US Options on Iran

US Options on Iran


This summer has been notably characterized by a heating up of tensions between the US and its allies, and Iran. President Trump’s hardline, “maximum pressure” approach against Tehran, which dates back to his withdrawal from the JCPOA in the spring of 2018, has been firm and constant. The US has imposed strict economic sanctions, sent 2,500 troops to the region, an aircraft carrier, and conducted cyber attacks, while Iran has shot down a US drone and allegedly attacked ships in the region.[1] Iran’s acts of aggression and recent breaches of sections of the JCPOA are primarily meant to coerce the US into lifting the series of economic sanctions it has enacted since its withdrawal from the accord.

US goals are twofold: first, stymie progress on Iran’s nuclear program as much as possible, and second, halt Iranian sponsorship of terror and war in the region. More specifically, the Trump administration has laid out a dozen demands for Iran it wants met before it lifts sanctions, including “stopping support for militias in Iraq, Lebanon, Afghanistan, Yemen, Syria and the Palestinian territories, as well as halting uranium enrichment and ballistic missile systems.”[2] Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has stated that Iran is not willing to submit to a single one of the items on the list.[3]

The US has three options: it can lift the sanctions and decrease pressure in general, conduct military strikes, or, the best option, continually implement economic sanctions.

Option 1: Lifting of Sanctions and Decreased Pressure

Of the three options, this is the most dangerous for the US. It hardly accomplishes the US goal of ceasing Iran’s nuclear program, and if anything, would enable Iran to more effectively pursue its other goals in the region.

Zarif has stated that Iran will only scale back its nuclear efforts if the US essentially returns to the guidelines of the JCPOA.[4] However, even if the US does do so, there is little reason to believe that Iran will wholeheartedly follow through on its end of the agreement. Even back in May, when Iran was still claiming to have been keeping its end of the JCPOA completely, UN nuclear watchdog the International Atomic Energy Agency reported that Iran was purchasing and installing dozens of centrifuges (the use of which is prohibited under the accord) that are needed to enrich uranium to bomb-making levels.[5] Such behavior suggests that Iran is not committed to following all of the protocols outlined in the JCPOA, and that the accord itself would merely slow down Iran’s nuclear program.

Additionally, there is no reason to suspect that lifting sanctions would stop Iran from pursuing its other anti-American goals in the region. Decreasing sanctions on Iran is not going to make it more likely to pull its support from Syria, or to stop supporting Houthi rebels or Hezbollah in general. In fact, if anything the lifting of sanctions would free up millions of dollars worth of resources that Iran can then use or sell to be used against America and its allies in Yemen and Syria. Furthermore, such a light policy would not be received well by the US’ regional allies, namely Israel and Saudi Arabia. In the long term, going easy on Iran will only allow Iran to intensify its anti-American efforts in the region.

Option 2: Intensified Military Strikes       

Despite the fact that Iran has acted provocatively towards the US by shooting down a drone and attacking ships in the region, intensified, physical military strikes at this point would be inexpedient.

Though they would effectively communicate how serious President Trump is about his zero tolerance policies, the benefits would be outweighed by the fact that the US would most likely not have the support or approval of its most key allies, namely those who are still in the JCPOA (France, Germany, and the UK).

The three European JCPOA signatories still hope to salvage the deal, and executing a military strike would put them in a difficult corner. They would be called upon by many to either condone or condemn the attack, putting leaders in an awkward position. If leaders from the three countries condone the attacks, it would spell doom for negotiations, but if they condemn them, it would damage their relationships with the US. Remaining neutral would be difficult, especially when Iran has already made it clear that it is willing to act with hostility in the Strait of Hormuz.[6]

Conducting more aggressive military strikes against Iran may be expedient if tensions continue to rise, but without the support of our allies, it would be dangerous.

Option 3: Continued Economic Sanctions

Continual implementation of sanctions is the best course of action for the time being. Such sanctions will serve to both cripple Iran’s nuclear program and stymie their sponsorship of terror/war in the region, without putting our allies in too awkward of a position. In recent months, the US has blacklisted and frozen the assets of companies selling Iran centrifuges, rescinded waivers that allowed other countries to purchase Iranian oil, and targeted Iran’s financial sector.[7] Even more recently, the US physically sanctioned Javad Zarif, who was in New York representing Iran at the UN, by limiting the area he and his family are allowed to walk to a 6-block radius. Such sanctions—economic and otherwise—serve to effectively communicate the seriousness of the US, while also taking significant steps to limit Iran’s ability to nuclearize and fan the flames of Middle Eastern conflict. Additionally, the US can cherry pick when and to whom it grants economic waivers, as it did this last week when it granted certain trade waivers to the remaining signers of the JCPOA to engage in trade with Iran without also facing retaliatory sanctions from the US.[8] A continued policy of careful economic sanctions gives the US increased license to act how it sees fit without forcing it to over-commit and make the conflict bloody, while also allowing its European allies to continue their attempts to salvage the deal, if they so wish.

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[1] Kirby, Jen. 2019. “US-Iran standoff: a timeline.” Vox. July 5. Accessed August 1, 2019.;

Wagner, Meg, Mike Hayes, Elise Hammond, and Joshua Berlinger. 2019. “Tensions soar after Iran seizes tanker.” CNN. July 24. Accessed August 1, 2019.

[2] Kenyon, Peter. 2019. “What Are Iran’s Options In The Standoff With The U.S.?” NPR. June 24. Accessed August 1, 2019.

[3] Morello, Carol. 2019. “Iran says it will commit to nuclear inspections if U.S. lifts sanctions.” Washington Post. July 18. Accessed August 1, 2019.

[4] Morello, Carol. 2019. “Iran says it will commit to nuclear inspections if U.S. lifts sanctions.” Washington Post. July 18. Accessed August 1, 2019.

[5] Metzler, Kiyoko. 2019. “UN atomic watchdog raises questions of Iran’s centrifuge use.” AP. May 31. Accessed August 1, 2019.

[6] Wagner, Meg, Mike Hayes, Elise Hammond, and Joshua Berlinger. 2019. “Tensions soar after Iran seizes tanker.” CNN. July 24. Accessed August 1, 2019.

[7] Wroughton, Lesley, Mohammad Zargham and David Alexander. 2019. “U.S. sanctions network selling materials for Iran nuclear program.” Reuters. July 18. Accessed August 1, 2019.;

US Department of the Treasury. 2018. “Iran Sanctions.” US Department of the Treasury. November 5. Last updated July 23, 2019. Accessed August 1, 2019.

[8] Rogin, Josh. 2019. “Trump administration will again waive nuclear sanctions on Iran.” Washington Post. July 30. Accessed August 1, 2019.

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