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What will Trump’s Iran-deal withdrawal do to trust in the U.S.?

Trump’s ill-advised decision leaves the other signatories in a bad position. Most of them were obviously hoping Trump was bluffing (or huffing and puffing).

President Donald Trump announcing his intention to withdraw from the JCPOA Iran nuclear agreement during a statement in the Diplomatic Room at the White House on Tuesday.
REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

Of course you’ve heard or read by now about President Trump’s much-telegraphed decision to pull out of the multilateral deal to constrain Iran’s nuclear program, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

I view it as a mistake, and a big one. I hope time will prove me wrong. I lack the technical knowledge to assess all the issues (as, I’m confident, does the current incumbent). Trump’s own secretary of defense, Gen. James Mattis, who I believe understands the pros and cons as they affect national security better than does his boss (or me), said the JCPOA was working and he opposed scrapping it.

Trump has not, and I suspect cannot, make a coherent explanation of the pros and cons of the deal. Sadly, it’s easy to suspect, as I do, that breaking the deal is mostly part of his ongoing campaign to diminish the accomplishments of his predecessor, Barack Obama, whom he despises. Trump also bills himself as a great deal-maker, so perhaps his vanity got in the way of him respecting a deal he didn’t make. One begins to suspect that the man may have some ego issues.

What now?

As you know, there is a possibility that the other signatories will find a way to keep Iran in the framework of the deal, although, obviously, they will have to agree to changes to incentivize Iran to stay in the deal, and I doubt those changes, if they can be negotiated, will strengthen the deal from a U.S. perspective.

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(Dare I mention that there is nothing in international law that authorizes the United States to decide who can and can’t have nukes.)

I want to make only one fairly obvious point that perhaps isn’t made often enough. The deal was not between the United States and Iran. Its signatories included those two nations, plus Russia, China and the European Union, and that last group includes many if not most of America’s best friends in the world.

Trump’s ill-advised decision leaves the other signatories in a bad position. For those signatories that are U.S. allies (including NATO allies) having America in the deal was a big plus and agreeing to the deal was also a display of NATO solidarity. The U.S. withdrawal is for them a big minus, and most of them were obviously hoping Trump was bluffing (or huffing and puffing).

Those U.S. allies often follow Washington’s lead on matters like this, and they did follow the U.S. lead in joining the JCPOA. They are not interested in joining the U.S. lead in breaking the deal. They hope to patch it together and persuade Iran to continue complying. I have no idea how that effort will play out. The deal is worth less to Iran with the United States out of it.

The trust issue

The one obvious point to which I alluded above is this: Many of our best allies in the world signed on to this deal under U.S. leadership, believing that it was the best approach to the danger of a nuclear Iran. Now they are left holding the bag by the withdrawal of their superpower ally. I fear that in light of Trump’s decision announced Tuesday, they are wondering whether trusting in, relying on and following the lead of the United States is as safe  a bet as it used to be.

And then there’s the same problem from the point of view of other U.S. adversaries who find themselves negotiating with Washington.

The administration sent Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Andrew Peek to the PBS Newshour last night to defend Trump’s decision to pull out of the Iran deal. The Newshour’s William Brangham asked: “What about the problem that this jeopardizes our credibility, raises the question of whether our word can be taken? [Secretary of State] Mike Pompeo is on his way to North Korea right now, starting negotiations about their nuclear program. If the North Koreans are looking at what the president has done in tearing up this existing deal [with Iran], why should North Korea believe we’ll keep to our word in a deal with them?”

Poor Peek. His reply: “Because I think they can be sure he wants a good deal; just not a bad deal.”

Very reassuring.