Skip to Content

Support MinnPost

Decertifying the Iran deal would be another unforced error by the Trump administration

President Trump
REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
President Donald Trump can’t really declare that Iran is violating the terms of the nuclear deal.

President Trump is about to show Iran how tough he is – by shooting himself in the foot.

By “decertifying” the Obama administration’s nuclear deal with Iran, which Trump is expected to do in coming days, he gets to take a whack at another pillar of Barack Obama’s legacy. He also gets to sort of fulfill a campaign promise — and then hand the mess to someone else.

The move is also likely to isolate the U.S., cause confusion about its intentions, permit Iran to claim the high ground in any push to renegotiate, and provide both allies and adversaries with more evidence that the United States can’t be trusted.

The 2015 deal lifted sanctions against Iran in exchange for limits on its nuclear program. Iran’s compliance is being monitored by the United Nations, which has declared that the Islamic Republic is sticking by the letter of its obligations. 

No one regards the agreement as ideal. But Obama calculated that it was better to stop Iran temporarily than face the problem of what to do once it was on the cusp of possessing a nuclear weapon. It held out hope that the prospect of regaining its standing in the world would encourage Iran to change. 

Iran still is developing a missile program and actively opposing U.S. policy in Syria, Iraq and plenty of other places. Trump, who has called the agreement “embarrassing” and much worse, can’t really declare that Iran is violating its terms. Instead, he’s likely to say Iran is not following its spirit, or that the deal is no longer in the U.S. national interest. The idea seems to be that decertifying will increase pressure on Iran to behave.

Decertifying doesn’t actually kill the agreement. It opens a 60-day window during which Congress could reimpose sanctions. If Congress did act, that would put the deal at risk. In the worst case, Iran might decide to it restart its nuclear program. 

As Ilan Goldenberg and Mara Karlin, Pentagon officials in the Obama and George W. Bush administrations, say in this Atlantic piece, continuing disagreements with Iran, as serious as they may be, are less daunting than planning for military action or learning to live with a nuclear Iran. 

A handful of leaders will be pleased with Trump’s action, including Benjamin Netanyahu. The Israeli prime minister hates the deal because he thinks Iran is only biding its time before the restrictions expire and it can build a bomb, and he is likely to continue to try to undermine the whole thing. Saudi Arabia, which is engaged in a broad struggle with Iran for dominance in the Middle East, will be happy, too.

Trump’s senior foreign and defense policy advisers, including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, are not in favor of scrapping the deal, even with its flaws. Neither are the other signatories: Britain, France, Germany, the European Union, Russia and China. 

Congress does not appear eager to act. It has problems accomplishing much of anything, and a small window to finish a very ambitious tax bill. In recent days, Trump also picked a fight with a key figure in any debate on Iran, Bob Corker of Tennessee, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

So is Iran likely to moderate its actions? Don’t count on it – at least not in any significant way.

By punting the problem to Congress, Trump creates a lot of uncertainty about what the United States will do. Ambiguity can be useful, but the problem is that the U.S. probably won’t know, either. When it gets messy, the president can point a finger at Congress. 

If you’re part of the hardline faction in Tehran, this is evidence that Iran shouldn’t have been drawn into negotiations with the U.S. in the first place. You’re also probably willing to gamble that the “America First” president doesn’t actually want to confront you over Syria or Iraq.

If you’re President Hassan Rouhani or Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif, it’s easy to make the case that it’s Washington, not you, who’s the problem. You just remind parties to the deal that you’re all on the same page – except the United States.

If you’re in London, Paris or Berlin, you want to keep the agreement in place, shore up its weak spots and maybe try to engage Tehran in new talks. You’re mindful of investment and business opportunities in Iran. Plus, you have more doubts about whether the Americans mean what they say. 

If you’re in Moscow or Beijing, you will be watching Trump step away from one of the few big policy areas where you’ve been able to agree in recent years. Since you oppose the U.S. on a lot of other fronts, you’ll remind everyone that they can’t really trust the Americans.

Isolated, unclear in its commitments and unsure of how to get what it wants — it's another unforced error by the globe’s dominant power.

Get MinnPost's top stories in your inbox

Related Tags:

About the Author:

Comments (30)

The real "unforced error"

The real "unforced error" was by President Obama when he shipped $150 billion upfront to Iran.

Show Me the Money

"Shipped" $150 billion? President Obama released Iranian assets that had been frozen, and that the US had already been ordered to pay.

All the US did was pay an overdue debt when it was due. Yes, I understand that's not how Trump works, but the US can't file bankruptcy and claim it was a victory.

The Mullahs wanted to see the

The Mullahs wanted to see the money before they would cut loose American hostages, so Obama "shipped" a pallet with $400 million USD over on a plane.

http://www.cnn.com/2016/08/03/politics/us-sends-plane-iran-400-million-c...

That's not how Trump works.

Trump doesn’t work at all -

He plays golf, fires his own lousy choices for his cabinet, spends millions of taxpayer money flying around to his various houses, and spends the rest of his day on Twitter. Oh,and makes stupid comments on regular basis. See Bannon’s latest prediction

Working

Trump barely works at all, but that's beside the point.

It doesn't matter much how the money was transported. It wasn't "our" money, it was Iran's money, and regaining access to their own funds was part of the deal that was negotiated in return for their compliance with several rules to prevent them from building nuclear weapons. Contracts are mutual agreements, and contract law is among the most basic of legal structures. They've held up their end of the bargain that was struck. Whether they did so enthusiastically or cheerfully is immaterial. For Trump to decide, unilaterally, to step away from the agreement is, in legal terms, breach of contract. All the negatives suggested in the article come into play should he be foolish enough to follow through on his threat.

Shipped the money

Imagine a deal with no hostages returned. The neocons would be baying for blood. Oh wait, they're still baying for blood. Never mind.

How did you want Obama to return Iranians their money, when we have no banking relationship with that country ? BitCoin perhaps ?

How about the fact that inspectors are not

allowed on any military base unless they put in a request with weeks of lead time. Obama failed to tell Americans the intricacies about what and what could not be inspected. There are still parts of the agreement that the American people don’t know about. If there are areas that inspectors don’t have immediate access to or can be turned down on, the deal is bad and should be eliminated.

RB, did you believe Bill Clinton when he gave the N. Korean Govt billions of dollars so they would stop their nuclear exploration? Remember the N. Korean people were going to get off nuclear power and go “green” with the billions we gave them.... huh, how did that work?

Which Has What to do With What?

Nothing you're saying has any bearing on the assets returned to Iran. Those assets were returned in accordance with an order by an international tribunal to which the US voluntarily acceded. I don't know how things work in your corner of the world, but in most places, we are bound by our promises.

Iran has been in compliance with the terms of the agreement. The "spirit " of the agreement doesn't matter. Are they doing what they promised to do? Looks like it.

"There are still parts of the agreement that the American people don’t know about." Then maybe they should stop concentrating on trivia like who is taking a knee before a football game and read it.

"RB, did you believe Bill Clinton when he gave the N. Korean Govt billions of dollars so they would stop their nuclear exploration?' You're talking apples and oranges here. North Korea has prided itself on its self-reliance. Iran is eager to rejoin the international community. The governance of Iran is split between those who understand how the world works, and some crazed theocrats. One would think it's in the world's best interest to encourage the sane faction.

"Remember the N. Korean people were going to get off nuclear power and go “green” with the billions we gave them.... huh, how did that work?" Huh, I see in this morning's fake news that solar panels are all over Pyongyang. Huh.

“Iran has been in compliance

“Iran has been in compliance with the terms of the agreement.” Sure, because it asked so little of them..

“Iran is eager to rejoin the international community.” Doesn’t seem like that with the way it behaves…

“The governance of Iran is split between those who understand how the world works, and some crazed theocrats.” That’s a very convenient theory but unfortunately it is obvious (at least, for anyone who ever lived in undemocratic country) that it’s just for show – good cop, bad cop. Supreme leader in Iran makes all decisions, as you may know.

Compliance

"Sure, because it asked so little of them.." Compliance does not mean doing more than you have to do. Ask any corporate compliance officer.

"Doesn’t seem like that with the way it behaves…" Why else would they negotiate any limits on their rights as a sovereign state? As you note, authority in Iran is split. Why does the US want to encourage the religious hardliners, by proving them right?

"Supreme leader in Iran makes all decisions, as you may know." Yes, but there is a growing tension between the religious and the secular authorities. How long before that comes to a head? Whom do we want to see win?

“Compliance does not mean

“Compliance does not mean doing more than you have to do.” Absolutely; however, you should not sign an agreement which requires very little from another party while giving it all advantages. My point was that this agreement was bad for America and good for Iran.

“Why else would they negotiate any limits on their rights as a sovereign state?” First of all, I was referring to its current behavior. See, if you want to rejoin the world, you have to behave accordingly after signing an agreement and Iran does not behave by any account. Second, rejoining the world was not Iran’s objective; its purpose was to get the world off its back so they can achieve their goal of getting nukes at the end. They have time and can wait 10 years but then they will be less than a year away and no way the world will be able to do anything about that in such a short time.

“As you note, authority in

“As you note, authority in Iran is split. Why does the US want to encourage the religious hardliners, by proving them right?” I never said they are split. And religious hardliners wanted this agreement as much as non-religious ones – otherwise it would not have been approved by Iran.

“there is a growing tension between the religious and the secular authorities. How long before that comes to a head? Whom do we want to see win?” We already missed our chance several years ago when there were demonstrations in Iran..

To my layman’s eye, the U.S. approach to Iran

has been a 65-year travesty. Nearly all nations in which the U.S. has sought to “build democracy” in my lifetime have lacked the institutions, shared norms and social capital that are essential to move from an authoritarian to a democratic state. These efforts were doomed to failure (though of course “building democracy” has never been what it’s been about).

In contrast, Iran has a long and distinguished cultural history, and a strong and sophisticated civic society beneath a clerical veneer. It presents just the circumstance for democracy-building (or rebuilding - it was doing OK until we orchestrated a coup and installed our dictator) via rapprochement by means of steady, patient, opportunistic cooperation and the gradual encouragement of secularism. If I’m seeking stability in that part of the world, turning Iran from an enemy to a mutually respecting democratic state is my highest-priority, though long-term, project. The JCPOA is a halting step back in that direction, but U.S. involvement is destined to be stillborn because we are led anymore only by the most craven among us, who can think only in encrusted geopolitical terms and of the flow of oil wealth, from those who wish Iran to remain as an enemy, that may not be interrupted.

One only can hope that the rest of the world continues in the direction of normalization, until the time that the U.S. can return to the grownups’ table, if that ever comes to pass.

“If I’m seeking stability in

“If I’m seeking stability in that part of the world, turning Iran from an enemy to a mutually respecting democratic state is my highest-priority, though long-term, project. The JCPOA is a halting step back in that direction,” Have you noticed any signs that Iran is becoming a democratic state which respects international order?

Yes.

In any event, read my comment. It isn't hardly about the JCPOA. The U.S. has done everything possible over the past 65 years to propel Iran away from democracy. If you're going to be the indispensable power spreading the light of democracy and freedom across the globe, you need to be principled, thoughtful and consistent over decades in the relationships you form, incentives and disincentives you create and actions you take with respect to other nations and societies. Instead the U.S. employs all of the rhetoric while its policies and actions, as always, serve the interests of the few that are not at all aligned with the interests of its people, or the people of other nations, in a peaceful world were people can make decent lives.

I never say that America

I never say that America should spread democracy and freedom around the world. Instead, it should defend and promote its own interests, just like all other countries are doing. However, considering that America is free and democratic, at the end, in most cases, it will be beneficial for the entire world. As for Iran, if not for America, it would have become a socialist state which never ends good (re: Venezuela). It may not be any better now but at least they had a chance with the Shah and they squandered it in 1979.

To What End?

It's hard to see what decertifying, and possibly withdrawing from, the agreement would accomplish. Why would Iran renegotiate a deal that was already unpopular with the conservative elements in that nation? No one with a grain of sense between their ears could possibly think that the US can bully them into even more concessions without getting something truly dramatic in return. Would the US resort to threats of military action to push a new agreement? Would Congress tolerate that? How about the American public?

Iran's only incentive to refrain from building nuclear weapons would be staying in the good graces of the other signatories. How important is that to them? More importantly, how important is it to the other signatories that Iran not obtain nuclear weapons?

The only countries that would be truly happy with US withdrawal would be Israel and Saudi Arabia. What would they gain? A nuclear-armed Iran wold be a hazard to both countries. Although certain types in the US would be happy to see their eschatological fantasies coming true if nuclear war broke out in the Mideast, bringing about the Rapture should not be a goal of US foreign policy.

Our credibility with other countries would suffer. The US would be the country that will not stick to an agreement for more than eight years, if that. Promises of any kind don't mean a lot to Trump, but that is not how diplomacy and international relations are conducted (there is a big difference between the foreign affairs of a modern nation state and convincing foreign officials to let you build a golf course).

The only reason to repudiate this agreement is the Trumpian obsession with undoing everything President Obama did. His fans buy into it, not knowing or caring about the realities of the situation, and that's enough for him. Unfortunately, fits of presidential pique can have disastrous consequences.

“Why would Iran renegotiate a

“Why would Iran renegotiate a deal that was already unpopular with the conservative elements in that nation?” Again, “conservative” elements like this agreement so much that they threaten America if it withdraws. If they didn’t like it, they should be happy, right?

“Would the US resort to threats of military action to push a new agreement?” Why not? Not doing it resulted in an agreement which did not give anything to America (at least Europe got economic benefits)

“The only countries that would be truly happy with US withdrawal would be Israel and Saudi Arabia. What would they gain? A nuclear-armed Iran would be a hazard to both countries.” Are you saying that these two countries are so stupid that they will be happy with something which is against their interests? Is it possible that they know very well what is good for them and also know that this agreement is the one which will actually lead to nuclear armed Iran?

“Our credibility with other countries would suffer” Didn’t it suffer when we did not enforce “the red line?”

“Obama calculated that it was

“Obama calculated that it was better to stop Iran temporarily than face the problem of what to do once it was on the cusp of possessing a nuclear weapon. “ Very true – he just kicked the can down the road knowing perfectly well that the next time the situation will be much worse (for example, Iran will have more ballistic missiles).

“It held out hope that the prospect of regaining its standing in the world would encourage Iran to change.” Naïve at best, but most likely just this was not a consideration because the previous one was much more important.

“The Israeli prime minister hates the deal because he thinks Iran is only biding its time before the restrictions expire and it can build a bomb,” And why would anyone doubt that, especially now?
“If you’re part of the hardline faction in Tehran, this is evidence that Iran shouldn’t have been drawn into negotiations with the U.S. in the first place.” There are no factions in Iran – everyone is under the supreme leader. It was all just a game – good cop, bad cop.

The bottom line is: it was Obama’s error and the only room for debate is whether it was forced or unforced.

You forgot to blame

China, Russia, Germany, France and England too.
Why are you in favor of Iran getting the bomb sooner?

Not at all; I am in favor of

Not at all; I am in favor of making sure that Iran will NEVER get the bomb. And this agreement guaranteed that it will in 10-12 years because: a. no one knows what Iran is doing at its military sites; b. there is no reason for Iran to abandon its search for nukes nor does it show any desire to stop its quest for dominance; c. in 10 years all restrictions will be gone and Iran will be within a year or less from building a bomb while it would take years for the world to agree on any actions…

Good Luck With That

Let's take all steps necessary to make sure Iran never gets the bomb. Shall we darken their skies with bombers? Impose permanent military occupation? Install a puppet government that does our bidding?

Go ahead, and see how far you get with that.

Iraq and Syria do not have

Iraq and Syria do not have nukes… Libya doesn’t have them… North Korea, on the other hand, has them...

Endless war

Every country, including our adversaries, have a strategy to defend themselves. However according to neo cons, such a thought is heresy. No country in the Middle East, except Israel, should have the capability to defend itself. And that according to them is rational foreign policy.

The nuclear can is not kicked down the road. Iran has agreed to, and stuck by, some major impediments to its nuclear program. The rest is endless crying false wolf by the neo-cons.

"“It held out hope that the prospect of regaining its standing in the world would encourage Iran to change.” Naïve at best," - Compared to what ? Endless war ? An economically developing country wouldn't risk its economy and future to destroy itself. Even China and India in their standoffs have realized that.

“The Israeli prime minister hates the deal because he thinks Iran is only biding its time before the restrictions expire and it can build a bomb,” - Netenyahu has been peddling this nonsense since the 1980's. Avery convenient way to distract from the Palestinian issue and keep the pot boiling. Cause after all he's got plenty of neo-cons who love endless war in that region.

"There are no factions in Iran" - Yes there are. You may not want to admit it.

"it was Obama’s error and the only room for debate is whether it was forced or unforced." - Nope, the only room for debate is whether Netanyahu can convince the neocons to start another war (just like Iraq). After all we got to keep the pot boiling, Otherwise he's got to talk about .......the Palestinians.....the horror.

So who should Iran defend

So who should Iran defend itself from with nuclear weapons? Who threatens its existence? I think it’s the other way around: Iran threatens existence of other countries…

“The nuclear can is not kicked down the road. Iran has agreed to, and stuck by, some major impediments to its nuclear program” Sure, for the next 10 years – the exact definition of kicking can down the road.

“An economically developing country wouldn't risk its economy and future to destroy itself” Iran is not thinking about destroying itself; it’s thinking about destroying others. And do you see any changes in Iran? So it was naïve to think that it would.

It is obvious that Iran had been building nuclear bomb. It may be argued whether it has stopped for now or just slowed down (we have no idea what they are doing at their military sites) but there is no grounds to believe that it abandoned this idea just because they do not have any reasons to and would gain a lot when they get nukes (re: North Korea vs. Libya).

How can there be any meaningful factions in a country where one person makes all significant final decisions? They may disagree within Iran on where to build the next nuclear facility or what name to give to the next missile but it is all irrelevant to the topic we are discussing.

Why Just Iran

"So who should Iran defend itself from with nuclear weapons? Who threatens its existence? I think it’s the other way around: Iran threatens existence of other countries…" - Based on your argument why should anyone have nuclear weapons in the Middle East. How does Iran threaten the existence of other countries. And if your going to quote Ahmedinijad, I can quote you plenty of Israeli politicians.

"Sure, for the next 10 years – the exact definition of kicking can down the road" - Except its a frozen can, with no active nuclear development towards a bomb. Big difference.

"And do you see any changes in Iran? So it was naïve to think that it would." - Yes, they have more freedoms than Palestinians and their citizens openly welcome the nuclear deal so that it would improve their economy and life style. Of course that runs counter to the Netanyahu and neo con goal and driving every other country into the ditch so the radicals can take over and so they can claim "See we told you". Kind of like what they did to the Palestinians.

"but there is no grounds to believe that it abandoned this idea just " Its called radiation sensors. I tend to believe those more than Netanyahu and his quest to promote radicalism in every Middle East country.

"How can there be any meaningful factions in a country where one person makes all significant final decisions? " - False narrative. Even the CIA admits there are factions in Iran. Trying to portray every opponent as a rabid dog is the neo con nirvana.

“Netanyahu can convince the

“Netanyahu can convince the neocons to start another war” Sure, we have heard it many times – neo-cons and America are governed from Israel. So why does Saudi Arabia then have the same opinion about Iran as Israel?

Heres why

"So why does Saudi Arabia then have the same opinion about Iran as Israel?" - Just like Netanyahu, Saudi Arabia needs to point fingers at Iran to deflect from the appalling treatment of its own people.

“Saudi Arabia needs to point

“Saudi Arabia needs to point fingers at Iran to deflect from the appalling treatment of its own people.” And so do all other actors in the Middle East including Palestinians – and Israel was always that scapegoat.

Its the same.

" and Israel was always that scapegoat." - And Arab countries were the scapegoats for Israel. Just like Iran is today. The more things change, the more they stay the same.