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Foreign Policy

Unmasking Trump’s Iran Plan

President Donald Trump is preparing to take a dishonest and unnecessary step that will isolate the United States and could lead to war. He is doing this at a moment when his administration is in disarray, the world is recoiling from U.S. leadership, and we are sinking deeper into a nuclear crisis on the Korean Peninsula. The issue at stake is the so-called Iran deal, known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), under which the world’s leading powers enforce limitations on Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for some sanctions relief.

Before this breakthrough, Iran was making steady progress toward the threshold required to produce enough fissile material to make a bomb. Since the JCPOA was implemented, Iran has significantly rolled back its nuclear program. It has removed two-thirds of its centrifuges; altered a nuclear reactor to remove its capacity to produce weapons grade plutonium; surrendered 98 percent of its nuclear material; and submitted to intrusive inspections to verify compliance. In return, the U.S. and other signatories eased sanctions related to its nuclear program, giving Iran access to some of its own funds, which had previously been frozen. Sanctions related to Iran’s ballistic missile program and support for terrorism continue.

The calculation is simple: the world is spared the danger of a nuclear-armed Iranian regime, and a crisis is defused peacefully, without another war in the Middle East. That’s the status quo that Donald Trump wants to upend. The American people—and the world—will be forced to bear the consequences of this decision, which Trump seems to be making to sooth his own ego, while justifying it with demonstrable lies.

As a congressionally-mandated deadline approaches, Trump has said he will refuse to certify that Iran is complying with the JCPOA. That is dishonest. Trump’s own Administration has certified that Iran is complying multiple times. As recently as August 31, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) also confirmed that Iran continues to comply. When asked whether Iran is complying, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Joseph Dunford, replied: “Iran is adhering to its obligations.” Asked in a recent hearing whether the JCPOA is in America’s interest, Secretary of Defense James Mattis said, “Yes, Senator, I do.” America’s closest allies —the United Kingdom, Germany, France and the European Union—have similarly trumpeted the success of the JCPOA, and urged Trump to leave it in place.

Confronted with the fact of Iranian compliance, Trump has pointed to other hostile things Iran is doing—conducting ballistic missile tests, supporting terrorism—to justify sabotaging the deal. This is not as brazenly dishonest, but it is deceptive, and inadvertently makes the strongest argument for keeping the nuclear deal in place. Those aspects of Iranian behavior are not covered under the terms of the JCPOA, so they don’t constitute violations. It’s an arms control agreement, limited in scope, like the ones we reached with the Soviet Union during the Cold War, which did not prohibit the Soviets from doing other things we opposed.

Moreover, the character of the Iranian regime is the very thing that makes a diplomatic agreement necessary—to verifiably prevent a country with a ballistic missile program, terrorist proxies, and a history of violating the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) from obtaining a nuclear weapon. We make nuclear deals with countries like Iran, not Ireland, precisely because many of the bad things they do would grow more dangerous if they became a nuclear power.

Despite his bluster about toughness, Trump’s approach punts the issue to Congress. Trump could kill the deal unilaterally by re-imposing sanctions through executive action. But as recently as September 14, Trump complied with the JCPOA by waiving certain sanctions, as required under its terms. Instead, to escape blame for plunging us into another nuclear crisis, he is planning to pass the buck. By law, Congress has 60 days following decertification to re-impose sanctions on Iran in streamlined fashion—an order of events that, among other things, will allow Trump to blame Congress for whatever happens next.

Throwing the future of the deal into doubt like this is a reckless idea. Decertifying the Iran deal right now is completely arbitrary—no external developments are compelling Trump to take this action, only the mysterious impulses that drive his general decision-making, including with respect to the most sensitive national security matters. The best reporting in this case suggests he became annoyed that Iran’s compliance—and America’s obligation to certify its compliance—contradicts his campaign rhetoric, and makes him look weak. When he was running for the presidency he called the Iran deal “the worst deal ever negotiated” and promised to withdraw. To save face, he has apparently ordered his team to rationalize an irrational and damaging decision.

Decertification will isolate the United States and potentially embolden Iran. The JCPOA is not an agreement between the U.S. and Iran alone. Its signatories also include Russia, China, the United Kingdom, France, Germany and the European Union. It is enshrined in a United Nations Security Council Resolution. None of the other parties to the deal believe that Iran is out of compliance. None of them want the United States to decertify the agreement. And—here’s the rub—none of them will go along with the “tougher” approaches that Trump and his surrogates advocate. The inescapable truth is that Trump can’t play domestic politics on this issue, or stoke hostilities with Iran, without risking a spiral of negative consequences.

The Trump Administration likes to talk tough about cracking down on Iranian behavior in the region. But without the support of other nations, that goal becomes much harder. It was Trump himself who argued he’d be able to compel other countries to shoulder a greater burden in preserving global stability. But if Trump initiates an unnecessary crisis, other countries will be less willing to partner with us, and he will make the world less stable at the same time. In this context, Iran will be the beneficiary, exploiting divisions between the United States and Europe, China, and Russia opportunistically by claiming the moral high ground, casting blame on an unpopular American president, and working with other signatories to resist additional U.S. sanctions.

Because we already have limited trade and commercial ties with Tehran, U.S. sanctions on Iran only work with the cooperation of other countries, or enforcement actions abroad. When the Obama administration maximized sanctions on Iran in 2012 and 2013, they only had teeth because Europe voluntarily imposed an embargo on Iranian oil, and China and other countries voluntarily reduced Iranian oil purchases. That won’t happen if Trump pulls out of a deal that the United States helped to negotiate, when Iran is in compliance, when European companies are doing business with Iranwhen Russia maintains good relations with Iran, and when China and Iran are partnering to bolster China’s clout as an economic superpower. Europe will say no. Russia will say no. China will say no. The ball will be back in Trump’s court, where he will stand alone.

So, if Trump and his Republican allies in Congress try to re-impose sanctions on Iran, they will have to decide whether to enforce them by punishing key allies and global partners. If Trump does that, it will cause global disruption, creating rifts between key European and Asian entities and the U.S. economy. In the long run, as countries grow weary of being held hostage to the politics of national security in the United States, Trump may even place the dollar’s status as the world’s reserve currency at risk. As with many points of contention around the Iran deal, the call for “tougher sanctions” is a Washington talking point, not a practical strategy in the real world.

U.S. credibility will also be dealt a devastating blow. If we pull out of a deal that Iran is not violating, the rest of the world will receive the message that the United States does not honor its commitments. That was the message the world received from Trump’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Paris Climate Agreement. When the stakes extend to nuclear proliferation, as they do with the Iran deal, the consequences of diminished U.S. credibility become more dire. Already informed by the fates of Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi, why would Kim Jong Un make a deal with the United States to roll back his nuclear program immediately after the United States sabotaged another nuclear deal that was working? Absent any prospects for diplomacy, the only options available to us on the Korean Peninsula are catastrophic military conflict and acquiescence to an unchecked North Korean nuclear program. Scrapping the Iran deal would badly damage what’s left of those prospects, and our ability to make arms control agreements in the future.

Some Republicans, including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, have called for a different approach: demanding renegotiations on the back-end of the JCPOA. Though the deal permanently prohibits Iran from developing a nuclear weapon, it loosens some of the restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program after 10 and 15 years. But if the deal’s critics are foremost concerned about what will happen in 2025 or 2030, it in no way obligates them to manufacture a crisis in October of 2017—when the Middle East is beset by war, and other crises, like the one on the Korean peninsula, are deepening global instability. Why not pocket the constraints on the Iranian program for the next several years, and make fact-based assessments about what to do when restrictions start to expire? All the same options—negotiating a new agreement, additional sanctions, even military action—will still be available. And if the deal holds until the sunset provisions have kicked in, we will have a decade of inspections behind us, and thus a full picture of the Iranian nuclear program—unlike in North Korea, where we don’t.

More to the point, though, if Trump insists upon reopening the deal, the Iranians will say no, the Russians and Chinese will say no, and Europe will only agree so long as the deal remains in place during those negotiations.

Trump is thus pointlessly leading us down a road with no clear destination. In the best case, it dead-ends with mild embarrassment for Trump and passing damage to America’s global image: Congress does nothing, and the deal survives, rendering Trump’s action a pointless political stunt. In the messier scenario, Congress—or Trump— tries to re-impose sanctions, violating the agreement, and opening a rift between us and the other global powers. But there are also far worse outcomes.

If Trump breaks the deal, hardliners in Iran will put intense pressure on President Hassan Rouhani to retaliate—perhaps by reinstalling some centrifuges, stockpiling more nuclear materials, or limiting inspections. If Iran restarts its nuclear program, Trump will confront the very choice that the Iran deal was conceived to avoid: accept a growing Iranian nuclear program, or take military action. And make no mistake, the world will see Trump as the person responsible for creating that choice. There is no shortage of potential flashpoints between the United States and Iran—in SyriaIraqYemenLebanon, and the Strait of Hormuz. In any one of those places, a conflict between the U.S. and Iran could escalate quickly—particularly against the backdrop of a nuclear crisis.

And, of course, there’s no such thing as a simple conflict with Iran. The Iranian government would likely respond to strikes on its nuclear facilities with reprisal attacks: on U.S. service members in Iraq; on Israel; on soft targets across the Middle East and beyond. Iran is a bigger, more prosperous, more influential country than Iraq and Afghanistan were when we invaded them. A war with Iran could turn the Middle East into one enormous conflict zone, vastly expanding the scope of violence that already plagues the region and the costs for the United States.

That is why even the most strident critics of the deal rarely come out and argue openly for military action. But war is the inevitable logic of their position—absent a diplomatic agreement, it is the only way to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon in the long-term.

When Barack Obama was President, it was easy for critics—including Trump—to hide their true agenda behind tough rhetoric and phony accusations. But now they run the country. The current threats to the Iran deal are consistent with a broad pattern of governance in the Trump era: Republicans cannot reconcile the claims and promises they made through years of cynical, fact-free opposition to the Obama agenda, with the realities and responsibilities of governing. There is no one to save them from their own positions by vetoing their bills; no intellectual framework that supports those positions. They must choose between retreating from years of bad-faith promises, or keeping them, with all the disastrous consequences that would entail. The talking points that excited base voters at MAGA rallies or on cable television are now making contact the real world—a world in which Iran is complying with the nuclear deal, and every other party to the deal has interests that they won’t sacrifice to accommodate Trump’s impulses, or his debt to the voters he misled.

The fact is Donald Trump appears to have no idea what is in the Iran deal, which took seven years of painstaking sanctions and diplomacy to achieve. I have never heard him discuss its provisions at length, or seen him pressed to explain which ones he disagrees with. We’ve read countless stories now about how effectively his advisors “contain” him, and yet they appear poised to follow him off this cliff, or to let his erratic conduct slide, as if it were another intemperate tweet. But we should not lump the looming Iran debacle together with all of Trump’s other outrages—from his attacks on NFL players to his misbegotten tax cut plan. This is different, and potentially far graver. We see, in North Korea, where a hostile nation’s unconstrained nuclear ambitions can lead. We see, in Iraq, almost 15 years after our invasion, where wars can lead. We shouldn’t go down either of those paths with Iran. And the most tragic thing about all of this is we don’t have to.

Ben Rhodes served as deputy national security adviser in the Obama White House, where he helped formulate the JCPOA.