The Trump administration has notified Congress that Iran is complying with the terms of the 2015 nuclear deal negotiated by former President Barack Obama, and says the U.S. has extended the sanctions relief given to the Islamic republic in exchange for curbs on its atomic program.
However, in a letter sent late Tuesday to House Speaker Paul Ryan, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the administration has undertaken a full review of the agreement, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
While that review might be a preview to some future action to undermine the agreement, what we’re seeing here is yet another iteration of a now-familiar pattern, in which candidate Trump made absurd claims and promises, but then President Trump is forced to confront reality and backtracks from the dangerous or simply ridiculous positions he took before. That has happened on a wide variety of domestic and foreign issues; just this week we learned that the administration may not pull out of the Paris climate accord after all, despite Trump’s prior belief that climate change is a hoax concocted by the Chinese to harm American manufacturers.
On the campaign trail, Trump called the Iran agreement, in which it curtailed its nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief, “the dumbest deal perhaps I’ve ever seen in the history of deal-making.” At various times he threatened to tear it up: “My number-one priority is to dismantle the disastrous deal with Iran.” But he never said much about what specifically he objected to in the agreement, other than the fact that it was negotiated by the Obama administration and so therefore it must be bad.
In this he was no different from most Republicans. He did complain about the fact that the deal included the release of Iranian funds that had been frozen in western and Asian banks, though he described it in false terms, as though he believed that American taxpayers were simply handing over cash to the Iranian regime. “We give them $150 billion, we get nothing,” he’d say, which was false in multiple ways. First, we weren’t “giving” them anything — the funds in question belong to Iran. Second, it wasn’t anywhere near $150 billion; estimates of what they would actually get were more in the range of $50 billion to $60 billion. But again, it’s their money. And as to whether we “get nothing,” what we got were restrictions on their ability to pursue nuclear weapons, which was the whole point.
But as with most complex policy issues, there was no indication Trump had any idea what he was talking about. When speaking to AIPAC in March 2016, he said, “I’ve studied this issue in great detail — I would say actually greater by far than anybody else.” The audience, which was largely friendly to him, burst into laughter.
So where are we now, and where do we go from here? While it’s within the Trump administration’s authority to abandon the deal, doing so would accomplish less than nothing. First, the agreement includes those five other world powers, which haven’t shown any interest in canceling it. So Iran and those countries could uphold the agreement without the United States. The administration could impose more sanctions on Iran, but the reason the old sanctions regime was effective in crippling Iran’s economy was that so much of the world upheld it; if only the United States imposed new sanctions, Iran could still get much of what it needs elsewhere.
Alternatively, Iran could decide to walk away from the deal if the United States does, which would mean kicking out the inspectors and and lifting restraints on their uranium-enrichment program. How that would be to anyone’s benefit is difficult to fathom.
What almost certainly won’t happen, however, is a complete renegotiation to get a “better” deal as Trump envisions it. The negotiations to arrive at the existing deal were extremely complex and delicate, required extensive technical and diplomatic expertise, and took years to complete. Even if the other countries were interested in a renegotiation, which they aren’t, the Trump administration frankly just isn’t up to it. I’m reminded of how President Barack Obama made Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz part of the negotiating team, because as a renowned nuclear physicist, Moniz’s insights were critical to getting the details right. Trump’s energy secretary is Rick Perry, who, when he was offered the job, was surprised to learn that it didn’t actually consist entirely of promoting American oil and gas.
I don’t doubt that the Iran deal still sticks in Trump’s craw, not only because it was negotiated by the Obama administration, but also because his conception of a “good deal” is one in which we get everything we want and the person on the other side gets nothing. For instance, if you negotiate a deal in which a music store owner sells you a bunch of pianos, then you take the pianos and refuse to pay for them, you’ve made a good deal. Deals have a winner and a loser, and if you’re not the winner, you’re the loser. Trump seems to find the notion of a deal that benefits everyone to be unsettling.
So far, that does seem to be how the Iran deal has worked out: they’ve gotten something they wanted (relief from sanctions), and we’ve gotten something we wanted (curbs on their nuclear program). That doesn’t mean the deal is perfect in every way, or that Iran doesn’t present problems in other areas, or that we might not have future conflicts with them. But as Jim Mattis said during his confirmation hearings for defense secretary, “I think it is an imperfect arms control agreement — it’s not a friendship treaty.” And, “When America gives her word, we have to live up to it and work with our allies.”
Presumably, people in the administration are telling the president that for now, the deal is doing what it was supposed to. And even he may have trouble denying that.