Opinion writer

You would think on the first Sunday after President Trump’s announcement that he would not certify the Iran nuclear agreement the president’s top foreign policy team would have a coordinated, logical and simple explanation of what it was hoping to accomplish. No such luck.

At one point on CBS’s “Face the Nation” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson tried to reassure our rattled allies, although he seemed to contradict Trump’s expressed willingness to dump the deal:

DICKERSON: What the European allies, the other signatories to this say is, yes, they agree with you with all those issues, but they say you do them in two different parts, the way we used to do it with the Soviets.

You negotiate on the nuclear. You lock in gains there. Then you work on these other things. The Senate passed sanctions against Iran over the summer. So, you work that other channel, but you don’t jeopardize what you have got locked in on this agreement. Why are they wrong?

TILLERSON: Well, they’re not wrong.

And, in fact, that’s exactly what the president’s decision I think reflects, is that the president has said, “Look, we’re going to decertify under the Iranian Review Act.” This is a domestic law. It is not a decertification under the nuclear agreement that involves the multilateral parties. But he is I think signaling to Iran and to our other partners there are serious flaws in this agreement.

Everyone acknowledges there are serious flaws. And so he would like to get the Congress to give us their sense of this issue, so we have a strong voice, a strong, unified voice once and for all, representing the American position, which then allows us to engage with friends and allies and other signatories around how do we address these gaps and these flaws in this nuclear agreement.

Then again, he hinted that the president would pull out if he didn’t get his way:

DICKERSON: So, you’d keep the original.

I guess what I’m trying to fix on here is it sounded like at the end of his remarks the president said, “A hammer is going to come down if there’s no action from Congress, and this first agreement is done, the U.S. is out.”

Is that a misunderstanding? Or is that the message?

TILLERSON: No, I think the president is being very clear not just to the Congress, but he’s being very clear to Iran and to the other signatories of the agreement as well that, if we cannot see movement, if we don’t see some encouragement that we’re going to begin to address these, then there’s no reason to stay in. And he has every intention of walking out.

Well, at least Tillerson can say the administration is all on the same page (“no confusion among the people that matter”). Then again,  he conceded, “I know the appearance of it certainly looks like there’s sometimes disunity.”

Hey, but on CNN’s “State of the Union,” he recalled the president had promised to fix the deal or get a new one. So are we getting out? Not really. “Let’s see if we cannot address the flaws in the agreement by staying within the agreement, working with the other signatories, working with our European friends and allies within the agreement. But that, as I said, that may come in a secondary agreement as well,” he said. “So, we want to take the agreement as it exists today, as I said, fully enforce that agreement, be very demanding of Iran’s compliance under the agreement, and then begin the process of addressing these flaws that we see around not — the absence of addressing ballistic missiles, for instance, the concerns we have around the sunset provisions, this phase-out of the agreement.” But couldn’t he do that without decertifying? And why would Iran negotiate a brand-new deal when there are no sanctions in the picture? No answer was given.

Then there was U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley. She said on NBC’s “Meet the Press”: “Well, I think right now, you’re going to see us stay in the deal. Because what we hope is that we can improve the situation. And that’s the goal. So I think right now, we’re in the deal to see how we can make it better. And that’s the goal. It’s not that we’re getting out of the deal. We’re just trying to make the situation better so that the American people feel safer.” That sure didn’t sound like the president or Tillerson saying Trump would be sure to walk if he didn’t get a deal he wanted.”In fact on ABC’s “This Week,” she conceded that Iran was “in compliance” but then pointed to non-nuclear actions. “Are we OK with them doing all these other bad things?” But why then decertify the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action? The administration could, as Congress and allies have said, leave the JCPOA in place and then turn to items not covered in the agreement. She continued, “Everybody is turning a blind eye to Iran and all of those violations out of trying to protect this agreement. What we need to say is, ‘We have to hold them accountable.'” I heard the words, but what do they mean? How does our decertifying the JCPOA when Iran is in compliance hold Iran “accountable”? You got me.

And then national security adviser H.R. McMaster went on “Fox News Sunday” to declare that he thought Iran already wanted to “revisit” the deal. “Well, it’s not even revisit. It’s just implement the agreement by going to sites, to fully implement the inspections of sites, the monitoring of suspicious sites within Iran.” I’m not sure what that means. He did assure us, “Well, the president is not walking away from the deal yet. So, if he sees some real change, if he sees the ability of the Congress within U.S. law to address some of these problems associated with the deal. So, this — in our legislation, the domestic law about the deal was really flawed because it was really just about cost reporting to each other.” Again, it’s not clear if Trump intends to unilaterally destroy the deal if Iran doesn’t come forward to give more concessions.

The cacophony of mixed messages, empty phrases and double talk should hardly be surprising. (Haley should drop meaningless one-liners like: “You know, it certainly seems like the international community acts like it’s too big to fail.”) Remember this is a “policy” devised to work around a temper tantrum, namely Trump’s refusal to sign off on certification. His aides had to dress up decertification to look like, pardon the phrase, “strategery.” So now they say decertification is meant to hint that we will pull out of the deal. Except our allies should understand we want to stay in the deal and just improve it. Except Trump said we’d probably be out.

Members of the administration have to answer a basic question: Have they come around to the view that no JCPOA is better than a flawed JCPOA, even if our allies stay in? If so, that’s going to set off a firestorm in Congress and internationally. If it’s not true, Trump should stop making empty threats.