Run-Up to Another Potential US Middle East Disaster

by Robert E. Hunter

The president of the United States has his plate full of international issues. Most important is the impending capacity of the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea to be able to launch nuclear weapons against American cities. Unless Kim Jong Un and his claque are dissuaded from continuing in this direction, the issue is not whether but when it will gain this capacity. This will be the first time since the end of the Cold War that the United States will be vulnerable to nuclear attack from an openly hostile nation. Both Russia and Peoples Republic of China have the capacity for nuclear strikes against the US, but there is no underlying conflict either between the US and Russia or the US and the PRC that could lead in the direction of a nuclear standoff—or war. In the latter case, the two countries have also achieved the economic equivalent of the Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) that existed between the United States and the Soviet Union—call it “Mutual Assured Dependence.”

Never before has the United States faced an adversary with nuclear weapons that is led by a person who many people, and not just Trump, believe is a madman. This is most likely not true, but even though a DPRK attack on the US would mean suicide for that country, can Washington be sure? The United States was not always certain about the sanity and balanced judgment of Soviet leaders, and a 40-year balance of terror was the result.

So, is the president focused “like a laser beam” on this issue? No, he is choosing instead to put his energy and effort into reopening another nuclear weapons issue that was successfully contained two years ago. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action closed off any chance that Iran could get nuclear weapons for at least a decade—a long time by any measure and whatever Iranian intentions might be after that.

If media reporting is to be relied upon, President Trump will refuse to recertify by October 15 that Iran is complying with the JCPOA, as is attested to by the International Atomic Energy Agency, all the other non-Iranian signatories (France, Germany, the United Kingdom, the European Union, Russia, and China), a host of Western national security experts and retired military leaders, and even several former heads of Israel’s key security agencies. The major exceptions: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his right-wing supporters, plus Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Arab states that have long-standing grievances against Iran, as well as underlying competition with the Shia world, that have nothing to do with nuclear issues.

By calling into question the worth of the JCPOA, President Trump is behaving like an obsessive gambler, unable to quit when he is ahead, who, having broken the bank at roulette, puts all his earnings back on the table, but with the odds of losing highly likely.

The great preponderance of US national security experts are warning Trump not to reopen the JCPOA or, worse, to scrap the agreement, using non-compliance as an excuse to impose added strictures on Iran for behavior that is unrelated to nuclear issues. Nevertheless, the current climate in Washington is eerily like that before the United States invaded Iraq in 2003 for misguided and even manufactured reasons, which was one of the biggest mistakes of modern American history. That invasion has led more than anything else to the current turmoil across the Middle East at a cost, just to the United States, of thousands of killed and wounded US service personnel and hundreds of billions of dollars spent.

Reportedly, Trump will refuse to certify Iranian compliance and kick the ball to Congress to see whether it wants to impose additional sanctions on Iran, not just for other activities Teheran conducts that the US opposes but regarding the JCPOA itself. Congressional reaction is highly predictable, just as if Congress were asked to oppose the NRA on major gun control legislation.

Make no mistake. Although the invasion of Iraq proved to be a folly of the first order, messing around with the JCPOA, for whatever reason and however much Iran is doing things in other areas that are contrary to U.S. interests and need to be opposed, will mean much more trouble for the United States in the region. In any event, undercutting the agreement as it stands would guarantee that the United States will be unable, for the foreseeable future, to reduce US military engagement in the region (even if the Islamic State, the principal Islamist terrorist threat, is destroyed). It would also guarantee a further deterioration in US relations with key allies and further loss of trust in the competence of US political leadership. And it would further distort US priorities, reducing the chances of dealing effectively with the emerging, truly existential, threat from North Korea. Already, the DPRK has seen that any US commitments in the nuclear area cannot be relied upon. Even during the Obama administration, officials nibbled away at requirements for Iranian sanctions relief, thus raising questions not just in Iran (a minor problem) but in allied nations (a major problem).

What the president does in the next few days concerning the JCPOA will be about a lot more than whether Iran is displeased by the steps he takes. Tehran has little power in the short term to counter what Washington does. If, however crisis slides into conflict, while Iran could be destroyed, the US and others, including Saudi Arabia and Israel, would also suffer. The stakes are much greater. They include the future of the entire Middle East, the chances for the United States to focus on other matters, the solidity of the Western alliance, and even opportunities for defusing the nation’s number one security problem— North Korean nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles—which dwarfs anything happening in the Middle East.

Trump has lit the fuse. To snuff it out in time will take the combined efforts of his three cabinet-level military men—James Mattis at Defense, John Kelly as White House chief of staff, and H.R. McMasters as national security advisor—plus the efforts of members of Congress with military credentials to counter other members who are egging Trump on, but who do not have the background, knowledge, and temperament to pass judgment on something this serious. “Splitting the baby” on this issue—as senior administration officials are reportedly considering—will not serve US interests. There needs to be clear acknowledgment of the value of the JCPOA, while seeking different means to oppose other Iranian misbehavior.

We average American citizens will watch, in our collective political impotence but having so much at stake, to see whether serious and sober people will prevail in protecting what is best for the security of the United States.

Photo: Donald Trump and Hassan Rouhani

Robert E. Hunter

Robert E. Hunter served as US ambassador to NATO (1993-98) and on the National Security Council staff throughout the Carter administration, first as Director of West European Affairs and then as Director of Middle East Affairs. In the last-named role, he was the White House representative at the Autonomy Talks for the West Bank and Gaza and developer of the Carter Doctrine for the Persian Gulf. He was Senior Advisor to the RAND Corporation from 1998 to 2011, and Director of the Center for Transatlantic Security Studies at the National Defense University, 2011-2012. He served on the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board and is a member of the American Academy of Diplomacy.



  1. DPRK is “an openly hostile nation” to the US (nobody else) because the two countries are still technically at war and the US with its hundreds of thousands of US and ROK troops (the latter under US operational control) continue to provoke North Korea even with heavy bombers off its coast, a particular reminder to North Koreans of when the US totally destroyed their country including all cities and dams, a huge war crime. Who can blame them for being “openly hostile?” Are they supposed to hide their hostility when the most powerful country on earth conducts huge “war games” practicing an attack, in violation of the 1953 Armistice Agreement?
    So don’t just blame Trump. There is a history to this problem, as Trump says, and it has generally disregarded fairness.

  2. Ambassador Hunter, the other day in response to US intending to enlist the Iranian military personnel, aka; Pasdaran, in the terrorist group blacklist one general in Iran Army suggested the followings:
    1. They will rename the US military personnel as “DAESH” or “ISIS” military
    2. Should there be any military attack against Iran, that country will change the name for the 84 MM or the entire population to “terrorist”

    These crazy suggestions on both side have very serious implications! The whole world is getting crazier and crazier!

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