by Paul R. Pillar
At least President Trump’s statement today about Iran made clear exactly what step he was taking: an outright material breach of U.S. obligations under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the multilateral agreement that restricts Iran’s nuclear activities. Trump said that he will pile new sanctions on Iran, contrary to the commitment that was the U.S. side of the bargain that the JCPOA embodies and the United Nations Security Council has endorsed, even though Iran has scrupulously observed its side of the bargain. Trump made no attempt, as some speculated he might, to dress up this blatant violation through some maneuver such as not waiving sanctions but not immediately enforcing them either.
The other main takeaway from the president’s statement was that, after a rambling and repetitive litany of every bad thing that could be said about Iran, Trump offered no plan, no strategy, and no real hope for doing anything about any of the supposedly awful things of which he spoke. There was only the vaguest suggestion of being willing to deal over unspecified terms at some unspecified future time when somehow Iran—contrary to what anyone could expect based on its history—had bowed in submission. This is a formula for nothing but more confrontation, more tension, and more risk of escalation to war. The formula was spoken as if making someone else’s economy suffer is ipso facto a benefit to the United States, which it isn’t.
Trump cannot by himself terminate the JCPOA, the future of which probably will remain uncertain in the weeks ahead as Iran and the other parties to the agreement discuss whether they can salvage a version of it without the United States. Iranian leaders probably have not yet fully decided on their response, which will depend largely on the behavior of the European private sector and how much the long arm of Trump’s Treasury Department deters commerce with Iran. But regardless of the economics, Trump’s breach frees Tehran, if it chooses, to cast aside its obligations under the JCPOA just as blithely as Trump is flouting U.S. obligations. Trump has killed U.S. participation in one of the most significant agreements on behalf of the nonproliferation of nuclear weapons, and in so doing has put the agreement on life support.
Donald Trump pulled the trigger, but he has had accomplices who have opposed the JCPOA even before negotiation of the agreement was complete. The strongest sources of opposition have been fundamentally dishonest. Their opposition has not been about the terms of the agreement, however much they have endeavored to make it sound that way.
The dishonest nature of the main opposition to the JCPOA is apparent from the glaring illogic of the opposition’s principal arguments. Most of the attacks against the agreement concern matters that would be worse without the agreement. Alarm about a possible Iranian nuclear weapon, as Trump expressed today, makes no sense when coming from the lips of someone who is trying to kill an agreement that closed all possible paths to such a weapon. Fulmination about a possible Iranian “breakout” toward a bomb makes no sense when it is said in the same breath as castigation of an agreement that changed breakout time from a couple of months to more than a year. Perhaps the most supremely illogical of the opposition attacks has concerned the “sunset” clauses applicable to some of the restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program. Of course, without the JCPOA, Iran would be able to indulge in the restricted activities right away, which is obviously worse than a prohibition of those activities that lasts a decade or more.
Such opposition arguments would not come from someone honestly concerned with conducting diplomacy in the interests of U.S. and international security. They instead are illogical straws grasped by people who have had other reasons to try to kill the agreement.
Opponents have tried to bridge the logic gap with the fantasy of a “better deal.” That fantasy never was applicable to a long and detailed agreement that was exhaustively, and exhaustingly, negotiated over a couple of years. Each party to those negotiations wrung as much out of those negotiations as it possibly could. Moreover, the principal opponents to the JCPOA, including most importantly the Trump administration, have neither shown a desire to negotiate any new agreement with Iran—on anything—nor explained where the bargaining strength to produce a “better deal” would come from. The fissures in the international community that Trump has done so much to promote mean fewer prospects for concerted international economic pressure on Iran than was the case when the JCPOA was negotiated. The administration has given no indication it would offer any incentives to Iran to motivate it to make any more concessions. Besides, Tehran would have no reason, no matter how much it was pressured, to reach any new agreement with a U.S. administration that had just reneged on an existing agreement on the same subject.
Lacking logic, the opponents have resorted to confusion. They have tried to sow misperceptions about the JCPOA. This has included outright lies, such as the one often heard, including from high levels of the Trump administration, that the United States had to meet commitments up front while Iran’s obligations were all to be fulfilled later. In fact, the opposite is true. Iran had to do nearly all the bomb-proofing steps the JCPOA required it to take—including dismantling centrifuges, disposing of most of its enriched uranium, and filling a reactor with cement—before it got an ounce of new sanctions relief.
In today’s statement, Trump continued the campaign of confusion. He included chestnuts such as the notion that Iran was given billions of dollars, contrary to the truth that unfrozen assets and returned funds were all Iran’s money in the first place. He said that the JCPOA “allowed Iran to continue enriching uranium and over time reach the brink of a nuclear breakout”—giving uninformed listeners the impression that the agreement had moved Iran closer to that brink rather than, as is actually the case, moving it substantially farther away from it.
Trump echoed another confusion-generating gambit: Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent show-and-tell featuring old material about Iran’s previous work pointing to possible development of a nuclear weapon. Such material was the very reason an agreement such as the JCPOA was needed, but Netanyahu’s presentation was aimed at confusing people into thinking there was something new and that Iran was violating the JCPOA. In fact, there was nothing new, and Iran has rigorously observed its obligations under the agreement.
When logic is missing and even confusion may not be enough, opponents have resorted to smear tactics. An Israeli investigative firm reportedly was retained to try to dig up dirt on Obama administration officials who had duties related to the negotiation of the JCPOA. Some reporting suggests that aides to Trump were involved in hiring the firm. It is hard to imagine getting any farther than this from an honest pursuit of objectives that are in U.S. interests.
Motivations for Opposition
Two motivations, more than any others, have driven the opposition to the JCPOA. One is the desire to wreck whatever Barack Obama accomplished. This clearly is Donald Trump’s principal motivation. Undoing whatever Obama did is the closest thing to an organizing principle in what is otherwise a disorganized set of Trump administration policies, especially in foreign policy. The motivation also has applied to many congressional Republicans (although some of those who opposed the agreement when it was new have more recently, bowing to reason, urged Trump to stay in the accord). The urge to wreck has been reflected in the wrecking ball being swung even when—as with Obama’s principal domestic legislative accomplishment, the Affordable Care Act—no replacement structure is at hand.
The other major motivation is to stay in step with the preferences of the right-wing government of Israel. The political and financial mechanisms include fear among American politicians of antagonizing the lobby that works on that government’s behalf. They also include wealthy supporters of that government bankrolling advocacy groups dedicated to sustaining tension and confrontation with Iran, with opposition to the JCPOA at the core of that effort.
The latter motivation involves double dishonesty, in that the JCPOA is very much in Israel’s security interests, as many retired senior Israel security officials have repeatedly stated. Of course it is; why wouldn’t anyone with a concern for the safety and well-being of Israel want to block all paths to an Iranian nuclear weapon, as the JCPOA does? However consistent it may be with U.S. interests to support Israeli security, it certainly is not in U.S. interests to support the game that Netanyahu is playing with the issue, which is to oppose any and all agreements with Tehran as a way of maintaining Iran as a pariah and a foil, in an effort to distract attention from Israel’s own destabilizing activities and to restrict U.S. diplomatic freedom of action in the Middle East.
Both of these motivations represent unjustifiable approaches toward the JCPOA or any other major subject of international security and U.S. foreign policy. Regardless of one’s views of a previous administration’s actions, it never will be sound policy to knock down everything a predecessor did just for the sake of knocking it down. Regardless of how much fondness one may have for Israel, it never will be sound policy to subcontract any portion of one’s own nation’s policies to a foreign government. Acting from either or both of these motivations is policy malpractice of the worst kind. It represents not just bad judgment, but bad intentions.
Those guilty of such malpractice should be held accountable. There is no court of policy practice in which such accountability can be applied in any formal sense, but those guilty should continually be called out for the consequences of their actions. Doing so might reduce at least somewhat their ability to cause more damage in the future.
Accountability can begin with the JCPOA itself and the consequences of causing it to unravel. The agreement has been working and doing exactly what it was intended to do in preventing an Iranian nuclear weapon. The only problems have been due to the Trump administration reneging on U.S. commitments. If this reneging eventually leads Iran, understandably and justifiably, to declare the agreement void, then Iran will be free to enrich as much uranium as it wants as fast as it wants to whatever level of enrichment it wants.
Much of what needs to be said in seeking accountability flows directly from the illogic of the opponents’ own arguments. About those sunset clauses, for example: those who railed against 10 or 15 years being too short a limit for certain restrictions will be responsible, if their efforts result in death of the JCPOA, for the same restrictions vanishing altogether. The same applies to inspections, which Trump again asserted today are not extensive enough, even though the JCPOA created the most intrusive nuclear inspection regimen any nation has voluntarily negotiated and had imposed on itself. Most of the inspections and monitoring would go away if the agreement dies. Trump and other opponents of the JCPOA would be responsible for that consequence, and for the world having to fly largely blind about what exactly the Iranians might be up to regarding nuclear activities behind closed doors.
Then there are the subjects that opponents of the JCPOA have kept bringing up as supposed flaws of the agreement even though the JCPOA was never intended to address them, for example ballistic missiles. Reneging on U.S. obligations under the JCPOA or killing the agreement altogether does nothing to eliminate even a single Iranian missile. Trashing the agreement means having a mostly unrestricted Iranian nuclear program and Iranian missiles. The same goes for the vaguely defined Iranian regional actions that routinely get put under the label of nefarious, malign, destabilizing behavior. Reneging on the JCPOA does nothing to change that for the better, either. To the extent that trashing the JCPOA affects such Iranian behavior at all, it is likely to affect it for the worse. Any state that has had its own effort to play by the rules rebuffed by U.S. perfidy is more, not less, likely to try to advance its interests by non-rule-based means.
Accountability should demand even more from JCPOA opponents on this same subject, given the arguments those same opponents have made. The opponents have claimed that the JCPOA has made non-nuclear conduct even more threatening, with assertions such as that the accord “has facilitated a landmark expansion of Iranian activity and activism throughout the region—with dramatic results.” The usual argument along this line is that the economic benefits of sanctions relief have given Iran the wherewithal to expand its activity. This assumes, incorrectly, that Iran is a nation of bookkeepers whose regional policies are governed by how much money it has in its bank account rather than by other events in the region. If the argument were valid, then re-imposing nuclear sanctions and cashiering the JCPOA ought to have landmark, dramatic results in a favorable direction as far as Iranian regional policies are concerned. It won’t, and opponents of the agreement should be confronted with that fact and how it demonstrates that their argument was invalid.
Consequences for which Trump and other enemies of the JCPOA will have to answer certainly extend to politics within Iran and the future turns Iranian policy is likely to take. One of the surest effects of the U.S. reneging on its obligations under the JCPOA is the weakening of pragmatists led by President Hassan Rouhani and the strengthening of Iranian hardliners who have doubted whether Iran ever should have agreed to restrictions on its nuclear program and who favor more aggressive foreign policies. Even before this week, the Trump administration’s cheating on its JCPOA commitments was strengthening the hardliners, who are saying to the pragmatists “we told you so” in preaching about the folly of reaching agreements with the perfidious Americans. Trump and company will try to depict any future Iranian hardline policies as merely demonstrating that the Iranians were intractable extremists all along. Trump and company must not be allowed to do that. They have been preaching a self-fulfilling prophecy. A U.S. hard line begets an Iranian hard line.
Then there are all the other consequences, reaching beyond Iran, of the United States reneging on a carefully negotiated multilateral agreement. Those effects include needless friction with Western allies (not to mention an added complication in relations with Russia and China) and a blow to U.S. credibility in trying to reach agreements with other governments, on any topic. Of course, no future U.S. diplomatic failure can be blamed entirely on the after-effects of reneging on the JCPOA, but the effects are real and should be included on the scorecard of accountability. One of the first places such effects are likely to be felt is North Korea, whose posture on nuclear matters is likely to belie the Trump administration’s argument that violating the JCPOA supposedly strengthens the U.S. bargaining position by “showing we won’t accept a bad deal.”
The record of the United States is unfortunately not good in achieving accountability for policy malpractice. For elected officials, such issues in foreign policy seldom make the difference between winning and losing an election. With many nonelected appointees, even involvement in calamitous folly does not seem to be a disqualifier for continuing to be listened to, to be published, and to enjoy influence. A man who, amazingly, still believes that the Iraq War was a good idea is today the U.S. national security advisor.
The nation needs to try to stop this destructive cycle. If it doesn’t stop its current policy toward Iran, the nation may be headed for the costliest consequence of all from the trashing of the JCPOA, which is U.S. involvement in another Middle East war. If that occurs, let it not be forgotten that Trump’s move this week was a big step down the road to that calamity. And those who pushed for that move should share the blame for the ultimate result.