by Paul R. Pillar
The Trump administration is bending over backward to be, and to sound, hostile and confrontational toward Iran. This effort to flaunt a role for itself as a dedicated enemy of Iran has roots in the same factors that underlie the more widely established anti-Iranism in the United States, staying ahead of which is clearly an administration objective. These factors include a troubled history highlighted for Americans by the hostage crisis of 1979-81. They include pressure from intra-regional rivals of Iran—especially the Israeli government but also the Gulf Arab regimes—that have an interest in depicting Iran as the source of all trouble in the Middle East and as a demon that distracts attention from problems that are more their own doing. The United States and especially the current administration willingly succumbs to such pressure, with a habit of dividing the world simplistically into friends and enemies and taking the side of supposed friends in local conflicts in which the United States itself does not really have a valid reason to take sides. Related to that habit is the felt need to have a clear enemy as a kind of adversarial lodestar, a role that the Trump administration is all the more eager to thrust on Iran given the politically sensitive ambiguities of Trump’s relationship with Russia.
Lately the administration has been working overtime to trumpet its hostility to Iran, because it was required to submit a certification to Congress regarding whether Iran is observing its obligations under the multilateral nuclear agreement known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). A certification that Iran is indeed complying with its obligations was the only plausible way to discharge this legal obligation of a report to Congress, given that Iran is in fact in compliance, as the International Atomic Energy Agency, implementing the most comprehensive and intrusive international monitoring arrangement that any nation has ever willingly accepted for its own nuclear program, has repeatedly determined since the agreement went into effect. In short, the agreement is working exactly as it was supposed to work in keeping Iran’s nuclear activities peaceful. Any other statement to Congress on the subject would have been a lie. This president has no compunction about lying, of course, but such a lie would have meant needlessly creating a new crisis amid the other crises, foreign and domestic, that the president already has created.
The administration’s unease flows from how this inescapable certification may appear to be a positive gesture toward Iran. As such, it could be seen as weakening the administration’s anti-Iran credentials. Moreover, the admission that the JCPOA is working runs counter to Trump’s denunciation of the agreement as the “worst deal ever”. Thus we have the administration’s compensatory rhetoric of today, which includes as much negative verbiage as possible about Iran in general as well as aspersions about the JCPOA. Most of the rhetoric falls in the familiar, non-specific vein that pays no attention to exactly what Iran is or is not doing and how that does or does not affect U.S. interests and instead is essentially sloganeering. But the recent extra straining to dump on Iran and the nuclear agreement has resulted in some especially peculiar and downright silly formulations.
For example, Vice President Mike Pence, half a world away on a visit to Australia and promising at a press conference with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull that the United States would abide by a refugee resettlement agreement that Trump had described as another “dumb deal”, went out of his way to comment on how his president expresses “frustration with other international agreements, most notably the so-called nuclear agreement with Iran.” “So-called”? On which aspect of the JCPOA is Pence trying to cast doubt by using that label? That it involves nuclear matters? That it is an agreement? That the agreement is with Iran? Pence’s comment can be filed in the same place as Trump’s comment about the “so-called judge” who suspended implementation of the anti-Muslim travel ban.
Then there is the certification itself, which is in the form of a short letter from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to Speaker of the House Paul Ryan. The letter was publicly released under the heading, “Iran continues to sponsor terrorism”. Good luck to anyone looking at titles as a way to search for a document that is about compliance with a nuclear agreement. The only support within the letter for that misleading title is the single sentence, “Iran remains a leading state sponsor of terror, through many platforms and methods.” Like many other rhetorical linkages of Iran to terrorism, this statement ignores the major changes in Iranian tactics in the years since the Iranian revolution, the fact that Iran is on the same side as the United States in combating terrorist groups such as ISIS, and the fact that the roots of the sort of violent extremism that ISIS represents are to be found far more with rivals of Iran than with Iran itself.
The day after the certification was sent to Congress, Tillerson made a statement to the press that was designed to disseminate as much compensatory anti-Iran rhetoric as possible. Tillerson’s statement had all the usual generalities that pay no attention to what anyone else in the region is doing (such as in Yemen, where the Saudi and Emirati intervention in that civil war has been far more destructive and destabilizing than anything that Iran has done), but perhaps the most preposterous part of the statement was its linkage of Iran to the most salient international security problem du jour, North Korea. Tillerson said, “An unchecked Iran has the potential to travel the same path as North Korea, and take the world along with it. The United States is keen to avoid a second piece of evidence that strategic patience is a failed approach.” And then later in the statement, “The JCPOA fails to achieve the objective of a non-nuclear Iran; it only delays their goal of becoming a nuclear state. This deal represents the same failed approach of the past that brought us to the current imminent threat we face from North Korea. The Trump administration has no intention of passing the buck to a future administration on Iran.”
Huh? Far from passing a buck, the Obama administration, through an immense diplomatic effort, accomplished far more to resolve what had been widely and loudly touted (such as by the 2012 Republican presidential nominee) as the number one security problem facing the United States than any other administration before or after. Far from leaving Iran “unchecked”, the JCPOA imposes the most severe limitations on, and most extensive international monitoring (which continues in perpetuity) of, a national nuclear program. If “strategic patience” has characterized some aspect of past U.S. policy on Iran, it was the earlier, pre-Obama, approach of simply piling on more sanctions and hoping that somehow that would persuade the Iranians to curtail their nuclear activities. Instead, the result was more and more centrifuges spinning and more and more uranium getting enriched—a process that the JCPOA not only halted but reversed.
Whatever one may think, pro or con, about the Agreed Framework that attempted to address North Korea’s nuclear activities, it was a far cry from the much more detailed, effective, and enforceable JCPOA. Bottom line: Iran does not have nuclear weapons, and all possible paths to making an Iranian nuclear weapon have been closed. That represents a world of difference from what we face with North Korea, and it is ridiculous to talk about these two cases together in terms of a “second piece of evidence”.
North Korea is the severe challenge that it is today because of its nuclear weapons—which is the dimension that kept getting emphasized about Iran until, after the JCPOA closed the nuclear weapon option, those who have wanted to maintain hostility toward Iran have searched for other rationales for their hostility. Without its nukes, we would hardly be caring at all about the North Korean hermit kingdom. If Trump or anyone else could obtain an agreement with North Korea that was anything like the JCPOA, it would be a huge diplomatic triumph—and no doubt touted as such. It also would have been a huge diplomatic triumph a decade or two ago, when such an agreement might have been more reachable than it is today.
Trump himself has joined in the overtime effort to pump out anti-Iran rhetoric. At a press conference this week with the Italian prime minister, Trump again denounced the JCPOA as a “terrible agreement” that was “as bad as I’ve ever seen negotiated.” As usual, no hint was given as what any better alternatives would look like, or why we should believe that any such alternatives are, or would have been, attainable. Then Trump asserted that Iran is “not living up to the spirit of the agreement.” What could he possibly be referring to? Trump didn’t say.
If one focuses on the nuclear obligations in the JCPOA itself, it would be difficult to find any lack of good spirit in Iran’s verified adherence to the letter of the panoply of commitments it undertook. (Iran completed its initial requirements under the agreement, such as reducing its supply of low enriched uranium, with alacrity and more promptly than many expected.) If spirit instead refers to a larger relationship beyond the nuclear agreement itself, the first thing to remember is that the parties that negotiated the agreement realized that if they attempted too broad an agenda—including Iran’s grievances against the United States as well as U.S. complaints about Iran—then it probably would have been impossible to conclude a nuclear accord. The next thing to note is that the preponderance of hostility is coming more from the Trump administration toward Iran than the other way around, as the most recent wave of rhetoric illustrates. It was a change of administrations in Washington, not in Tehran, that resulted in discontinuation of what had been a channel of communication at the foreign minister level that was effective at addressing problems (such as U.S. sailors straying into Iranian territorial waters) beyond the nuclear issues.
And it is not just rhetoric. The most significant departure in the last three months by either government regarding actions in the Middle East was the Trump administration’s direct armed attack on Iran’s ally Syria.
Perhaps most pertinent to anything that could be called the spirit of the JCPOA are all the doubts being voiced by the Trump administration as to whether it will even live up to the letter of the agreement. Contained in the certification to Congress is the statement, “President Donald J. Trump has directed a National Security Council-led interagency review of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) that will evaluate whether suspension of sanctions related to Iran pursuant to the JCPOA is vital to the national security interests of the United States.” Translation: we haven’t decided whether we’re going to comply with our obligations under the accord. How’s that for living up to the spirit of the agreement?
All this striving to burnish anti-Iran credentials not only precludes any possibility of building constructively on the JCPOA to address other issues in the Middle East in a way that advances U.S. interests. The rhetoric—designed to excoriate one state rather than to illuminate the causes of regional problems—obscures the nature of those problems, distorts public and Congressional understanding of them, and consequently makes those problems all the harder to address effectively.
This article was first published by the National Interest and was reprinted here with permission. Copyright The National Interest. Photo: Rex Tillerson.