The tone was low key, but its significance was unmistakable. Questioned about the Iran nuclear deal, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the United States should stay in the pact.
“The point I would make is if we can confirm that Iran is living by the agreement, if we can determine that this is in our best interests, then clearly we should stay with it,” he said. “I believe at this point in time, absent indications to the contrary, it is something the president should consider staying with.”
And when Senator Angus King, independent of Maine, asked Mattis whether he believes it is in the United States’ national security interest to stick with the deal, Mattis replied: “Yes, senator, I do.”
General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, delivered a similar message, telling the Senate panel: “Iran is not in material breach of the agreement, and I do believe the agreement to date has delayed the development of a nuclear capability by Iran.” Even skeptics agree Iran is abiding by the agreement, something both the International Atomic Energy Agency and the US State Department have repeatedly confirmed.
President Trump’s problem is that during the campaign, he made irresponsible claims about the agreement and pandering promises to end it. He is now trying to save face by insisting on a larger review of Iranian conduct, even while administration sources say he will toss the issue to Congress to decide.
But none of that should obscure crucial realities here. First, the nuclear deal doesn’t include all objectionable aspects of Iran’s geopolitical behavior. It targets the one vital issue the international community could agree on: that Iran should not have nuclear weapons. Second, for all Trump’s talk of going back to the table in search of a tougher agreement, it’s highly unlikely that he would get the US’s negotiating partners — the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia, and China — to join such an effort. Indeed, as UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson has noted, without the Iran deal, the world may well find itself with another North Korea-like situation on its hands. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, meanwhile, has urged Trump to keep the deal and cited it as a possible model for dealing with North Korea.
In contrast to the tense standoff the United States now faces with Pyongyang, we now have a relatively stable situation with Iran. As promised, that nation has gotten rid of 97 percent of its enriched uranium stocks and taken some 13,000 centrifuges out of operation. It has also altered the core of its Irak heavy-water reactor so it can’t produce weapons-grade plutonium, which makes for a more compact bomb, and thus one easier to fit to a missile.
And for all the complaints that the deal doesn’t last forever, it includes a quarter century of comprehensive inspections of the Iran’s nuclear fuel cycle, which will let IAEA account for all nuclear material in that cycle. Should the IAEA determine that Iran is cheating on the agreement, we’d still be in a better position to deal with that problem, since the agreement has lengthened from a couple of months to about a year the time it would take Iran to produce enough weapons-grade uranium for a single bomb.
Mattis, the administration’s indispensable man on national security matters, has now presented the president with a way to save face. Trump should now say that, whatever his personal feelings, he needs to respect the judgment of his national security experts. It’s a way out of a dilemma a responsible leader would never have put himself in.