America’s choices in the Middle East continue to challenge the best of our foreign policy experts. There are no easy answers in a region with ever-changing interests and alliances, but one tool to consider for advancing American interests is the use of “consequences” against those who deliberately stick a finger in our eye. This is necessary with four regional players: Iran, Turkey, the Palestinians and Qatar.
The case of Iran is instructive in the power of consequences, and it is a timely assessment since America must plan for the day when President Trump truly decertifies the Iran nuclear agreement. Supporters of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action believe new sanctions on Iran, even for non-nuclear transgressions, will destroy the deal. In the carrot-and-stick approach, they would continue to try to tame the Islamic Republic of Iran with more carrots.
But the JCPOA is not a treaty; we can amend it. Those who disagree with the idea of placating the Iranian government instead favor imposing sanctions for ballistic missile development, terrorism, human rights abuses and ethnic cleansing under the Iranian Revolutionary Guards in Syria and Iraq.
When serious economic sanctions were placed on the revolutionary regime before 2015, to punish Iran for its nuclear program, Iran’s economy and its currency dose-dived. Those sanctions brought Iran to the table, and the removal of those economic consequences with the front-ended largesse of tens of billions of dollars, brought the opposite response: an emboldened Iran.
We also should consider consequences for European allies, such as Germany, who refuse to help the United States because they profit from new Iranian business ventures. Such consequences could begin with a public campaign to embarrass Germany for cavorting with a regime that has been complicit in helping Syria President Bashar al-Assad commit genocide. When push comes to shove, I bet Germany chooses the $17 trillion American economy over the third-rate Iranian economy.
Once a rock-solid NATO ally, Turkey has become, at best, a “frenemy.” NATO’s former supreme commander, Adm. James Stavridis, writing in Time, suggests a cooperative relationship to advance our interests in Syria: “U.S. policy in Syria rests on the U.S. and Turkey working together. The problem is that the U.S. relied on the Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces. … We need to consider a Turkish security zone. … This is a NATO border that we are sworn by treaty to protect.”
But Stavridis is advocating for a secular Turkish ally that doesn’t exist anymore. Over the past 14 years, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has transformed his nation, replacing its secular military and judiciary with Islamists while imprisoning or exiling moderates and pro-Western democrats. So we must ask: is Turkey in 2018 a reliable and indispensable NATO ally?
Repairing U.S. relations with Turkey is important, but it needs to be on our terms, not those that Erdoğan dictates. Adversaries such as Iran, Syria, Russia and China are closely watching how we respond to his provocations. No doubt America would like to keep its air base in Incirlik, but even here Turkey has threatened America. Last year, says former U.S. Ambassador to Turkey Eric Edelman, there were “several attempts to impress upon the United States that Incirlik could be cut off at any time.”
As Washington continues to try to reconcile the American-Turkish relationship with carrots, not sticks, I am reminded of an old friend’s words: “In this part of the world, you cannot placate your enemies.” Critics believe that consequences will just push Turkey closer to Iran and Russia. But Turkey knows that both these countries, in the long term, are adversaries and, prodded with sticks, Erdoğan might turn back toward the West.
The United States is trying such consequences in another part of the Levant. After years of offering carrots to the Palestinians, Congress and the Trump administration have decided to decrease financial aid to the Palestinian Authority unless it stops rewarding terrorists and suicide bombers’ families with American taxpayer dollars.
President Trump also imposed consequences by decreasing funding to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, a humanitarian organization for Palestinian refugees that has allowed Hamas to work from its facilities. Congress, under the leadership of Sens. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Ben Cardin (D-Md.), has been advancing the Israel Anti-Boycott Act, legislation that will have consequences on those who boycott our ally Israel.
Another supporter of American adversaries, Qatar deserves consequences for associating with Iran, harboring terrorist entities, and supporting radical jihadists. Qatar’s defenders claim the American air base Udeid in Qatar is irreplaceable, but that is not necessarily true; there is an advanced base in Saudi Arabia that was used in the early 2000s.
Some believe that if America offers enough incentives to problematic Middle East states such as these four, they will reciprocate. But typically, they perceive our concessions as weakness. The better tool to reduce the chances of war is to impose economic consequences through sanctions, and to target the finances of people, companies, banks or states that support terrorism.
Offering carrots has failed, so why not try brandishing some sticks?
Eric R. Mandel is director of MEPIN™, the Middle East Political and Information Network. He regularly briefs members of Congress and policy groups on the Middle East and is a regular contributor to The Jerusalem Post.