For months President Donald Trump's top advisers and a chorus of national security and defense experts have been telling him that the U.S. should stick to the Iran nuclear accord negotiated by the Obama administration in 2015. Despite the fact that the deal isn't perfect, it still may be our last best chance of preventing Tehran from getting the bomb within a decade. The pact hammered out between Iran, the U.S. and its partners certainly could be improved upon. But Mr. Trump's continued hints that he may blow it up and start all over again with the expectation that somehow new talks will produce a better outcome is dangerously unrealistic.
Yet this week the president is expected to announce the initial steps toward unraveling the Iran nuclear accord by refusing to certify that country's compliance with the terms of the deal and by failing to assure Congress the agreement is in the U.S. national interest, as required by law. Though the president has previously signed off on the deal twice since taking office, he's been signaling for weeks now that he wouldn't do so again. As a practical matter the result of such a refusal will be to toss a political hot potato of his own making into Congress' uncertain hands.
It would then be up to the legislative branch to decide whether to reimpose crushing economic sanctions on Iran with the hope of forcing it back to the bargaining table — a strategy virtually no one outside the tiny circle of ideological extremists who have the president's ear believes would work. Nor do America's allies in Europe, who've already announced their opposition to the re-imposition of sanctions, think much of a plan that would leave the U.S. diplomatically isolated in its dispute with Iran.
Given that reality, there is a strong chance that Congress would punt and not take any action at all, leaving the issue hanging. But the uncertainty and indecisiveness that conveys would surely represent a setback to U.S. influence around the world at a time when foreign leaders are anxiously trying to gauge whether the U.S. can be relied on to live up to its commitments. In the worst-case scenario Congress could allow itself to be bullied into renewing some form of sanctions, however superficial or inconsequential, that would then give Tehran an excuse to repudiate the deal altogether and resume its race to build a bomb.
The fact that Iran has held up its side of the bargain so far is an indication that the deal is working pretty much as intended and that nothing fundamental has changed since the last time Mr. Trump certified the accord. The Tehran government hasn't suddenly become a benevolent actor on the world stage, but the agreement was never designed to address its ballistic missile program or support for terror groups.
So why the sudden insistence that the plan is a fatally flawed "embarrassment" (Mr. Trump's word) to the U.S. that can no longer be tolerated? Frustrated on most of his campaign promises (Obamacare repeal, building the wall, etc.), Mr. Trump seems keen on taking whatever executive actions he can to undermine President Obama's legacy (restrictions on coal power plants, the birth control mandate, etc.). It plays well with the base, just like his epic distraction over NFL players taking a knee to protest police brutality and racism, his feuds with members of his own party and his reckless threats to "totally destroy" North Korea, all of which carry more than a whiff of desperation.
Given the president's heedless determination to rip up a landmark agreement signed by hs predecessor, perhaps the best that can be hoped for now is that Congress simply won't act on Mr. Trump's refusal to recertify the nuclear deal and that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will find a way to open separate talks with Iran aimed at limiting its ballistic missile programs and curbing its destabilizing influence on neighboring countries. President Trump is right that both those issues need to be negotiated in a manner that reduces the threat of military conflict. But there is time and place for everything, and now is not the time to scrap a hard-won accord that's vital to global security simply because it falls short of being perfect — or because doing so would be politically convenient for a president who cares more about applause lines at his rallies than responsibly ensuring the safety of Americans and our allies.
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