US foreign policy: A perfect storm is brewing
October-December 2017
By: Reva Goujon

Though policy makers in Washington feel compelled to respond to this blatant power grab, the nature of their response matters tremendously. By all appearances, the Trump administration is preparing new hard-hitting sanctions that set Venezuela’s all-important energy sector, in addition to specific individuals, in their cross hairs. The sanctions could target the state-run Petroleos de Venezuela, ban American light crude exports to Venezuela and cut off Venezuelan oil imports. Such comprehensive measures would essentially accelerate the country’s downward spiral. Depending on the sanctions’ scope, dollars from Venezuela’s vital oil trade will dry up, severe shortages in basic goods will become intolerable, unrest will intensify and splits within the ruling party, military or both will risk the government’s collapse, creating a mess that no one player will be willing or able to clean up.

So, the United States will have to weigh its options. Does it make strategic sense to exacerbate the Venezuelan crisis, knowing that there are still other, larger foreign policy matters that need Washington’s attention? Or should it avoid a premature crash by incrementally increasing sanctions, undermining the most incorrigible elements in Caracas, and working with those desperate enough to strike a deal to create a softer landing for the Caribbean state?

Iran can be seen through a similar lens. The past week has brought to light a particularly raucous debate within the White House about whether the executive branch would consider Iran to be in compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. The deal's five other signatories, the International Atomic Energy Agency and foreign policy professionals within the Trump administration – Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, National Security Adviser HR McMaster and Defense Secretary James Mattis, to name a few – maintain that Tehran is abiding by the terms of the agreement. But President Trump and a group of like-minded staffers seem determined to make the case that Iran is not in compliance with the deal’s stipulations, and they have raised the prospect of the United States unilaterally withdrawing from the deal when it reviews Iran’s compliance in November.

Rather than basing this assessment on the deal’s actual terms, the president and his allies have founded their position on America’s other grievances with Iran, including its weapons testing and support of regional militant groups, as well as a general belief that Tehran should be treated as an axis of evil. But does it make strategic sense to abandon the Iran agreement, when doing so will renew the prospect of a military confrontation in the Persian Gulf, and when the United States lacks the European support needed to keep effective sanctions in place against Iran? Or will Washington take into account that the Iranian government will not be easily uprooted by force, is serious enough about keeping the nuclear deal in place and already has its hands full in competing with its neighbors for influence? If the United States’ goal is to avoid further destabilizing the Middle East while it has so many other foreign policy conundrums to grapple with, then relying on the more subtle tools of covert intelligence to maintain oversight of Iran’s nuclear program, while playing off existing tensions between Iran and the Middle East’s major Sunni powers, may be a more effective way to keep Tehran’s ambitions in check than single-handedly reigniting a nuclear crisis that could easily consume America’s military capacity.

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