by Mitchell Plitnick
One of the most troubling aspects of Donald Trump’s administration, among so many troubling aspects, is that the president, his staff, and his advisors so often seem to break rules that they are unaware even exist. Whether it’s Donald Trump, Jr. digging for dirt on Hillary Clinton with Russian interlocutors or his father apparently making libelous accusations against James Comey over Twitter, people trying to find rational planning behind the deeds of Trump and his team must simply recognize that it comes down to just the arrogance and ignorance of this administration.
Although the two incidents mentioned made big headlines, another one took place on Monday, which largely escaped notice but could be considered just as egregious. During her press briefing, Deputy Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was explaining how “the president successfully achieved his objectives on behalf of the American people at the G20” last week.
One of those achievements, Sanders said was that “In his discussions with more than a dozen foreign leaders, he underscored the need for nations to join together to strip terrorists of their funding, territory and ideological support—and to stop doing business with nations that sponsor terrorism, especially Iran.”
Tyler Cullis, a legal fellow for the National Iranian American Council (NIAC), pointed this statement out in an email, otherwise I would have missed it, as most of the rest of the country seems to have done. But it’s really quite significant.
As Cullis noted, this statement puts the United States in material breach of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the official name of the Iran nuclear deal. In that deal, the United States committed to “implement this JCPOA in good faith and in a constructive atmosphere, based on mutual respect, and to refrain from any action inconsistent with the letter, spirit and intent of this JCPOA that would undermine its successful implementation.”
Even more directly, Sanders’ account of Trump’s actions would mean that the US is in violation of its commitment to “refrain from any policy specifically intended to directly and adversely affect the normalization of trade and economic relations with Iran inconsistent with their commitments not to undermine the successful implementation of this JCPOA.”
There are certainly many people in Washington, including some staunch Trump detractors, who are vehemently opposed to the JCPOA, and would love to see it renegotiated. But most of those people believe that it is Iran, not the United States, that cannot be trusted to uphold its side of the bargain.
But in fact, Iran has held to its commitments under the JCPOA, which has been confirmed by the United Nations, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and by almost all signatories to the deal. Even the United States has had to grudgingly admit that Iran has not violated the JCPOA.
So, how many, even among the most hardened Iran hawks, want the United States be the party declared in breach of the agreement? Most neoconservatives, or traditional hawks for that matter, would not likely back a strategy that demonstrates to the world that the United States will not abide by its commitments since they believe that Iran will eventually provide the requisite cause to nullify the agreement through its own actions.
Sanders’ statement has not caught much attention. But if it ever does, the Trump administration will simply say that the president didn’t actually have these conversations at the G20 meeting. It would hardly be the first time Trump administration officials contradicted each other.
But it is crucial that voices be raised holding the administration to account on this point. The JCPOA means nothing if trade and economic ties with Iran are not improved. Iran would then have no reason to continue to abide by the deal and could easily nullify it by correctly claiming that the other side has disregarded its commitments.
On the larger scale, Donald Trump recognized, even before he was elected, that he could not simply tear up the Iran deal. He changed his tone in the middle of his campaign on this point. Even many of his supporters recognized that if the United States were to back out of its commitments merely because a different party won an election, then the president, whomever he or she may be, would be unable to negotiate any international agreements at all.
With all the controversy surrounding this administration, its shady dealings with Russia, its firing of an FBI director who was leading an investigation into its conduct, and its leader regularly tweeting unseemly and sometimes unhinged messages, this may not seem to be a very high priority.
But if, in fact, President Trump did what his spokesperson said he did in urging other countries not to do business with Iran, he endangered the credibility of the United States in an unprecedented way. It is crucial that Trump be made aware that US citizens do not support that kind of brazen attack on the country’s credibility. One would hope that if this issue gets more publicity, that not only congressional Democrats, but some of the saner Republicans make it clear that Trump must abide by the agreements the United States has made.