The judges have voted and the results are in: President Donald Trump’s decision to tear up the Iran nuclear deal in 2018 — a decision urged on by his secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, and Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu — was one of the dumbest, most poorly thought out and counterproductive U.S. national security decisions of the post-Cold War era.
But don’t just take my word for it.
Moshe Ya’alon was the Israeli defense minister when the nuclear agreement was signed, and he strongly opposed it. But at a conference last week, he said, according to a summary by Israel’s Haaretz newspaper, “as bad as that deal was, Trump’s decision to withdraw from it — with Mr. Netanyahu’s encouragement — was even worse.” Mr. Ya’alon called it “the main mistake of the last decade” in Iran policy.
Two days later, Lt. General Gadi Eisenkot, Israel’s top military commander when Mr. Trump withdrew from the deal, offered a similar sentiment, which Haaretz reported as “a net negative for Israel: It released Iran from all restrictions, and brought its nuclear program to a much more advanced position.”
It sure has. The International Atomic Energy Agency recently reported that Iran has amassed a stock of enriched uranium hexafluoride that independent nuclear experts calculate is sufficient to produce weapons-grade uranium for a single nuclear bomb in as little as three weeks.
Thanks, Donald. You showed them!
Up until Mr. Trump walked out of the Iran deal — negotiated by President Barack Obama — even though international inspectors said Iran was still adhering to it — Iran’s breakout time to produce enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon was one year, and Iran had agreed to maintain that buffer for 15 years. Now it’s a matter of weeks. It would still take Iran a year and a half or two years to manufacture a deliverable warhead, U.S. officials believe. But that is cold comfort.
After a five-month hiatus, negotiations to restore compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, as the nuclear deal is called, resumed in Vienna on Monday between Iran and China, France, Germany, Russia and Britain — with the U.S. participating from another room because it is no longer a party to the accord.
Pessimism abounds. Iran’s new hard-line government wants to see the U.S. and the European Union lift all financial sanctions on Iran — not just those related to its nuclear activities but also those related to its human rights abuses and malign regional adventures. It also wants assurances that if it does resume compliance with the accord — and gives up the fissile material it has amassed since Mr. Trump tore up the deal — that the next Republican U.S. president won’t rip it up again. Those demands cannot be met.
So what happens next? No one knows. These negotiations have become like a giant poker game, with the various players — including, implicitly, Israel — eyeing one another’s pile of chips and trying to figure out who is bluffing and who is ready to go all in and call the other’s bluff. All I can do for you today is go around the table and try to read everyone’s eyes.
The Iranian negotiators are out to prove that they can get a better deal than their supposedly wimpy predecessors had gotten. And they certainly have more chips, in the form of fissile material, to play with now that Iran is only weeks away from becoming a threshold nuclear-weapons state — just a few turns of the screw from having a bomb whenever it wants one, but technically not a nuclear power.
But wait, I also detect some beads of sweat on the brow of the Iranian player. After all, what will the Iranian people say if the regime has to tell them that after three years of living under all the stress of tighter sanctions and a pandemic, they can look forward to endless sanctions and the omicron variant. Sure, China will buy some of Iran’s oil so the government can keep the lights on. But with Iran already facing huge water shortages fueled by climate change, if the regime won’t negotiate an end to sanctions, the Iranian street could blow up at any time. The Iranian hand is weaker than it looks.
Meanwhile, the Israeli player is grimacing, holding his cards really tightly and simultaneously twiddling his F-35 chips and his Dolphin-class submarines in the Persian Gulf outfitted with nuclear-armed cruise missiles. His eyes keep darting back and forth between the Iranian player and Joe Biden — unsure who to worry about most.
For years the Israelis have been hearing American presidents say they will not permit Iran to get a bomb. At first, they celebrated Mr. Trump’s withdrawing from the deal and reimposing sanctions. Why not? They thought that would both weaken Iran’s effort to get a bomb and its attempts to push precision-guided missiles aimed at Israel to its Hezbollah allies in Lebanon and Syria. But that’s not what happened.
It turns out that Mr. Trump and Mr. Pompeo overplayed their hand. Had they been savvy, they would have told the Iranians that the U.S. would restore the deal and lift sanctions if Iran would just agree to forgo enrichment to levels needed for a nuclear weapon for, say, 25 years — rather than the original 15 years. (I would have applauded that.) But, instead, they demanded changes in Iran’s behavior so sweeping that the regime understood that the sanctions would never end.
The Iranian leaders let Mr. Trump and Mr. Pompeo know that they were homicidal, not suicidal. And they went out and got China to buy their oil and started enriching enough uranium to make themselves a threshold nuclear state.
Alas, Mr. Trump and Mr. Pompeo had no plan B if Iran called their bluff. For all of Mr. Trump’s bluster, he not only was not going to bomb Iran, he wouldn’t even retaliate when the Iranians lashed out with cruise missiles and blew up one of Saudi Arabia’s biggest oil facilities. Everyone in the neighborhood took note.
So what did Mr. Trump do in the end? He gave this terrible hand to Mr. Biden.
Poor Joe. But Mr. Biden did not play that hand particularly well, either. Rather than immediately move to revoke Mr. Trump’s sanctions and restore compliance, in return for Iran rolling back its uranium stockpile, Mr. Biden got embroiled in a diplomatic mud fight with the Iranians over who would go first. And with his urgent focus on getting out of the Middle East — starting with Afghanistan — Mr. Biden did not exactly strike fear into the hearts of the Iranians. So nobody went first, and Iran kept enriching.
And that is why you now see the Israeli player craning his neck to see if he can figure out what cards and chips Mr. Biden will play next. The Israeli is terrified that Mr. Biden will go for a mini-deal — whereby Iran agrees to freeze its fissile material stockpile where it is, in return for an easing of some U.S. sanctions. This would keep Iran a threshold nuclear power and make it very difficult for Israel to bomb its facilities, because it would be disrupting a U.S.-brokered mini-deal.
That’s why, under the table, the Israeli player is kicking Mr. Biden to go all in and put his biggest chip out there where the Iranians can’t miss it — a GBU-57A/B Massive Ordnance Penetrator, which is a 30,000-pound precision-guided “bunker buster” bomb that could slice through a dozen feet of concrete and blow up any mountain hiding Iranian nuclear facilities. The Israeli is trying to signal Mr. Biden that he needs to “out-crazy” the Iranians. Only if he persuades them that he is crazy enough to bomb them will he not have to bomb them.
But Mr. Biden is not good at bluffing the use of force. He fears that any hint of military action against Iran could send gasoline prices to $10 a gallon by Christmas. The Iranian player is eyeing all of this and laughing behind his cards.
But wait! Did I see Mr. Biden palm one of those bunker-buster chips and slip it to the Israeli, who doesn’t have one? I can’t tell.
For now, Mr. Biden prefers to try to enlist the Russian and Chinese players to squeeze Iran. But the Chinese player just whispered: “Joe, it’s true I don’t want the Iranian player to get a bomb. But do you know what I don’t want even more? You to continue your tariffs on my economy and your lectures about Taiwan, Hong Kong and Uyghurs. So maybe you zip your lip about us, and then we’ll talk about China not buying any more Iranian oil.”
As for the Russian, he just chuckled, took another shot of vodka and said with a wink at Mr. Biden: “You want me to squeeze Iran for you while you are squeezing me in Ukraine? Hah! You Americans — always with the jokes.”
Tune in again next week for Poker Night in Vienna to see who folds and who bets the pot. Me — I’m watching that Israeli player. He has a really grim look on his face and he keeps counting his F-35 chips like he’s thinking about going all in — alone. And he is crazy enough to do it.
Thomas L. Friedman (Twitter: @tomfriedman) is a columnist for The New York Times, where this piece originally appeared.