Early last week, President Trump announced that the United States would cease to observe its obligations under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, better known as the Iran deal. His public statement — replete with untruths, half-truths and distortions — amounted to a declaration that Iran was violating the agreement and could not be trusted.
In fact, there is a rigorous inspection regime inside Iran run by the International Atomic Energy Administration and the IAEA has repeatedly stated that Iran is in full compliance with its obligations. American intelligence and military analysts concur with that judgment.
The Iran deal was designed to put a brake on Iran’s nuclear development, one that had the potential to rapidly become a nuclear weapons program. In return for restrictions on its program and for allowing intrusive on-the-ground inspections of its nuclear facilities, Iran received relief from international sanctions including oil sales and access to impounded funds.
The agreement was signed by seven countries (including Russia and China) plus Iran and is extremely detailed and complex. It was the result of months of arduous negotiations by teams of international diplomats and nuclear experts. Explaining the intricacies of the final agreement would require far more space than is available here. All you need to know is that the U.S. Secretary of Defense, James Mattis, who criticized the Obama administration as too soft on Iran, nevertheless concluded that deal was in America’s interest. In Senate testimony, he stated that he had read the entire agreement three times and was impressed that it was not based on trust of Iran. On the contrary, it assumed Iran would try to cheat — thus all the draconian inspection provisions. When asked directly whether the United States should stick with the deal, Mattis paused and then said, “Yes.”
Military officers are required to give their honest opinion when testifying before Congress, even if that opinion clashes with White House policy. Other governments that were signatory to the deal all urged the United States to stay the course, as did the overwhelming majority of U.S. foreign policy and nuclear experts.
So why did the President abrogate the Iran deal? The answer is not pretty. No one thinks that Mr. Trump has anything approaching a detailed understanding of the agreement. No one thinks he has read even a paragraph of it, much less the entire document. His decision seems to come down to two considerations: (1) This was a campaign promise, so he will keep it whether it is good for the country or not; and (2) The deal was a signature diplomatic achievement of the Obama administration so, by definition, he wants to destroy it.
So what happens next? The President has declared he is ready to negotiate a “better deal.” There is, however, zero chance that a replacement agreement will be negotiated and signed in the foreseeable future. Iran has stated it is out of the question and none of the other signatory states has shown the slightest interest in starting over. White House demands that Iran agree to end its missile programs and fundamentally change its foreign policy in the Middle East are viewed in Europe and elsewhere as fantasies. The European governments have shown a strong desire to try to save the deal without the United States and Tehran has said it was willing to listen. The European Council has already initiated steps to bar European corporations from adhering to resumed U.S. sanctions on Iran. But few, if any, experts see much chance that the deal can be saved because at its heart it was an agreement between Tehran and Washington. Above all else, Iran wanted an end to U.S. sanctions. With those sanctions now going back into place, Iran has little incentive to adhere to anything.
Given these realities, the potential scenarios are grim.
The one country that has applauded Trump’s position is Israel. Why? Because the Netanyahu government wants to elicit an American military attack on Iran, one that will not only destroy that country’s nuclear infrastructure but the regime itself. So one plausible outcome is a new, far more lethal, war in the Middle East.
Europe has already started to draw some deeply sobering conclusions concerning the future of the Atlantic Alliance. Europe is convinced that the Iran deal is vital to global security. European leaders, notably French President Macron, made a huge, very public effort to persuade the White House to change course. Mr. Trump not only rebuffed them, he did so with transparent disregard for their views and interests. In reaction, the president of the European Union (a Polish politician long friendly to the United States) commented, referring to Trump, “With friends like this, who needs enemies?” The cover of Germany’s most influential news magazine shows Trump giving a middle finger salute to Europe. The Atlantic Alliance has been the bedrock of U.S. security policy since World War II. The current White House contempt for the Alliance will have consequences as profound as they are incalculable.
Within Iran the effect of Trump’s actions has already strengthened the hand of virulent anti-American political forces centered on the supreme leader and the Republican Guards. The pro-Western moderates centered on the elected prime minister have been weakened. Expect Iran to restart its centrifuges and resume uranium enrichment.
And there is another consequence. We live in a fractured, increasingly dangerous world that desperately needs order and stability. The best hope for that has long been U.S. power buttressing international law and diplomacy and, with it, the credibility of U.S. commitments. That is over. It is now America first.