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The great deal-breaker takes on the Iran accord

John Bolton, President Trump, and Mike Pompeo.Lesley Becker/Globe Staff illustration

IT WAS TYPICAL Donald Trump, which is to say, deeply undiplomatic, gratuitously antagonistic, and highly counterproductive.

Sitting next to President Emmanuel Macron of France, who hopes to persuade the United States to remain in the Iran nuclear deal, President Trump denounced the pact as “insane” and “ridiculous.” He then declared that Iran “will have bigger problems than they have ever had before” if it restarts its nuclear-weapons program, something Iran has threatened should Trump reimpose economic sanctions.

So even as Trump is preparing to take a risky but worthwhile gamble to persuade North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons, he’s increasing the odds that Iran will resume its own nuclear aspirations. It’s belligerent bluster pressed into service as ad hoc foreign policy.


Just to review the bidding here:

Facing a country seemingly intent on developing nuclear weapons, the Obama administration, in concert with Russia, China, Germany, the United Kingdom, and France, negotiated a deal that dramatically reduced Iran’s stock of enriched uranium, took thousands of centrifuges out of operation, and altered Iran’s heavy-water reactor so it could no longer produce weapons-grade plutonium, the core of the most powerful type of nuclear bomb.

That agreement included an inspections regime that the International Atomic Energy Agency judged rigorous enough to detect any violations. As an additional safeguard, the IAEA was granted long-term inspection rights over the entirety of Iran’s nuclear cycle, from mining to milling to waste stream.

The agreement was a significant accomplishment, but conservatives quickly tried to make the perfect the enemy of the good. Because the restrictions on the stockpile of uranium and the enrichment levels end after 15 years, they insisted Iran would then be free to build a bomb.


Yes, Iran could again enrich uranium and stockpile it, but the United States and its allies would have the full range of options that it had pre-deal about how to respond. The hope, however, was that with the economic sanctions having ended, Iran wouldn’t want to trigger another round of international action, and so would desist from doing so.

But at very least, absent a surreptitious nuclear-weapons program, the pact delayed the Iran nuclear-weapons problem for at least 15 years or, by today’s timeline, another dozen years.

Enter Trump, with his threats to end the agreement, seemingly made mostly to avoid having to retreat on his reckless campaign trail rhetoric. He has said he will withdraw the United States from the agreement unless (1) IAEA inspectors have immediate access to any desired Iranian site, (2) the sunset provisions are eliminated, and (3) it is expanded to include Iran’s ballistic missile program.

Macron, Angela Merkel of Germany, and Theresa May of the United Kingdom hope to persuade Trump to stay in the deal and pursue his other objectives in an additional or superseding pact. Although the prospects of such an accord seem unlikely, that approach is far more sensible than Trump’s.

If Trump makes good on his threat to abandon the deal and then reimposes US sanctions, and if Iran counters by enriching uranium beyond reactor-fuel grade, the two countries will be back on a collision course. But with this caveat: Our (erstwhile) partners in the pact would be unlikely to join a reimposition of sanctions, since the United States, not Iran, would have unraveled the agreement. Thus bailing out would leave us with Iran once again building up its enriched uranium stockpile, but without an effective sanctions regime to punish that activity. And, in all likelihood, without allies willing to join or endorse military action against Iran’s nuclear facilities.


No prudent, providential president would want to find himself in that position.

But John Bolton and Mike Pompeo, two unhooded hawks, now perch on Trump’s shoulders. That means hope for sane policy rests increasingly on Jim Mattis — and on the persuasiveness of Macron, Merkel, and May.

Scot Lehigh can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @GlobeScotLehigh.