President Trump knows that the deal negotiated between the United States, China, Russia, Britain, France, Germany and Iran to restrain Iran’s nuclear program is just terrible. As he said at the United Nations on Tuesday, “The Iran deal was one of the worst and most one-sided transactions the United States has ever entered into. Frankly, that deal is an embarrassment to the United States, and I don’t think you’ve heard the last of it — believe me.”
Now he says he has made a decision on whether to pull out of the deal, but he won’t tell us what it is. After all, you always want to leave the audience eager to tune in for next week’s episode.
But ask yourself this: What exactly is it that Trump thinks is so bad about the agreement? Does he even know?
There’s no evidence that he does. During the 2016 campaign, he repeatedly complained about the money we “gave” Iran (in fact, we agreed to release Iranian funds that had been frozen in Western banks), but these days he can’t seem to offer a reason that it was supposedly the worst deal in history. And yet, it now looks entirely possible, if not likely, that he will pull out of the deal, which could lead it to collapse. Which would then leave Iran free to pursue nuclear weapons. Mission accomplished!
At this point, we’ve stopped expecting that the president himself will have anything resembling well-thought-out reasons for the actions he takes, even those with potentially catastrophic consequences. But what about the less ignorant people who work for him? What do they have to say?
The critical context here is that all of Trump’s key advisers seem to disagree with him on the wisdom of abandoning the agreement. I keep coming back to this paragraph from a New York Times story in July:
At an hourlong meeting last Wednesday, all of the president’s major security advisers recommended he preserve the Iran deal for now. Among those who spoke out were Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson; Defense Secretary Jim Mattis; Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster, the national security adviser; and Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, according to an official who described internal discussions on the condition of anonymity. The official said Mr. Trump had spent 55 minutes of the meeting telling them he did not want to.
So what we have is a group of serious, informed national security aides practically begging their unserious, ignorant boss not to do something spectacularly stupid, a herculean effort that only succeeds temporarily. It’s important to remember that according to the International Atomic Energy Agency and virtually every informed observer, Iran is in fact complying with the agreement. It’s working.
But if Trump is going to pull out of the agreement, those same advisers are going to have to justify his decision in public. So they’ve settled on the argument they’ll use, should that happen. It goes like this: Sure, the nuclear agreement is working. But Iran does other bad stuff that’s not covered by the agreement, so that’s why we need to walk away from it.
As McMaster said this morning, “It’s really about how our approach to this deal fits into our broader Iran strategy to address what Iran is doing,” because they take destabilizing actions and support unsavory groups, and have also continued to pursue a ballistic missile program. Both of those things are problematic, but neither one was covered by the nuclear deal, whose goal was to address Iran’s nuclear program.
Or as Tillerson said, “Perhaps the technical aspects have [been met], but in the broader context the aspiration has not.” Ah yes, the aspiration, that’s what’s important. It’s kind of like when Trump orders $100,000 worth of pianos from you, and you deliver the pianos, but he decides to concern himself more with his aspiration that he not pay you the $100,000.
The next person who is fortunate enough to interview Trump should ask him: If we abandon the nuclear agreement, what happens then? His hope can’t be that it would survive without us (a possibility), because if that’s the case, then there would be no point to backing out. So he must be hoping that the agreement would collapse. And then what? He can’t possibly be so stupid as to believe that Iran would say, “Okay, you win! We’ll give you everything you could ever want and ask nothing in return,” but I’m not so sure. Much more likely is that Iran would decide that there’s no point in making any kind of agreement with this administration, because Trump can’t be trusted to keep to his word. Indeed, at this point, why would any government anywhere — particularly North Korea’s — believe that if it made an agreement with the United States and upheld its end of the bargain that we’d do the same?
We all know the real reason Trump wants to walk away from the nuclear accord. It isn’t because Iran is violating the terms, because it isn’t. It isn’t because the terms were terribly unfair to the United States, because they weren’t. It isn’t because Iran is doing things outside the agreement that we don’t like, because those actions exist outside the agreement. It’s because Trump is a petulant man-baby who believes that anything that has Barack Obama’s name on it has to be destroyed, no matter the consequences.
Nevertheless, there may be one way out of this crisis that Trump seems determined to create. If he really wants to address Iran’s ballistic missile program or its support for terrorist groups, he can leave the nuclear deal in place and start negotiations on an entirely new agreement to deal with those problems. We’d have to offer Iran something in return for changing what it’s doing, though. Given what a great dealmaker Trump believes himself to be, you’d think he’d jump at the chance to try something like this. But I wouldn’t get your hopes up.