President Trump straight up lied in his speech today on ‘decertifying’ the Iran nuclear deal. He said: “The Iranian regime has committed multiple violations of the agreement.” This is not true. The US, the Europeans, outside observers, the inspectors all agree that Iran is meeting the conditions of the deal. If Iran were violating the deal, all of this drama wouldn’t have been necessary. Trump could have just canceled the deal without any need to justify the decision. He would have had broad support for doing so. That’s the bind he’s been in. The Iranians are keeping their end of the bargain. So Trump really hasn’t had a good rationale – legal or geopolitical – for getting out.
But there’s a different part of the speech I want to focus on. In addition to all the things the President says his new policy will accomplish he made this pledge. “We will deny the regime all paths to a nuclear weapon.”
But of course there was no explanation of how that would happen. It’s possible that the deal might stay in place even if the US pulled because the benefits to Iran and Europe are good enough to keep it going. But assuming the deal gets totally scuttled there are really only three ways to “deny the regime all paths to a nuclear weapon.” 1) You can impose sanctions and other forms of pressure to a great enough extent that the Iranians relent. (That’s kind of what Obama did – crippling sanctions plus covert, often cyber, sabotage.) 2) You sign a new agreement. Or 3) you can go to war and physically coerce them into stopping.
One seems highly unlikely since the European powers, China and Russia don’t want to do that. Without them, really ruinous sanctions aren’t possible. Two seems unlikely mainly because the Trump administration shows really no inclination even to want a deal. Three fits the Trump mentality but it’s fraught with incalculable danger. There’s a reason why it never happened under President Bush and even Israel was held back largely by its own generals.
What we see here really looks like Bush administration policy on North Korea in the first years of this century. The Clinton administration had a deal too. It was sort of still born. The GOP Congress hobbled it from Capitol Hill and cut off funding for it. There’s evidence – though it wasn’t that rock solid – that the North Koreans started violating the agreement in the late Clinton years. For all that though, the nuclear weapons program we’re now so concerned about and which has produced numerous nuclear weapons, was shuttered.
The Bush foreign policy team decided that deal was appeasement and basically forced a complete breakdown of the deal. They would not tolerate North Korea getting a nuclear weapon. No appeasement, no payoffs, no cowering. Only they had no actual plan for how to do that. In 2006, North Korea detonated its first nuclear device.
So much for that.
The Bush team wouldn’t stand for appeasement, opted for a policy of strength and moral clarity and got a nuclear North Korea. By any possible definition the policy was an abject failure. Might the Clinton approach have failed too? Maybe. But it kept the program shuttered for almost a decade. For all the messiness, that was a success.
Set aside all the policy ins and outs with the President’s decision today and this looks almost exactly the same. The Trump team thinks it’s a terrible deal, a giveaway, appeasing a rogue regime. In its place they have no plan at all.