by Paul R. Pillar
On the first work day of the new year, President Trump held a cabinet meeting that was open to the press and consisted mostly of a rambling monologue by the president about border walls and assorted other topics. Toward the end of the proceedings, Trump castigated anew the “horrible Iran nuclear deal” and asserted that the agreement “in eight years, gives Iran the legal right to have nuclear weapons.”
No analysis or research by fact checkers is needed to see the bald-faced nature of that lie. The text of the nuclear deal—formally, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)—explicitly says the opposite. It’s right up front in paragraph iii of the preamble: “Iran reaffirms that under no circumstances will Iran ever seek, develop or acquire any nuclear weapons.” This obligation is permanent. It reaffirms Iran’s prior obligation as a party to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty not to acquire nukes. The JCPOA strengthens this obligation by coupling it with the most intrusive international nuclear monitoring and inspection regime any state has every voluntarily imposed on itself, along with the other severe restrictions that the JCPOA placed on Iranian nuclear activities.
Trump’s falsehood continues a long campaign of misrepresentation by those who have opposed the JCPOA for reasons unrelated to nuclear proliferation. These reasons have to do with denying domestic political opponents any achievements and aligning with certain regional rivals of Iran who would like to keep it ostracized. Much of the misrepresentation has been less bald-faced than Trump’s lie. Much of it has used fuzzier language to create the impression that the JCPOA gave Iran something in the nuclear area rather than taking something away. By inculcating that impression in a broader audience, the opponents of the JCPOA disguise the fundamental illogic of their position. They claim that they want to prevent an Iranian bomb, and yet they work to destroy the one agreement that has effectively closed all possible paths to such a bomb.
Responses to Donald Trump’s lying on a wide range of topics over the past two years have demonstrated his ability to get a substantial proportion of the American public to believe his lies. This latest lie about the JCPOA may become part of a widely shared misperception that affects American opinion about policy toward Iran, even if no administration statement repeats it formally and officially. In that respect, the dynamics of public opinion would resemble those exhibited during the sales campaign for the offensive war against Iraq in 2003. That campaign emitted so many innuendoes about Iraq and al-Qaeda that a substantial proportion of Americans came to believe that the Iraqi regime had instigated the 9/11 terrorist attack, even when the Bush administration was not specifically asserting that it had.
The danger of Trump’s falsehood about the JCPOA is that the resulting misperception may form the backdrop for a sales campaign by the current administration to launch an offensive war against Iran. Other misperceptions the administration is cultivating complement Trump’s lie about the JCPOA. Trump’s national security advisor, John Bolton, states, “we have little doubt that Iran’s leadership is still strategically committed to achieving deliverable nuclear weapons.” That assertion is contrary to the U.S. intelligence community’s judgment but Bolton has never hesitated to ignore intelligence judgments that do not support his objectives.
The assertion also is contrary to the history of Iran’s nuclear activities. The Iranian regime clearly did have an interest in nuclear weapons and did technical work to that possible end a couple of decades ago. As a pariah state, the regime kept the nuclear weapons option open for several more years. When given the opportunity, however, to get out from under nuclear-related sanctions and lose some of the pariahdom if it accepted restrictions and scrutiny that would keep it a non-nuclear weapons state, the Iranian regime took that opportunity by negotiating and signing the JCPOA. If that bargain collapses, and especially if the Iranians face the threat or reality of military attack and seek a strong deterrent against such attack, then their earlier interest in nuclear weapons may return. But if so, they would be responding directly to actions of the Trump administration, not to any “strategic commitment” of Iran itself.
Bolton recently added to the administration’s upside-down portrayal, in which it describes the knocking down of barriers to an Iranian bomb as if it were a blow against such a bomb rather than a stimulus for one, by appointing an anti-JCPOA hardliner as his “Director for Countering Iranian Weapons of Mass Destruction.” It is easy to see how the pieces of misrepresentation now fit together. Iran is portrayed as “strategically committed” to acquire nuclear weapons, which after just a few years the JCPOA gives it the “legal right” to do, but which the Trump administration is ardently working to “counter.” All that is needed is some triggering incident—perhaps an accidental naval encounter in the Persian Gulf or a Shia militia somewhere firing ordnance at a U.S. facility—to make this mélange of nuclear misperception the core of a public case for launching a new war.
This danger was underscored the other day by a report that Bolton had asked the Pentagon to provide options for a military attack on Iran. Bolton has made clear for a long time that he would love a war with Iran. So would Trump’s biggest political bankroller, Sheldon Adelson, who even would like to escalate the conflict right away to the nuclear level. Trump himself, who is no second fiddle to his backers and subordinates in exuding hostility to Iran, probably feels the need to exude even more after taking some lumps from hardline supporters about his confusing policy on Syria and his remark at that same early January cabinet meeting that the Iranians “can do what they want in Syria.”
Then there are all the other reasons why in 2019 the distracting and rallying effects of a new foreign war may seem all the more attractive to Trump, including his sliding poll numbers, the scrutiny of a Democratic-majority House of Representatives, and the upcoming conclusion of the Mueller investigation amid more evidence of campaign collusion with Russia.
Trump’s rampant mendacity poses many serious problems for the republic and will need to be addressed for a long time, even after Trump leaves office. But for now, priority attention should be given to the lies that are most apt to lead to something as disastrous for the United States as becoming entangled in a new Middle Eastern war.