Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif at the United Nations building in Vienna in 2015. (Leonhard Foeger/Reuters)
Opinion writer

The Trump administration’s threats to back away from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) limiting Iran’s nuclear program are increasingly illogical.

On one hand, as the New York Times reports, its emissaries complain that the JCPOA “failed to curb Iran’s support for regional terrorism”; but since the JCPOA doesn’t cover such matters, why don’t the P5+1 leave the JCPOA in place and move forward to penalize Iran’s non-nuclear conduct? In fact, going its own way means the Trump administration likely will have less cooperation — not more — from its allies in checking Iran’s regional aggression.

On one hand, the administration criticizes the deal as the “worst ever,” but now it insists that removal of sunset clauses is non-negotiable. So, the worst deal ever needs to continue on indefinitely.

On one hand, the United States concedes that Iran is generally in compliance with the JCPOA, but the administration is pushing to end a deal after Iran has reaped the benefits of it (sanctions relief, economic rebound). Iran will have pocketed its gains and then be free to resume its nuclear activities.

None of this quite hangs together, because the genesis for the policy — whatever President Barack Obama did must go! — lacks recognition that the JCPOA did move the goalposts. Europeans, especially in light of President Trump’s going-alongism, are not inclined to give him cover if it means restarting a nuclear standoff with Iran. The obvious solution — leave the JCPOA in place and negotiate separately for non-nuclear concessions from Iran — doesn’t work with a president who’s emotionally fixated on ripping up his predecessor’s work.

Sensitive to the criticism that the administration has no game plan for what happens after it nixes the JCPOA, officials tell my colleague Josh Rogin that they’re hard at work. They have it all covered. No worries. It’s all under control. (“The State Department and the National Security Council have begun developing a diplomatic, economic and strategic communications strategy for pulling out of the deal, reimposing sanctions and dealing with potential responses from Europe, China, Russia and Iran. The work is not meant to influence Trump’s decision, officials said, but to give the president the options he requested with responsible planning to back up each course of action.”)

The gang that cannot handle the simplest tasks, nor run its own staff, nor avoid confrontations with allies on everything from trade to NATO, insists that the myriad of complicated consequences can all be anticipated and handled — and we are supposed to believe this. Trump, who never goes off script or sends an errant tweet (except on days ending in “y”), is the perfect president to manage a mind-numbingly complex set of factors to prevent us from inching closer to military confrontation? Oh, and this gang is positive that walking away from the JCPOA won’t spell the end to the North Korea diplomatic efforts. It will improve our chances!

Former ambassador Eric S. Edelman was a staunch opponent of the JCPOA but is, to say the least, skeptical of the Trump’s team’s ability to navigate a post-JCPOA Middle East. He explains via email: “There are obviously lots of issues here — 1) managing the allies who are committed to the deal, 2) managing the Hill where there is not a consensus about this, 3) preparing the region and taking steps to provide US forces with sufficient capability to push back against Iranian provocations against US forces in Iraq/Syria, 4) dealing with Iran in Syria and Iraq more broadly, 5) contingency planning for Iranian breakout, 6) de-conflicting Iran and DPRK diplomacy — which doesn’t necessarily require staying in the deal as a lot of arms controllers contend but does require thinking through the linkages.” Let’s be clear: The most adept administration in history could not figure out all the angles and guarantee that its actions won’t precipitate a diplomatic and/or military debacle.

The Trump administration should be pressed on Capitol Hill (if we get timely and responsible oversight) to explain:

  • Are we prepared to sanction our allies if their companies continue doing business in Iran? How will that work? What if they retaliate?
  • How do we reinstate a sanctions regime without the cooperation of the European Union?
  • What if Iran goes to the United Nations, seeking condemnation of the United States as an international scofflaw?
  • Will the U.N. be willing to join the United States if Iran then moves ahead with its nuclear program and/or its ballistic missile program?
  • Is this administration — which won’t sanction Russia in serious ways for meddling in our elections — prepared to take action against the Kremlin, which will no doubt redouble its support for Iran (and Syria) in the wake of our exiting the JCPOA?
  • What are we prepared to do if Iranian forces or their surrogates strike at Israel in what is already a fraught standoff at Israel’s northern border?
  • What military plan is in place, if any, to respond if Iran makes a dash for nuclear breakout? Do we have adequate forces in place, and have we planned for Iran’s inevitable retaliatory moves? What would be the outcome of a U.S. military strike, and what would this mean for our allies?
  • If Pyongyang says all bets are off and accelerates progress on its nuclear program, are we prepared for simultaneous confrontations with both Iran and North Korea?

In short, the administration’s threats come across as yet another of Trump’s half-baked stunts born of arrogance and ignorance. Veteran Middle East negotiator Aaron David Miller observes, “Why when the Administration has been offered a possible bus ride into history from a successful summit and negotiating process with North Korea would it want to risk opening up what is now a closed nuclear file; sending Kim a message that any deal he cuts with the US we’ll walk away from; alienating allies; isolating itself; giving Russia and China a propaganda advantage; heating up possibility of Israeli-Iranian tensions in region; and if Iran goes back to accelerated enrichment, encouraging others like the Saudis to develop or buy their own programs?”

Unless and until Congress and the American people have assurances that all the contingencies have been covered in minute detail and that the president has been transformed into a perfectly disciplined commander in chief, the administration has no business plunging the United States, its allies and the Middle East (already a chaotic, blood-soaked region) into the unknown. Outside advisers who are egging on the administration should think long and hard about the consequences of rash conduct. It’s one thing to write a fiery op-ed; it’s another to be responsible for a major military conflagration for which we are, despite administration spin, entirely incapable of managing.

UPDATE: Experienced Middle East negotiators seem dismayed by the naiveté of the Trump team. “If the administration walks away from the JCPOA after the Europeans sought in negotiations to address its concerns on sunset provisions, ballistic missiles, inspections and Iran’s regional behavior, it walks away alone,” says Middle East veteran negotiator Dennis Ross. “The idea that they will be coerced into snapping back the sanctions misreads how badly they want to maintain the deal. It misreads politically how unpopular in the U.K., France and Germany it would be to join the Trump administration in walking away the deal. And it misreads how Iran will play on their fears to get them to reach out to keep Iran in the deal.” Other than that, they’ve got this totally wired.