Opponents of President Donald Trump claim that President Donald Trump’s decision to leave the Iran deal blocks any chance of a new agreement with Tehran and wrecks U.S. credibility with its allies.
Trump’s supporters, for their part, argue that the president opened up the possibility of negotiating a better deal with the ayatollahs by abandoning his predecessor’s lopsided nuclear pact.
Both sides are wrong. And, more to the point, they miss the larger picture.
For more than twenty years, successive U.S. administrations have been vexed by the challenge of Iran’s illicit pursuit of nuclear weapons. And from the time the problem first emerged during Bill Clinton’s tenure at the White House, there have only been two viable means to block Iran’s path to the bomb.
The first path is the path of regime change. This option requires the U.S. to precipitate Iran’s economic and social collapse through crippling economic sanctions and active support for the Iranian people as they rise up against their theocratic overlords.
The second path is to destroy Iran’s nuclear installations and assets through limited covert and overt strikes.
Parallel to these two options, over the years, U.S. policymakers — first and foremost President Barack Obama — created two imaginary options for contending with Iran’s nuclear program. Obama and his advisors framed the public discourse around their nuclear negotiations as a contest between them.
First, they said, is the option of all-out war. The U.S. could lead an invasion of Iran, along the lines of the U.S.-led invasion of Iran in 2003. In the course of a massive war, the U.S. goal would be to overthrow the Iranian regime and forcibly end its nuclear program.
The other option, they insisted, was to cut a deal with Iran under which Iran would voluntarily give up its nuclear program in exchange for trade deals, and for international acceptance of Iran’s other malign behavior – from its sponsorship of terrorism and regional aggression, to its development of ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear warheads.
The purpose of the Obama administration’s propaganda war on behalf of the nuclear deal was to delegitimize criticism of the content of the deal by claiming that everyone that opposed the policy was a warmonger (or, conversely, making “common cause” with hard-liners in the Iranian regime that wanted war against the U.S.).
In the event, both of the options were imaginary. No one in the U.S. or the international community has ever proposed a massive U.S.-led invasion of Iran. It was never considered. It is a policy that exists nowhere and is advocated by nobody.
As for the notion that Iran could be convinced to concede its nuclear program voluntarily in exchange for international legitimacy, planeloads of cash, and a blind eye to its other bad behavior, this, too, was a fantasy.
Obama’s nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), did not involve Iran agreeing to give up its nuclear program. The deal simply required Iran to work on certain aspects of its nuclear program – advanced centrifuge development and ballistic missile development, for instance — while limiting others, like certain uranium enrichment activities, for the duration of the deal.
In other words, to prevent the imaginary possibility of a U.S. led ground invasion of Iran, the Obama administration financed Iran’s regional aggression and sponsorship of terrorism to the tune of $150 billion dollars in sanctions relief. It legitimized Iran’s ballistic missile program and guaranteed Tehran’s eventual acquisition of a nuclear arsenal.
While doing all of that, Obama’s nuclear diplomacy weakened the America’s ability to implement either of the two actual options for blocking Iran’s path to a nuclear arsenal.
The JCPOA required the U.S. and its partners to abrogate the crippling nuclear sanctions which were spurring the Iranian people to rise up against the regime.
As for the option of limited strikes, the JCPOA rendered them politically impossible. How could the U.S. sabotage or destroy its diplomatic partner’s nuclear installations?
All of that changed on Tuesday.
By abandoning the JCPOA and reinstating U.S. sanctions that were suspended in 2016, Trump resuscitated both actual options for blocking Iran’s path to the bomb.
The sanctions option, which he implemented right after he concluded his remarks, will destabilize the regime by drying up its financial flows.
The downstream impact of the sanctions is twofold. First, they will diminish Iran’s ability to sponsor terror and carry out regional aggression in Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Gaza, Afghanistan, and beyond. Second, by reinstating crippling sanctions on Iran’s economy, the U.S. will weaken the regime’s hold on power.
As for the option of direct strikes against Iran’s nuclear installations, Trump did not put the option on the table on Tuesday, but he created the political space to consider them either separately or in conjunction with sanctions. Indeed, at his cabinet meeting Wednesday, Trump intimated that the prospect of just such strikes is under consideration when he warned Iran of “severe consequences” if it reinstates the nuclear activities it had limited under the JCPOA.
The salutary effects of Trump’s move are not limited to the its positive implications on U.S.’s real options for contending with Iran’s nuclear program. His announcement accomplished two related goals as well.
First, he took a major step towards restoring the democratic balance of power in the U.S.
The U.S. Constitution requires the President to bring international agreements to the Senate for ratification by two-thirds of its members. Treaties are broadly defined as significant foreign policy initiatives that bind the U.S. to other nations. The nuclear deal certainly was a significant foreign policy initiative. Indeed, it was a radical departure from 70 years of U.S. non-proliferation policy.
The JCPOA required the U.S. to enrich and empower an enemy state on a massive scale to achieve an end that advanced no discernable U.S. interest. The Europeans accrued far greater financial benefit from the deal than the U.S. did, for instance. And again, far from blocking Iran’s path to the bomb, the deal ensured Iran’s eventual acquisition of a nuclear arsenal.
The constitutional case for the Senate to treat the JCPOA as a treaty was self-evident.
Obama knew that not only did he lack the requisite support of two-thirds of Senators, but he also lacked the support of a bare majority of Senators for his radical deal. And so, rather than present the deal to the Senate, in accordance with his constitutional obligation, he turned to the UN to bypass the Senate. The day the JCPOA was concluded, then-U.S. ambassador to the UN Samantha Power submitted a Security Council resolution effectively “ratifying” the deal in lieu of Senate approval.
In other words, Obama used the UN to hamstring Congress and deny the public’s representatives the ability to conduct congressional oversight over his foreign policy.
Tuesday Trump characterized Obama’s deal as “a great embarrassment to me as a citizen, and to all citizens of the United States.”
And he was right. For to secure Iranian acceptance of the JCPOA, Obama destroyed America’s credibility as an adversary and an ally alike.
Iran’s naval aggression against U.S. naval craft in the Straits of Hormuz, like its flamboyant exploitation of the funds it received from sanctions relief to ratchet up its terror sponsorship and regional aggression, were expressions of contempt for the U.S.
By the same token, to persuade the Iranian regime to accept a deal that gave them everything and gave the U.S. nothing, Obama betrayed and endangered America’s Arab allies and Israel.
When Trump walked away from the nuclear deal on Tuesday, and reinstituted the sanctions that were suspended under the deal, he signaled to U.S. friends and foes alike that America is back in the superpower business.
America is once again an enemy of its foes and a friend of its allies. When Trump says that Iran will face “severe consequences,” the Iranians need to take him seriously in a manner they never took Obama seriously when he said emptily that “all options are on the table.”
Trump’s many critics in the media insist that his decision to abandon Obama’s deal with Iran’s mullahs sends the message that the U.S. cannot be trusted when it gives its word to the nations of the world. But the message he has sent – and that seems to have been picked up by North Korea, for instance – is that the U.S. will not maintain international agreements that harm its interests.
The deal the U.S. is willing to make with North Korea is not yet another appeasement agreement along the lines of Obama’s Iran deal and Clinton’s 1994 nuclear agreement with North Korea. When President Trump tells the North Korean regime that the only deal he will make is one that dismantles Pyongyang’s nuclear arsenal, after he abandoned the JCPOA, the North Koreans know that it would be unwise to doubt him.
The fact that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo returned from North Korea with three American citizens who had been held hostage by Pyongyang in tow signals that North Korea is taking Trump seriously.
And so Trump’s announcement that he is withdrawing from Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran was a masterstroke. It was brilliant not because it paved the way for a new diplomatic initiative. It was a masterstroke because in one fell swoop he ended the farce that you can have a non-proliferation policy based on facilitating Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons.
At the same time, Trump strengthened America’s real options for preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. He restored the balance of powers in America’s constitutional order. And he restored U.S. credibility internationally with America’s friends and foes alike.