President Trump’s Iran strategy is predictably failing

I have been critical of President Trump’s decision to “decertify” the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, more commonly known as the Iran nuclear deal, for a number of reasons: Our European allies are not with us; Iran has zero incentive to rewrite the deal; we lack leverage; and we could be doing more constructive things in tandem with our allies — such as sanctioning Iran for human rights violations and forcing Iran and Russia to pay a greater price for their offensive in Syria. Many Iran hawks who opposed the JCPOA agree with that view.

Moreover, we just don’t think Trump or this crew of foreign policy advisers have the skill or know-how to pull this off without either an embarrassing retreat or without blundering into a new nuclear confrontation while already furiously trying to manage the North Korean one.

The initial indications suggest, as we predicted, Trump’s approach is a flop. The New York Times reports:

President Trump’s threat to rip up the Iran nuclear deal has touched off an urgent scramble in European capitals to preserve the agreement — not by rewriting it, but by creating a successor deal that would halt Iran’s ballistic missile program and make permanent the restrictions on its ability to produce nuclear fuel.

The State Department is trying to win European support for strict new terms that would essentially be presented to Iran as a fait accompli, with the threat of renewed sanctions if it fails to comply. The Iranians have so far dismissed the exercise as a backdoor effort to reopen the 2015 agreement, negotiated by Mr. Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama.

The administration wanted three major changes, according to the Times report: “a commitment to renegotiate limits on missile testing by Iran; an assurance that inspectors have unfettered access to Iranian military bases; and an extension of the deal’s expiration dates to prevent Iran from resuming the production of nuclear fuel long after the current restrictions expire in 2030.” Instead, the European are agreeing to only cosmetic changes, and for a promise to reimpose sanctions, if need be, years from now. (If they won’t do it now, why would they do it in future years when Iran’s economy and military are that much stronger?)

There are two obvious problems with even the minimalist approach. From Trump’s perspective, it cements President Barack Obama’s legacy deal that Trump desperately wants to undo. (The worst deal ever — but let’s make it longer!Russia and China, meanwhile, don’t have much reason to do the United States any favors, even if changes would amount to a face-saving gesture.

It is fairly obvious to all concerned what is going on here:

The president’s national security team — [Secretary of State Rex] Tillerson, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, and the national security adviser, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster — has on three occasions talked him out of ripping up the deal. With each deadline to reimpose sanctions on Iran, that task gets harder.

There is an element of diplomatic legerdemain to the exercise, European diplomats acknowledge: How do you convince Mr. Trump that you have changed the deal without actually changing it?

“The supplemental deal is a diplomatic device that is being used to allow the Europeans to declare victory,” said Mark Dubowitz, a leading critic of the Iran deal who is nevertheless open to the idea.

“They can say they were able to keep the deal, remain steadfast to their commitment not to renegotiate it, but also to satisfy the U.S. and their own concerns that the length of the deal was too short,” said Mr. Dubowitz, the chief executive of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

This would be quite a retreat from Trump’s ambitious declaration that the deal had to either be fundamentally changed or he’d walk away. It’s also not what proponents of the JCPOA thought would happen if Trump huffed and puffed and then threatened to pull the plug on the deal. (Their theory was that the European Union would so scared of what Trump would do that it would go along in demanding substantive changes to the deal.)

So how did we get here and why is the “solution” to come up with meaningless changes? This candidly is just damage control. Trump insisted on making a show — and it was only a show — of ending the deal. Decertification was not a policy, but a means of pacifying him. The State Department, which never wanted to pull the plug anyway, is now furiously trying to make certain that there is not a blow-up with our allies or an end to the JCPOA without a real alternative in place. As things stand now, the warnings of Tillerson, Mattis and McMaster look prescient; those who egged on the president, including Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) look foolish, if not reckless.

Meanwhile, rather than histrionics over the JCPOA, we would have been working cooperatively with allies on non-nuclear matters to constrain Iran’s aggression in the region and put pressure on a brutal, dictatorial regime.


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