Today, President Trump announced that the United States is pulling out of the agreement to constrain Iran’s nuclear program — which was negotiated in 2015 by the United States, China, Russia, Britain, France, Germany and the European Union — and said the United States would reimpose strict sanctions on Iran.
This decision is deeply uninformed, utterly illogical, inimical to the interests of the United States, taken for the pettiest of personal reasons and done with absolutely no plan for what to do next. In other words, it’s pure Trump.
Upon announcing his decision today to reimpose sanctions and essentially abandon the agreement, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), Trump said, “If I allow this deal to stand, there would soon be a nuclear arms race in the Middle East,” as though by pulling out of the JCPOA we’re forever keeping Iran from getting nuclear weapons — if anything, the exact opposite of what’s happening.
Because of the JCPOA, there is now a comprehensive inspection system in place, administered by the International Atomic Energy Agency, monitoring Iran’s activities. The IAEA has repeatedly stated that Iran is complying with the requirements of the agreement. While the departure of the United States from the deal might not immediately cause the whole thing to collapse, that is plainly what Trump wants. He isn’t doing this in the hope that the JCPOA will continue on without us.
Indeed, Trump made his real hope plain when he said that “we cannot prevent a nuclear bomb under the decaying and rotten structure of the agreement.”
Should the deal collapse, the inspectors will leave and Iran would be free to pursue nuclear weapons, precisely the outcome Trump claims he wants to avoid. Now, it’s possible that Iran would choose not to do so. But with the inspections in place they can’t; with no inspections, they could.
If our goal is actually to avoid Iran having nuclear weapons, how on earth does pulling out of the JCPOA accomplish that?
Which brings us to this critical question: What does Trump think is going to happen now? At various times he has posited that there might be a “better deal” in the offing, by which he seems to mean one in which Iran gives us everything we want and we give it nothing. Today he claimed that the Iranians “are going to want to make a new and lasting deal.”
But no one actually believes that Iran is going to negotiate a whole new agreement to satisfy Trump, nor that Britain, France, Russia, China, Germany and the E.U. are going to want to restart that process all over again, especially since it took years the first time. If anything, they’ll be likely to hold up their end of the bargain on the assumption that in 2½ years the American public might elect a saner president.
So what is our departure supposed to produce? Does Trump have any idea?
There’s one person who does: his national security adviser, John Bolton. Now that some of the senior-most advocates of staying in the JCPOA (H.R. McMaster and Rex Tillerson) have been pushed out, Bolton has Trump’s ear to promote his plan for Iran.
Which is yet another military conflict in the Middle East. In a March 2015 op-ed in the New York Times that ran under the headline, “To Stop Iran’s Bomb, Bomb Iran,” Bolton argued:
The inconvenient truth is that only military action like Israel’s 1981 attack on Saddam Hussein’s Osirak reactor in Iraq or its 2007 destruction of a Syrian reactor, designed and built by North Korea, can accomplish what is required. Time is terribly short, but a strike can still succeed.
Bolton claimed that such a strike “could set back its program by three to five years.” Today, Trump justifies leaving the Iran agreement because it constrains their nuclear program for only 10 years. But there’s no indication that Bolton has changed his mind.
Now maybe Trump isn’t looking that far ahead. As with so many other decisions he has made, his primary motivation in abandoning the JCPOA seemed to be that it was negotiated by the Obama administration, and therefore it’s terrible and must be reversed. It’s obvious that Trump has only the vaguest idea of what the agreement does or how it works. You may recall that in March 2016, he said to a very friendly audience at AIPAC, “I’ve studied this issue in great detail — I would say actually greater by far than anybody else,” whereupon the crowd burst into laughter. Even his friends knew he had no idea what he was talking about.
Which is why we have to ask, as many times as is necessary: What is supposed to happen now? How is this move going to produce an Iran that we’re sure has no nuclear weapons program? Is there a path to that assurance other than creating a pretext for launching a military strike on Iran and trying to overthrow its regime? What exactly is the strategy here?
If anyone knows, we’d all love to hear it.