Iran and the Collision between Trump and Reality

by Paul R. Pillar

Donald Trump’s disdain for the truth does not prevent reality from repeatedly bumping up against his policies, the most consistent theme of which has been to try to destroy his predecessor’s accomplishments. The degree to which reality inconveniences Trump—and more importantly, how much Trump’s efforts to shove reality aside damage U.S. interests—varies from issue to issue. Dominating the headlines recently, of course, has been health care, in which the denied truths include basic principles of how insurance pools work and the fact that the Affordable Care Act (ACA) has successfully extended health care coverage to many Americans who did not previously have it.

In foreign policy, one of the most glaring rejections of truth has concerned climate change and Trump’s associated withdrawal from the Paris agreement, which represents a rejection of a well-established scientific consensus. Trump appears to care little about the resulting near-term consequence of U.S. isolation and loss of leadership. The most cataclysmic physical and economic consequences are longer-term ones that will mostly occur after Trump leaves office, and there is no evidence that he cares about those consequences at all.

As for what was probably Barack Obama’s leading foreign policy accomplishment—the agreement, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), to restrict Iran’s nuclear program—the reality that Trump rejects is that the accord is working as intended to prevent an Iranian nuclear weapon and that Iran is complying with its obligations under the agreement, as verified by inspectors of the International Atomic Energy Agency. Every 90 days, Trump faces a congressionally imposed requirement for the president to certify whether Iran is observing the agreement. The certification is supposed to be a statement of fact, not an expression of a preference. For a truth-denier like Trump, who has been vituperative in denouncing the agreement, this requirement is a problem. The account in The New York Times of White House discussions leading to the most recent certification of Iranian compliance (the second of Trump’s presidency) indicates that Trump’s advisers had to drag him kicking and screaming into making the certification.

Notwithstanding (or perhaps because of) the JCPOA’s success, Trump clearly is still determined to try to destroy the accord. With his failure on the domestic side to undo Obamacare, he is probably more determined than ever to achieve destruction of this foreign policy accomplishment. The Times’s account leaves the impression that when the next certification is due three months from now, there is a significant chance that Trump will refuse to acknowledge the truth a third time, no matter how rigorously the Iranians observe the agreement. A failure to certify would open the door to new sanctions that would represent a wholesale U.S. violation of the JCPOA.

Meanwhile, the Trump White House already has violated not only the spirit but the letter of the JCPOA by openly and explicitly discouraging other countries, as it did at the G-20 summit meeting, from conducting normal business with Iran. The Iranians have not yet given up on the agreement in response, but as Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has indicated, Iran’s patience, like anyone’s patience, is not unlimited. For Trump and others who want to confront and isolate Iran and who all along have opposed the JCPOA or anything like it, the preferred scenario is for the Iranians to get so annoyed by U.S. noncompliance that Tehran finally does give up and declares the agreement void.

If that tactic fails, then do not be surprised if, in October, Trump refuses certification. That decision would be accompanied by trumped-up charges of Iranian violations. Anyone willing to examine the issue carefully would know they are trumped-up because, thanks to the highly intrusive monitoring regime that the JCPOA established, international inspectors have very detailed and timely cognizance of everything going on in the Iranian nuclear program.

Of course, readily available refutation has not stopped Trump from lying about many other things. But if Iranian conduct regarding the JCPOA to date continues over the next three months, then the world should realize that a Trumpian accusation of Iranian noncompliance would have as much validity as Trump’s statements about the size of his inauguration crowd or the millions of fraudulent voters who supposedly cast ballots for Hillary Clinton.

If Trump rejects the truth about Iranian compliance, the most favorable possible outcome would be for Iran and the other five non-U.S. powers that negotiated the JCPOA to try to continue the agreement despite U.S. noncompliance. Even that outcome would have significant negative consequences for the United States in the form of lost business in Iran, lost opportunities to build on the JCPOA in addressing other regional problems, and further isolation of the United States and estrangement from its allies. Less favorable outcomes would involve complete breakdown of the JCPOA and an accelerated Iranian nuclear program, with renewed concern about diminishing breakout time until a possible Iranian nuclear weapon, increased uncertainty about the Iranian program in the absence of the enhanced international inspections established under the JCPOA, and heightened danger of U.S. involvement in a new Middle Eastern war.

How much would Donald Trump, motivated by whatever psychological and political factors drive him along his path of destruction, care about any such consequences? The experience with health care provides some indication. To realize the campaign mantra of abolishing Obamacare, Trump evidently is willing to remove health-care coverage from millions of Americans, many of whom voted for him. One way he has been dealing with the truth he denies is to try to create a new reality by saying “let” [sic] the ACA fail while he actively sabotages the program, such as by refusing to enforce the individual mandate and sowing as much uncertainty as possible to discourage insurance companies’ participation. Such a man is not likely to care much about setting back the cause of nuclear nonproliferation or stoking increased dangers and tensions in the Middle East, if that means getting a big notch in his achievement-destroying belt.

Photo: Javad Zarif (Wikimedia Commons)

Paul Pillar

Paul R. Pillar is Non-resident Senior Fellow at the Center for Security Studies of Georgetown University and an Associate Fellow of the Geneva Center for Security Policy. He retired in 2005 from a 28-year career in the U.S. intelligence community. His senior positions included National Intelligence Officer for the Near East and South Asia, Deputy Chief of the DCI Counterterrorist Center, and Executive Assistant to the Director of Central Intelligence. He is a Vietnam War veteran and a retired officer in the U.S. Army Reserve. Dr. Pillar's degrees are from Dartmouth College, Oxford University, and Princeton University. His books include Negotiating Peace (1983), Terrorism and U.S. Foreign Policy (2001), Intelligence and U.S. Foreign Policy (2011), and Why America Misunderstands the World (2016).



  1. Dear Paul, You have pointed your finger in the right direction – toward October 20 and the third certification of the Trump Administration to Congress that Iran is meeting its obligations under the so-called “nuclear deal” – “ there is a significant chance that Trump will refuse to acknowledge the truth a third time.”
    By that date, it is reasonable to assume that the President will want a big ’win’ and scrapping the Iran nuclear deal could well seem to offer such a possibility. I would like to suggest that you stimulate a series – even a flurry – of postings on LobeLog and elsewhere about the October 20 crucial date from two directions: one regarding ‘scrapping’ the nuclear deal; the other about what is likely to happen if that could be done. I will present some ideas on the first of these in this comment, and on the other in a comment tomorrow.
    I imagine that what I am going to state is known to you but I believe not to the general public, and it needs to be. The governing document of the Iran nuclear deal is not the JCPOA. It is United Nations Security Council resolution S/RES/2231 (2015), adopted on July 20, 2015 by a unanimous vote – which obviously included the United States. RES/2231 placed under international law the JCPOA agreement, between the E3/EU+3 (or P5+1) and Iran, by incorporating it as Annex A. (RES/2231 also incorporated as Annex B a Statement by the P5+1, which I will address in my next comment.) RES/2231 specifically refers to Article 25 of the UN Charter, which makes provisions of its resolutions binding on all UN members. The U.S., like every other UN member state, is expected to carry out its obligations under RES/2231.
    So what might President Trump do to “scrap’ the Iran nuclear deal. He could decide that the U.S. will not carry out provisions of RES/2231. That would not be unique. It is well understood that governments sometimes do not, or do not fully, meet their obligations under UNSC resolutions. An example could be for the U.S. to reinstate its unilateral sanctions that were removed by the Obama Administration on JCPOA Implementation Day in January 2016. That would put the U.S. in noncompliance with RES/2231. There would certainly be attempts to raise that with the Security Council, which the U.S. would try to squelch. BUT, all that doesn’t sound big enough or satisfying enough for our President. What else might he do?
    The President could decide to take the necessary action to get rid of RES/2231. That is easier said than done. A way to do this would be if the U.S. had the right to retroactively change the U.S. vote from Affirmative to VETO. That would be the end of RES/2231 and with it the JCPOA. Someone would have to inform the President that a retroactive U.S. veto is not currently foreseen under Article 27 of the UN charter. In response, he could instruct Ambassador Nikki Haley to get that done. An exception just for the U.S. would be a step too far, but letting all members with vetoes retroactively change their vote on UNSC resolutions might get support from the other permanent Security Council members. So, that might be worth a try.
    One can guess that all that would be too cumbersome and too lengthy for President Trump. So, an option would be for him to really show his distain for the whole UN by announcing that the U.S. would withdraw. Or, being more serious, he could announce that during his administration the U.S. would suspend its participation in the UN, and would reduce its representation to career mid-level diplomats, pending renegotiation of a better deal for the U.S.
    I have put these ideas down hastily and they need further refinement and development. But I am hopeful that I may stimulate some action directed at putting the President’s decision on October 20 – which you have highlighted – into the limelight.

  2. Dear Paul, You ended your blog with President Trump wanting to get “a big notch in his achievement-destroying belt” by “destroying” the Iran nuclear deal. In my comment yesterday I intended to show that the U.S. has little or no possibility to “destroy” the Iran nuclear deal. It is codified in international law through UN Security Council resolution S/RES/2231 (2015). What is possible is for the U.S. to take actions that constitute ‘non-performance of commitments’, for example, by reinstating unilateral sanctions. Neither can Iran walk away from RES/2231. Iran too could take actions that constitute ‘non-performance of commitments’. In case of charges by Iran of non-performance by the U.S. or charges by the U.S. of non-performance by Iran, the UN Security Council would become the forum. With veto power held by the U.S., by Russia and by China, not to mention Britain and France, what are the chances of the Council adopting a resolution about such non-performance claims? Only if Iran were to openly declare that it was developing nuclear weapons would Security Council action under Article 41 be likely. Does Iran understand that? Of course it does.

    That standard Security Council process was foreseen during the negotiation of RES/2231 and it led to the inclusion of unique provisions in paragraphs 11-13 for the ‘snapback’ of sanctions on Iran, which avoids the veto possibility, in case the Security Council is notified by a JCPOA participant state of ‘significant non-performance of commitments’ by Iran. Iran could also notify the Council of significant non-performance of commitments by the U.S., but that would not lead to the ‘snapback’ of anything, only to a draft Security Council resolution condemning the non-performance, which the U.S. would veto. End of that story for Iran.

    The continuation of implementation of RES/2231 in the case of U.S. non-performance of commitments should be taken as a given, not as “the most favorable outcome.” It may come as a surprise to some that a number of countries have begun to work with Iran in accordance with Annex III, Civil Nuclear Cooperation, of Annex A of RES/2231. Also the project in RES/2231, Annex A, Annex I.B “Arak Heavy Water Research Reactor,” to ‘modernize’ the heavy water research reactor at Arak is progressing with China taking a lead role. And there are orders for commercial aircraft permitted under RES/2231, and Iranian caviar, pistachios and carpets coming again to the U.S., and the list goes on.

    Regarding Iran’s ballistic missile programs, these are not mentioned in RES/2231, Annex A, JCPOA. Where they are mentioned is in RES/2231, Annex B, Statement, a contribution separate from the JCPOA by the E3/EU+3, which is incorporated into RES/2231 in paragraph 7(b), ‘all states shall comply with Annex B’. In paragraph 3 of Annex B, Iran is “called upon’ to restrain its ballistic missile programs. As the Russian Ambassador pointed out in the Security Council, “called upon” is not a requirement. The U.S. stated the view that Iran’s test launching of ballistic missiles was against the ‘spirit’ of RES/2231 – note, not of the JCPOA. It can be expected that if there is a decision by President Trump on October 20 not to recertify, a claim of Iran’s non-performance with respect to ballistic missiles will be given a major play. The Russian Ambassador’s statement gives a good idea of how such a U.S. claim will be received.

    Finally, it should be emphasized that Iran, having adopted the NPT, accepts safeguards under a safeguards agreement with the IAEA on all its nuclear material. Recent quarterly reports by IAEA demonstrate that the level of those safeguards under Iran’s safeguards agreement is more intense than in any other country. In addition, RES/2231 mandates that IAEA is to carry out further verification and monitoring measures. Iran would characterize the RES/2231 measures as ‘confidence building measures’, and they are indeed playing that role in supporting the political, economic and commercial arrangements being made with Iran by France, Britain, etc. It would be stupid for Iran to lose that progress toward ‘bringing a new relationship with Iran’ and ‘promoting and facilitating the development of normal economic and trade contacts and cooperation with Iran’, which are objectives stated in the preambular paragraphs of RES/2231. And the Iranians are anything but stupid. It is clear that RES/2231 will continue to be implemented no matter what the Trump Administration decides to do. Unless…

    Unless the U.S. moves to start a real on-the-ground war with Iran. To be clear, there have for a long time been people in the U.S. who want regime change in Iran. The election of 2016 put those people in positions of power, which they will attempt to use to attain their goal. Economic sanctions and covert actions against Iran are being reinforced, but military action – war with Iran – is not beyond their reach. The threat of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons is used as a cover, as a propaganda tool to get public support. Recalling that Gallup polls have shown that around 85 percent of Americans have maintained an unfavorable view of Iran ever since the hostage taking in 1979, getting the American public to support war with Iran, if that’s what regime change would take, probably looks achievable to those people.

    That, in my view, is what needs to be highlighted as the October 20 date approaches. RES/2231 will continue to be implemented with or without the U.S. Regime change in Iran is being pursued, through war if needed, and the propaganda towards that is underway.

  3. Before Barack Obama, was there ever a president targeted for such destruction and erasure from history? Or is this just a phenomenon of Congress having passed legislation making it possible to sell off its responsibility to govern to the private sector, giving elected politicians nothing better to do than ruin a democratically elected president? The Republicans tried for eight years to deny Obama a legacy, and because they didn’t quite succeed Trump has taken up the fight on their behalf. Meanwhile, the Democrats are now trying on the same game with Trump himself, who so far has stayed one step ahead of annihilation. The reason the Dems will fail has to do with the weapons they’ve chosen: they are trying to fight a congenital liar with lies — or, more accurately, unprovable accusations. The higher they pile the accusations, the more disconnected from reality the Democrats become — something like the very prey they are pursuing.

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