Capping off a day of behind-the-scenes drama, President Trump recertified Iran's compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal late on Monday.
He was right to do so.
For a start, Trump can revisit Iranian compliance every 90 days, so he need not rush to premature action. Had Trump decertified Iran now, he would have greatly agitated America's European allies, and done so without a strategy with which to counter an Iranian nuclear breakout.
But Trump was also right to hesitate in his recertification. Because while Iran is not overtly breaching the accord, it is stretching the deal at every feasible level.
As David Albright notes, Iran may well be gathering the manufacturing components and centrifuge parts necessary to mass produce centrifuges on short notice. Based on its prior behavior, Iran is also likely working covertly to figure out how it could one day weaponize nuclear materials into a deliverable warhead system.
Regardless, my main concern (as it has always been) is Iran's continued advancement of its ballistic missile program. As with North Korea, Iran is determined to possess a ballistic missile capability that allows it to fire nuclear weapons across great distances. Like North Korea, the Iranian hardliners (who define the inner circle around Ayatollah Khamenei) believe that ballistic missiles would ensure the regime's ability to deter external invasion.
Ironically, Iran's ballistic missile development is also why the regime is just about holding up its end of the deal. After all, from Iran's perspective, nuclear weapons are somewhat irrelevant without ballistic missiles. Absent missile ability to hit Israel or Europe, Iran could still face invasion and regime collapse, even in the event it acquired nuclear weapons.
The distinction is crucial. In the interim, Iran is grateful for the sanctions relief that the nuclear deal affords.
Yet the U.S. cannot sit idle in face of Iran's double-sided dealing. The Trump administration must work hard to gather its European allies to oppose Iran's ballistic missile development. Those allies should be told that if they do not actively cooperate, the U.S. will impose unilateral sanctions on major European firms that do business in Iran. Be under no illusions, that will get the European Union's interest.
Again, the need for urgency cannot be understated. Iran's theological mission means that it would use a ballistic missile program as a shield not simply against invasion, but for its broader regional aggression. As I've noted in regards to Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and the U.S., Iran's foreign policy is defined by political coercion, violence, and unambiguous sectarianism.
If Iran gets to a point of confidence in its long range ballistic missile technology, and believes it can break out from the nuclear deal without a sanctions snap back, it will do so. At that point, we will face a nuclear power on a mission to purify the Middle East under Qom-school Shia absolutism. I delineate the Qom school, because it is far more politically aggressive than that preached from the Najaf school in Iraq.
Regardless, the key here is that the U.S. must force the world to take a stand against Iran's ballistic program. It's not just about preventing Iran from sending the Middle East into war (the current situation might seem bad, but it could be far worse). It's also about preventing other regional actors from reacting with paranoia to Iran's expanding power.
That's because countering Iran is necessary towards maintaining a basic balance of power equilibrium in the Middle East. Most crucially, in order for the U.S. to foster Saudi Arabian reform efforts, the Trump administration will have to reduce Saudi fears of Iran.
Ultimately, the one positive about this situation is the 90-day repeating timeline for confirmation of compliance. If Iran decides to buck against the new pressure it must now face, Trump can simply change his mind next time around. Again, however, our sense of urgency is crucial.
Because of its theological agenda, and the unstable regimes it opposes, an Iran with nuclear weapons and ballistic missile capabilities would be far more of a threat than that currently posed by North Korea.