Now that Donald Trump has refused to certify the Iran nuclear deal, the ball is in Congress’s court. If the Legislative branch decides to reimpose sanctions against Iran, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), as the nuclear accord is known, is likely (but not definitely) dead. All indications are that Congress will try and stop short of imposing new sanctions. Nonetheless, this outcome can hardly be ruled out. Therefore, it’s worth considering how Iran might retaliate if sanctions are reimposed.
There are a ton of options available to Iran, and it’s impossible to know exactly which ones it will choose. Still, there are probably two broad strategies it will consider. In the first instance, Tehran might tailor its actions to punish the United States and certain allies like Israel and Saudi Arabia, while trying to avoid hurting countries in Europe that opposed Trump’s decision. Iran might take a less discriminate approach in the hope that the world will ultimately blame the United States for pulling out of the agreement in the first place.
With this in mind, here’s four possible ways that Iran might retaliate.
1 - Nuclear Submarines
It would be logically coherent for Iran is to retaliate to the United States scuttling the agreement by ramping up its nuclear program, perhaps beyond the levels it achieved before the deal was in place. If it decides on this approach, Tehran will most likely want to do so without overtly declaring it is building nuclear weapons.
Iran could best achieve this objective by announcing that it is building nuclear submarines. This is something that Iranian officials threatened back in 2012, and in December of last year—after the United States passed new non-nuclear sanctions—President Hassan Rouhani ordered his country’s scientists to begin “planning the design and production of nuclear fuel and reactors for maritime transport.”
The benefit of this policy is it gives Iran cover to overcome the largest obstacle to building a nuclear weapon: obtaining fissile material. As I recently discussed in relation to South Korea, the nuclear reactors that power submarines typically use uranium enriched to 90 percent levels, which is what is used in nuclear bombs. Thus, Iran can acquire the fissile material needed for a bomb while maintaining plausible deniability that it is building one.
This strategy would not be without risks, however. For starters, it would put immense pressure on Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu to authorize airstrikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities. Moreover, this strategy would risk alienating the European powers, as well as Russia and China, which opposed the U.S. violation of the agreement. As alluded to above, it’s possible that other countries would blame the United States for Iran’s nuclear expansion since it was the one that violated the agreement.
It is also worth noting that Iran has pursued a similar strategy in the past. As the international community ramped up sanctions in the years before Iran and the P5+1 entered into negotiations, Tehran undertook a nuclear buildup as a way of coercing the United States into abandoning its approach.
2 - Kill the Hostages
If Iran was intent on not alienating the non-U.S. members of the P5+1, it might abide by the terms of the nuclear agreement while using a more tailored approach to punish the United States. One such approach would be to use proxy forces to attack U.S. troops currently operating in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan.
Once again, this strategy would not be without precedent: following the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq in 2001 and 2003 respectively, the Iranian Quds Forces waged a vicious covert war against American troops in those countries. According to some estimates , Iran is responsible for the death of some 500 U.S. troops in those two countries. Perhaps the most lethal tactic Tehran used was providing explosively formed penetrators (EFPs) to its proxies in Iraq.
The New York Times has called EFP’s “the single most lethal weapon American forces faced in Iraq.” As it explained: “What makes EFP’s so deadly is that they form ‘slugs’ at detonation that maintain their shape over distances of over 100 yards or more, traveling at speeds of nearly a mile per second. This allowed insurgent forces to hide these weapons far from the road, better camouflaging them and making them far more deadly. In some I.E.D. factories, American forces found EFP’s camouflaged to look like trash or rocks.”
Even when the United States had well over 100,000 troops in Iraq, it struggled mightily to protect its troops from Iranian-backed attacks. Now, a much smaller and more vulnerable set of forces are operating in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan. These troops are effectively hostages in the nuclear deal saga, serving as easy targets for Iranian retaliation.