Caught between campaign rhetoric and governing reality, the Trump administration has taken a confused, chaotic, and thoroughly counterproductive stance with regard to the Iran nuclear deal.
During the campaign, Candidate Trump repeatedly denounced the agreement, a signature accomplishment of the Obama administration, as one of the dumbest ever struck. Pandering shamelessly, he told the American Israel Public Affairs Committee that his “number one priority is to dismantle the disastrous deal with Iran.”
But for all his bluster on Iran, an inconvenient truth has now been obvious for some time: Despite some minor and quickly corrected slippage, Iran has been complying with the nuclear deal. Most importantly, it has reduced its supply of enriched uranium by 97 percent and altered its Arak reactor so it can’t produce plutonium, by far the most potent fuel for a nuclear bomb. Indeed, last week, Trump’s own State Department recently certified that Iran was indeed abiding by the terms of the agreement.
Still, Trump contends that Iran is “not living up to the spirit of the agreement,” while Secretary of State Rex Tillerson says the administration will conduct a new review of the deal. In remarks critical of the agreement, Tillerson cited concerns such as Iran’s missile tests and its support for terrorist groups. “A comprehensive Iran policy requires we address all of the threats posed by Iran, and it is clear there are many,” he told reporters.
Actually, however, there is no larger spirit to the deal, and that was understood at the time. This agreement wasn’t a comprehensive pact ranging over the wide sweep of Iranian geopolitical behavior. Rather, it was an exercise in the art of the possible.
The United States and its partners in the negotiations — China, Russia, Britain, France, and Germany — crafted an agreement that dealt with the number one fear in the region: the possibility that Iran would develop a nuclear weapons capability. The deal did not include activities such as support for terrorist groups or meddling in other countries’ affairs, which were considered a separate set of problems. Unlike the development of nuclear-weapons capability, those aren’t matters likely to trigger American military action against Iran. They are manageable by other means.
That’s not to say the United States shouldn’t draw attention to them and pressure Iran to cease and desist. But the Trump administration also needs to recognize that Iran has kept its word on the nuclear deal, which has lessened fears in the region. Indeed, even though Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was vehemently and vocally against the agreement, the Israeli intelligence community has reportedly judged the deal to be working and has urged Netanyahu not to push Trump for its abrogation.
It’s also highly unlikely that Trump could succeed in convincing our negotiating partners to abandon an agreement Iran is honoring. Further, for all the talk about the agreement delaying rather than preventing a nuclear Iran, the deal gives the International Atomic Energy Agency the right to conduct close inspections of the Iran nuclear fuel cycle — from mining to milling through processing and the waste cycle – for a quarter of a century. And if the United States determines that Iran has, at some future point, embarked on a breakout race to a bomb, it’s not as though we will have surrendered our military options.
Donald Trump campaigned in black and white simplicities that didn’t match the complexities of international affairs. It could be that both the administration’s new review of the deal and its tough rhetoric are merely designed to put some distance between Trump’s campaign rhetoric and a future flip-flop that will eventually see the president accept the agreement.
Still, other policymakers and experts must push back, hard, against any attempt to abrogate or erode the Iran deal. The consequences are too serious to allow a face-saving exercise to undermine an agreement that is serving its declared purpose.