With his decision to withdraw the United States from the Iran nuclear deal and reinstitute economic sanctions against that country, President Donald Trump has embraced a dangerous strategy and one that puts the U.S. at odds with its closest allies. Was it a carefully considered choice, or was a seat-of-the-pants opportunity to make headlines (and reverse one of the more notable foreign policy accomplishments of Barack Obama)? It sure seems to check a lot of Mr. Trump’s boxes: Antagonize Washington “insiders,” fulfill a campaign promise, and move toward a hawkish John Bolton and Mike Pompeo brand of foreign policy — and away from a more cautious approach championed by Defense Secretary James Mattis and former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
Whatever President Trump’s real reasoning, the choice is, at best, incautious and likely a setback for peace. And it should give Americans pause that Mr. Trump has so often mischaracterized the 2015 agreement, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. First, by saying that, had the U.S. not chosen to lift the sanctions and sign the agreement, Iran would have collapsed, which is foolish considering the purpose of the sanctions was to curb Iran’s nuclear program, which they achieved. Second, by claiming that the U.S. “gave” billions of dollars to Iran, when it was merely unfreezing Iran’s own assets that were legally due to it. Third, by alleging that Iran is out of compliance (not true), and fourth, suggesting that the deal was weak because the ban on the production of enriched uranium is not permanent — a condition the Iranians would never have accepted. Even so, that doesn’t mean Iran was free to make nuclear weapons at some future date; it wasn’t.
What’s especially worrisome about Mr. Trump’s choice is that he so clearly made it without the support of European allies whom he is now expecting to put the economic squeeze on Iran — although none has so far expressed interest in following the president’s lead and abandoning the agreement. Nor is the decision likely to find much support in Moscow or Beijing, making the timing especially problematic for upcoming talks with North Korea’s leader. One imagines that Kim Jong-un is paying especially close attention to whether the U.S. can be trusted to hold up its end of any nuclear agreement — or any other promise for that matter. What was China’s Xi Jinping telling Mr. Kim during their meeting Tuesday? The Americans told us the Iran nuclear deal was acceptable as long as Iran stuck with the conditions, but then they changed presidents and the pact went out the window?
That’s not to suggest that we think that Iran can be trusted or has the best interests of the United States at heart. On any number of fronts, it has proven itself no friend to the U.S. Its testing of ballistic missiles, its support of Shiite militias in Iraq and Afghanistan, its underwriting of terrorism in the Middle East and political destabilizing efforts in countries like Yemen and Bahrain provide ample evidence of that. One nuclear agreement can’t cover every single bad decision made in Tehran. But that doesn’t mean Washington should expect regime change in Tehran no matter what happens to the agreement.
The bottom line is that the prospect of a nuclear Iran deserves to be of greater concern than reining in Iranian involvement in Syria or its dealings with Hamas or other misbehavior. Again, that’s not because Iran’s duplicity or sponsorship of terrorism should be condoned, it’s simply because the consequences of nuclear war are too great to not take precedence. How the U.S. leaving the nuclear deal makes the world safer, as Mr. Trump claimed in his brief announcement, is something of a head-scratcher.
It’s possible the Iran deal might have been strengthened as French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and others have suggested in recent weeks as they tried to talk the president out of his precipitous decision. But now that appears to be off the table — unless Iran, inexplicably, makes a 180-degree turn and decides it wants to renegotiate with the U.S. Even Mr. Trump admitted that Iran’s Hassan Rouhani will now be loath to change course (especially after essentially calling on Iranians to end their support of his regime). “Iran’s leaders will naturally say they refuse to negotiate,” President Trump said. “I’d say the same thing in that position.” He added that he expects them to eventually return to the negotiating table where he will be “ready, willing and able” to strike a deal. Let’s hope that day comes — as unlikely as it may now seem.
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