s time for Trump to make the Iranian people the focus of his Iran policy. This requires a few steps. First: Trump should not reimpose the nuclear sanctions. Those sanctions were designed to put maximum pressure on Iran’s economy to force the regime to relent on its nuclear program. This approach would punish Iran’s population at a moment when America should show solidarity with the country’s freedom movement.
Instead, Trump should pressure European allies to adopt a unified policy to punish the Iranian regime for its treatment of political prisoners and demonstrators. Former Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky calls this approach “linkage” because it ties the dictator’s abuse of his citizens to his legitimacy on the international stage. Trump should press European governments to begin treating Iran like apartheid South Africa.
This means rethinking the kinds of sanctions to impose on Iran. The targets should be narrower than Iran’s central bank or its oil exports. Consider Iran’s state broadcasting arm, known as the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting, or the Supreme Leader’s slush fund, known as Setad. Targets like this help to separate the dictator and his henchmen from the population. In the case of Setad, it sends a particularly important message because this fund, which Reuters reports was worth $95 billion, is seeded with assets seized in court from regular Iranians.
The sanctions approach should also be different. Trump could take a page from the penalties imposed on Russian leaders -- sanctions named for the murdered former tax attorney Sergei Magnitsky -- and make the assets of the regime’s leaders toxic.
The relatives of Qassem Suleimani, the head of Iran’s Quds Force, should not be able to travel to Europe or America. The children of regime figures should not be allowed to study in America.
Trump can also instruct his government to do more, behind the scenes, to increase the redundancy and resilience of Iran’s internet. Unlike in 2009, the regime cannot simply turn off the internet; the ministries of the state rely too much on the web to do that. This presents an opportunity for the US to make it easier for Iranians to get online, for instance by boosting the signals of cell towers near Iran’s borders or working with communication platforms like Telegram to get around the state’s recent ban.
Trump can also instruct his government to collect information on the regime’s own brutality against its population. Here is a chance for European allies, who have embassies inside Iran, to also help. As I have written, the West should be compiling the names of Iranians arrested, beaten and killed in recent demonstrations, and outside groups should publicize this.
Threatening Iran’s economy in the hopes of renegotiating the sunset provisions of the nuclear deal presumes the mullahs in charge of Iran will be there forever. Instead, Trump should work with Iran’s people, who are focused on a more important sunset: the end of the regime.
By Eli Lake
Eli Lake is a Bloomberg View columnist. -- Ed.