Appearing on “Face the Nation” on Sunday, beleaguered Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson said:
Well, my view on the nuclear deal is they are in technical compliance of the nuclear arrangement. But if you go back and read the preamble to the [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action], the nuclear agreement, there clearly was an expectation between the parties, the negotiators from the Western parties as well as Iran, that by dealing with this nuclear threat we would lower the tension between Iran and the rest of the world and we would create conditions for Iran to rejoin the community of nations as a productive country that wants stability, and wants peace, and wants prosperity in the region.
That’s why all these sanctions were lifted. But since the nuclear deal has been concluded what we have witnessed is Iran has stepped up its destabilizing activities in Yemen. It’s stepped up its destabilizing activities in Syria. It exports arms to Hezbollah and other terrorist groups. And it continues to conduct a very active ballistic missile program. None of that, I would believe, is consistent with that preamble commitment that was made by everyone.
So Tillerson thinks the failure to sit down to negotiate on other things is itself a violation of the JCPOA, at least the preamble (which in diplomatic and other legal documents is generally not binding)? Or is he saying Iran is in compliance with the JCPOA, so the president won’t be pulling the plug? It is hard to tell what he thinks or even if he speaks for the president, who has said he wanted to nix the deal months ago. If, however, the administration wants to maintain the position that Iran has failed to live up to its side of the deal in significant ways, then Tillerson’s statement will be thrown back in our faces. Meanwhile, national security adviser H.R. McMaster was saying on another talk show, “We know Iran has already violated parts of the agreement. … Well, the [International Atomic Energy Agency] has identified and we’ve identified some of these breaches that Iran has then corrected.” So are these guys recommending Trump find Iran in breach or not? You got me.
The haphazard way in which this is playing out — without a single clear message, without consultation with our allies or Congress, and with no plan for what happens if Russia and China (at the very least) don’t go along with existing sanctions and nix sanctions on non-nuclear activities — is distressing but hardly surprising for Tillerson, who has cloistered himself away with a few staffers, obsessed over org charts, failed to fill key roles, shown himself to be out of sync with the president on multiple occasions, and earned no credibility with Congress or the international community.
Frequent Trump administration critic and former State Department official Eliot A. Cohen recently wrote:
One consequence will be a corresponding confusion on the part of foreign powers about the administration’s goals, commitments, and red lines — and the likely misinterpretation of stray signals. Even well-run administrations can fail to communicate their intentions clearly, with dire consequences. …
The first Bush administration recovered from the disaster of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait because it was an effective and cohesive team of highly experienced professionals — Brent Scowcroft, James Baker, Dick Cheney — led by a prudent and disciplined president. They built a coalition, reassured and mobilized allies, placated neutrals, and planned and executed a war. They disagreed with one another in open and productive ways. They shrewdly used the career civil servants and able political appointees who served them energetically and well.
Does anyone think this administration is remotely capable of comparable finesse in managing the consequences of a pullout from the JCPOA? Tillerson cannot even get through a polite interview without sowing confusion and consternation.