The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Iran policy shouldn’t be adjusted merely to soothe an unhinged president

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in 2015. (Atta Kenare/Agence France-Presse via Getty Images)

The Post reports:

President Trump was livid. Why, he asked his advisers in mid-July, should he go along with what he considered the failed Obama-era policy toward Iran and prop up an international nuclear deal he saw as disastrous?
He was incensed by the arguments of Secretary of State Rex ­Tillerson, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and others that the landmark 2015 deal, while flawed, offered stability and other benefits. He did not want to certify to Congress that the agreement remained in the vital U.S. national security interest and that Iran was meeting its obligations. He did not think either was true.
“He threw a fit,” said one person familiar with the meeting. “. . . He was furious. Really furious. It’s clear he felt jammed.”
So White House national security adviser H.R. McMaster and other senior advisers came up with a plan — one aimed at accommodating Trump’s loathing of the Iran deal as “an embarrassment” without killing it outright.

So we adopted a half-baked nuclear strategy so that the president wouldn’t have another meltdown?

This would explain a lot, specifically why we are pursuing a decertification but not sanctions or withdrawal. It is a cathartic exercise for a temper-tantrumming president, a legal placebo. Alas, the pacification tool for Trump may cause grave danger and damage to the country — dividing us from allies, making the United States a pariah, prompting calls for sanctions that would end the deal. Iran, of course, could overreact, citing this as bad faith and itself throw off the deal. A myriad of risks we would not otherwise take are required because the president is an emotional child.

President Trump criticized the Iran nuclear deal and called the Iranian government a “corrupt dictatorship” while addressing the U.N. on Sept. 19. (Video: Reuters)

Let’s not forget that decertification is contrary to the advice of many members of Congress, outside experts, allied governments and some members of Trump’s Cabinet. House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.) said on Wednesday: “As flawed as the deal is, I believe we must now enforce the hell out of it. Let’s work with allies to make certain that international inspectors have better access to possible nuclear sites, and we should address the fundamental sunset shortcoming, as our allies have recognized.”

Testifying before the committee, former ambassador James Jeffrey explained:

It is easy to visualize a ‘improved’ version of this [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action] —longer time periods, ability of the International Atomic Energy Agency to more easily inspect all suspect sites including military, more clarity on the “possible military dimensions” of the Iranian program, inclusion of certain missile systems and research. But Iran’s technical compliance with the Agreement and refusal to countenance new negotiations, and the reluctance of other key international partners, especially the P5+1 States, to entertain new negotiations, argue for a policy of ‘constructive ambivalence’ concerning, and scrutiny of, the Agreement, with options for improving it held for later.  …
Obtaining a fundamentally new agreement, e.g., Iran foreswearing all enrichment activities, would require, short of war, international sanctions far stronger than those in the period 2010-15. And those sanctions, especially the most effective—the Iranian oil import sanctions under the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act–were controversial with America’s European allies and Asian trading partners at the time despite clear Iranian violation of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, inflammatory rhetoric by then President Ahmadinejad, and risk of war over the Iranian program. None of those conditions is present today. Furthermore, any U.S. strategy to call Iran to account for the gamut of its activities requires a reasonably supportive international community, and too aggressive a U.S. campaign against the JCPOA would undermine such support. [Emphasis added]

The decertification scheme struck many Iran-watchers as curiously unnecessary. Unlike imposition of sanctions or withdrawal from the deal, decertification is a domestic matter of technically no consequence under the JCPOA. We could raise the military pressure on Iran, pursue sanctions for non-nuclear activity and enhance military and intelligence- sharing relationships in the region without the provocative step of decertification. Ah, but that would leave the raging toddler flinging himself on the Oval Office rug.

It seems that rather than confront Trump’s irrationality and risk-taking conduct, those around him have come up with a bandage to enable the country to limp through the next few weeks (months? years?). That may be admirable in a way, but if true, it’s not appropriate. We should not be changing policy and assuming unneeded risk because the president is unfit.

Two responses to this incident are required.

First, the armed services, foreign affairs and/or intelligence committees from both houses need to interview Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary James Mattis to learn how decertification came about. Would we do this if not for the president’s meltdown last time? Are we taking unnecessary risks to mollify an irrational president?

Second, this episode — like Trump’s firing of James B. Comey, his refusal to recognize the threat to our democracy posed by Russia, his constant demagoguery and his attacks on the First Amendment — is precisely the kind of conduct that impeachment was designed to remedy. If the president cannot make rational decisions for the country’s well-being and security and must be assuaged by gestures not driven by policy requirements, he cannot remain as commander in chief. Democrats should stop shying away from the issue of the president’s fitness, and Republicans should start taking their oaths of office seriously. The House Judiciary Committee is obligated to begin considering grounds for impeachment. If Republicans refuse, Democrats after the 2018 midterms may have their shot.