The Return to Reason: A Defense of Trump’s Iran Decision
By formally reinstating economic sanctions against Iran, President Donald Trump has withdrawn the United States from the Iran nuclear deal, which is officially known as Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). To be sure, there are valid reasons for the US to remain party to the deal—keeping the deal in force might serve as an incentive for Iran to be cooperative, backing out could call into question America’s dependability, withdrawing would likely exacerbate already-rocky relations with allies—but there are more compelling reasons for the US to end this Alice in Wonderland charade masquerading as a treaty.
Distortions and Contortions
The masquerade began in the summer of 2015 when President Barack Obama hammered out the JCPOA but refused to subject it the treaty review and ratification process in the Senate. This refusal highlights one of the many problems with the deal and the main reason Trump was able to upend it. On this and other policy initiatives, Obama is learning that what is done by policy distortions and constitutional contortions can be easily undone. And here we are.
Those distortions of the policymaking process were at once dreamily naïve and yet deeply cynical.
Under the deal, China, Russia, the US, Britain, and key allies in Europe agreed to lift the sanctions that had forced Iran to the negotiating table; Washington released more than $100 billion in frozen assets to Iran’s terrorist tyranny; and as we learned months later, the administration shipped Iran hundreds of millions of dollars in hard currency—literally pallets of cash loaded onto a cargo plane.
In exchange, Iran didn’t have to renounce terror, cease its missile-development programs, withdraw its fighters from Syria, Iraq, and Yemen, give up its nuclear program, or open its subterranean labs to unfettered inspections. In fact, the JCPOA allowed Iran to remain a threshold nuclear power forever. As Ambassador Dennis Ross explained after the deal was struck, “The Iranians are not required to dismantle their enrichment infrastructure, are allowed to continue at least limited research and development on their five advanced models of centrifuges, and will be permitted to build as large an industrial nuclear program as they want after year 15.”
Henry Kissinger and George Shultz pointed out how dramatic a departure Obama’s Iran deal was for US foreign policy: “For 20 years, three presidents of both major parties proclaimed that an Iranian nuclear weapon was contrary to American and global interests—and that they were prepared to use force to prevent it. Yet negotiations that began 12 years ago as an international effort to prevent an Iranian capability to develop a nuclear arsenal are ending with an agreement that concedes this very capability.”
If the deal itself was naïve, the effort to justify and explain it was cynical. After the deal was signed, Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security advisor, took a victory lap in the New York Times Magazine, bragging that he purposely misled the media in order to sell the deal. As the Washington Post reported, Rhodes “relied on inexperienced reporters to create an ‘echo chamber’ that helped sway public opinion.”
“The average reporter we talk to is 27 years old,” Rhodes explained, “and their only reporting experience consists of being around political campaigns… They literally know nothing.” Thus, Rhodes was able to feed information to what the Post called “seemingly independent experts” at pro-administration organizations. Those not-so-independent experts then said “things that validated what we had given them to say.” And an inexperienced, pliant press corps dutifully reported those things.
As for the constitutional contortions, Obama wanted the JCPOA to have all the trappings and import of a treaty, but he knew there was no way to get two-thirds of the Senate (67 senators) to agree to such a terrible deal with such a terrible regime. So, the Obama administration instead sold the JCPOA as a “congressional-executive agreement.” Under a baffling procedure that turned the treaty-review process on its head, a bipartisan majority in the Senate actually registered opposition to the Iran deal. Yet in an up-is-down era, the JCPOA somehow survived because the Senate was unable to muster a large enough majority to disapprove it.
“We’re not negotiating a legally binding plan,” then-Secretary of State John Kerry conceded in 2015. And so, Trump can unravel the JCPOA by simply ceasing to waive existing sanctions imposed by Congress against Iran.
The “Iran deal was supposed to protect the United States and our allies from the lunacy of an Iranian nuclear bomb,” Trump explained when announcing his decision. “In fact, the deal allowed Iran to continue enriching uranium and over time reach the brink of a nuclear breakout.”
Not only did the deal, in Trump’s view, fail to address the “Iranian nuclear threat,” but it also failed to slow Iran’s military buildup, constrain its acts of terror, and “prevent, detect or punish” Iranian cheating.
Obama once sounded a lot like Trump. “Ultimately, the measure of any effort is whether it leads to a change in Iranian behavior,” Obama said long before he was searching for a signature foreign policy achievement. “We will present a clear choice. If you abandon your nuclear program, support for terror and threats to Israel, there will be meaningful incentives. If you refuse, then we will ratchet up the pressure.”
Given that measuring rod, the summer of 2015 marked a wholesale capitulation by Obama. We now know—as many of us predicted in 2015—that the JCPOA didn’t force Iran to change its behavior. Instead, the deal left Tehran’s bristling arsenal of missiles untouched, allowed Tehran to continue enriching uranium, did not require the sort of unfettered access necessary to keep a dishonest partner honest, gave Tehran 24-day windows to respond to International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspection requests, and allowed Tehran to use its own inspectors to investigate suspicious sites. Far from ceasing threats to Israel, Tehran was emboldened by the nuclear deal. After the deal was unveiled, Iranian dictator Ali Khamenei declared that Israel will cease to exist within 25 years. During the negotiations, he proposed a nine-step plan to “eliminate” Israel. Recent months have seen Iran build up its personnel and proxies on Israel’s borders and attempt attacks into Israel.
The core problem with the deal is not in its details, but rather in the nature of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
There’s really nothing like the government of Iran. Sure, other regimes challenge the global order; other regimes make common cause with terrorists. But the men who run Iran have normalized terrorism into a basic government function—like building roads. Indeed, it could be argued that the Islamic Republic is not a regime that engages in terrorism, but rather a terrorist organization that runs a regime.
Iran is a revolutionary regime that has been waging a global guerilla insurgency since its birth. It engages in hostage-taking; threatens to close the vital sea lanes of the Strait of Hormuz; provides weapons, training, and financial aid to Hamas and Hezbollah; plans mafia-style hits against foreign diplomats; props up the beastly Bashar al-Assad regime; and trains, bankrolls, and equips fighters in Bahrain, Yemen, Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria.
Moreover, the Iranian government has waged a proxy war against the United States in Afghanistan and Iraq, with the blood of 500 American troops on its hands. Just as bad, the 9/11 Commission revealed many years ago, “There is strong evidence that Iran facilitated the transit of al-Qaeda members into and out of Afghanistan before 9/11, and that some of these were future 9/11 hijackers.” Put another way, Iran harbored al-Qaeda operatives and abetted al-Qaeda’s war on America.
In addition, Iran is a serial violator of international nuclear agreements. The list is staggeringly long. In 2002, dissident groups outed Iran’s illegal, clandestine nuclear-weapons program, exposing sites in Natanz and Arak. In 2003 and 2004, international nuclear inspectors reported that Iran had breached agreements to suspend uranium-enrichment activity, and Pakistan confirmed that A.Q. Khan had shared his secrets with Tehran. In 2009, international inspectors found that Iran understated by a third its stocks of enriched uranium. Also in 2009, an illegal nuclear facility ringed with missiles was discovered in the mountains near Qom.
When that evidence came to light, Nicolas Sarkozy, then-president of France, challenged Washington and the world to get serious. With refreshing bluntness, he detailed the growing dangers in Iran. “Since 2005, Iran has violated five Security Council resolutions,” he began. “An offer of dialogue was made in 2005, an offer of dialogue was made in 2006, an offer of dialogue was made in 2007, an offer of dialogue was made in 2008, and another one was made in 2009… what did the international community gain from these offers of dialogue? Nothing. More enriched uranium, more centrifuges, and on top of that, a statement by Iranian leaders proposing to wipe a UN member state off the map… There comes a time when facts are stubborn and decisions must be made.”
In 2010, the IAEA revealed evidence of “undisclosed activities” by the Iranian military to develop a nuclear warhead. In 2011, the IAEA concluded that Iran “carried out activities relevant to the development of a nuclear device.” When it was discovered in 2013 that Iran likely conducted tests for nuclear-bomb triggers in Parchin, the issue was not just papered over, but quite literally paved over by the Iranian military. (The IAEA had tried to gain access to the facility on more than 10 occasions.) In 2014, US agencies accused Iran of illegally acquiring components to aid in the production of weapons-grade plutonium. And it pays to recall something often overlooked: Iran has enough oil and natural gas to meet its current energy demands for 256 years, which means its entire nuclear program is suspect.
Last month, the Israeli government revealed evidence of Iran’s record of lying continually about its nuclear program. As usual, most media outlets missed the point. Israel was not claiming Iran is breaking the letter of the JCPOA or lying right now—though there’s evidence suggesting that—but rather that the deal itself was “based on Iranian lies and Iranian deception.”
Actions, as the old saying goes, speak louder than words. Scripture’s version of this timeless truth is captured in Matthew 7, which reminds us that “A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit.” This applies to individuals as well as nations, which, after all, are led by individuals.
When Trump began reevaluating the JCPOA, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani responded with a threat: “If the United States leaves the nuclear agreement, you will soon see that they will regret it like never before in history.”
That response underscores the point critics of the deal have been making. A reasonable government that wanted to prove its commitment to peace, prove that it has no designs on a nuclear bomb, prove that it deserves a place in the family of nations wouldn’t react with threats. But in Tehran, we’re not dealing with a reasonable government. And that was always the root of the problem with the JCPOA.
Photo Credit: President Trump delivers remarks on his Iran strategy. October 13, 2017. Official White House photo by D. Myles Cullen.