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Opinion | Glen Johnson

End of the Iran deal: Shredding diplomacy for spite, not gain

A mural on the wall of the former US embassy in Tehran, Iran, pictured on May 8.
A mural on the wall of the former US embassy in Tehran, Iran, pictured on May 8.(ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images)

President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of the diplomacy leading to the agreement.

His potshots at former secretary of state John Kerry for negotiating it also display a personal animosity explaining much about the underlying motivation for his decision.

I watched Kerry not only complete the agreement during 19 long days in Vienna, but also across thousands of miles while he marshaled both Iran and the international community toward a deal and the successful implementation of it.

After nearly three decades as a reporter, I accepted Kerry’s offer to join him at the State Department as he became the nation’s 68th secretary of state. It was tough to leave the only profession I had known, but I knew I’d regret it for the rest of my life if I turned down an opportunity available to so few people.

During the next four years, in which we traveled over 1.4 million miles to 91 countries and all seven continents, I came to appreciate not only the scope and reach of the nation’s first Cabinet agency, but the structure and history of diplomacy and its practice in the modern era.

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I glimpsed some of the foibles in Kerry I had seen as a reporter, but I also gained fresh insight into his creativity, energy, and, most of all, his patience. Each of them served our national interest as he negotiated on behalf of our country.

President Obama believed the development of Iran’s nuclear program could result in a nuclear weapon, which would have a tremendously destabilizing effect on the Middle East. Not only could it inspire Islamic opponents such as Saudi Arabia to seek nukes of their own, but it might prompt Israel to stage a preemptive military strike against a country that refuses even to acknowledge its existence.

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The Israelis had already launched an attack on an Iraqi nuclear facility in 1981.

In 2011, Obama endorsed Kerry as the then-senator traveled to Oman to feel out Iranian emissaries about the possibility of limiting their program to civilian purposes. In return, the United States would work with the international community to lift sanctions that had crippled Iran’s economy.

In the fall of 2013, after hard-liner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had been replaced by the more moderate Hassan Rouhani as president of Iran, Kerry, as secretary of state, began negotiations with the Iranian foreign minister, Javad Zarif, on the outlines of a potential deal. During numerous days and nights in Geneva, the two inched toward an interim agreement, the Joint Plan of Action.

Just before Thanksgiving, they reached a deal. For the first time, Iran enacted curbs on its nuclear program. And an array of nations, including the United States, began the phased lifting of $7 billion worth of sanctions in return.

The agreement was set to last just six months, but as negotiations dragged, it was continually renewed — meaning Iran maintained the limits on its program even without a final agreement.

When that was reached, in July 2015, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action was not just with the United States, but with all of the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, as well as Germany and the leadership of the 28-nation European Union.

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When most people hear about the UN Security Council today, it’s because the United States, Russia, or China has vetoed one of the other’s resolutions. In this instance, though, there was rare unanimity.

In vowing to go alone, Trump is turning our country against an agreement it negotiated. The others will remain parties to the deal, selling the Iranians their cars, airplanes, and weapons systems.

He will also buttress Iranian hard-liners, who argued the United States couldn’t be trusted, and gut the moderates who hoped that economic recovery would allow Iran’s burgeoning youth population to seek integration with the West, rather than being ostracized from it.

And the president will do so just before sitting down with Kim Jong Un of North Korea, a country that already has nuclear weapons, and asking him to dispose of them in exchange for promises of military and economic relief.

Along the way, Trump has tweeted about Kerry’s negotiating skills and even mocked him for breaking a leg while biking during a recess in the negotiations.

As someone who was present at the creation, I argue it does a disservice to the United States to abrogate an agreement we made to stave off a potential war, against the objection of our closest allies, and with spite toward a man who didn’t let a broken femur — far worse than a bone spur — keep him from serving his country.


Glen Johnson served as deputy assistant secretary of state for strategic communications from 2013-2017.

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