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.