The Trump administration, and more so, the voices egging on the Trump administration, need to give up the pretense there is a coherent Iran policy that justifies backing out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. They have been conducting a dangerous charade: vilifying the JCPOA, as if that is itself a reasoned policy designed to better constrain Iran. They point to Iran’s worsening non-nuclear behavior as if they are powerless to address it when, in reality, they have neither the will nor the skill to work with allies on attainable goals (e.g. sanctioning Iran’s ballistic missile program). Meanwhile, an action based purely on presidential animus toward his predecessor is rationalized as a clever scheme to permanently disable Iran. The only problem: The administration doesn’t have a clue how to achieve this nirvana.
One could only observe in horror the State Department briefing in which the administration’s absence of planning was so painfully evident:
QUESTION: So you are planning to sanction European companies, or you will have those discussions?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: We’ve already started the discussions this afternoon, right. The discussions are ongoing and the effort is ongoing. Hopefully we will build – and this is the Secretary and the President’s desire and focus, is to build this global effort to put renewed and strengthened pressure on Iran. And that will include trying to isolate Iran economically.
QUESTION: Well, why not keep the structure of the deal and address these concerns on the side, as has been discussed for the last few months?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Well, I think as the President laid out, that the problem with the deal was that it reduced our ability to pressure Iran, right. It essentially cordoned off this huge area of the Iranian economy and said, “Hey, we know about the IRGC’s penetration of the economy. We know Iran’s doing all this nefarious, malign activities in the region. But because of this nuclear angle, which is only one aspect of Iran’s behavior – a critical one, but just one – you essentially can’t sanction these entities that are involved in all this other stuff.”
QUESTION: So wait, just – so the United States has basically no economic relationships right now with the Iranians, right? So there is no power of U.S. sanctions to prevent – in preventing U.S. economic activity. The only power that U.S. sanctions have is in preventing European and other economic activity, right?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Secondary sanctions.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: The secondary sanctions, correct.
QUESTION: . . . . So you don’t actually know – you’re saying that the President’s going to start this global coalition, but you don’t actually know whether even your closest allies are going to be part of that coalition, right?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: The President made clear on January 12th that he was giving a certain number of months to try to – for – try to get a supplemental agreement with the E3. We didn’t get there. We got close. We made a – we had movement, a ton of good progress, which will not be wasted, but we didn’t get there. So he was clear January 12th that if we don’t get this supplemental, he’s withdrawing the United States from the JCPOA, and that’s what he did.
That’s not an answer; it’s an admission that President Trump wants what he wants and doesn’t care to plot out the consequences, leaving his advisers to pick up the pieces.
The briefing got worse from there:
QUESTION: You don’t know right now whether you’re going to be in a better place or in a worse place; is that what you’re saying? . . .
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: We know we’re going to be in a better place because we don’t think that the current JCP – the JCPOA, as it is now, adequately protects U.S. national security. So —
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Because it allowed Iran to enrich after sunsets, after those restrictions melted away —
QUESTION: In seven years.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Yes.
QUESTION: And even then, not enriching to a level where they could build a nuclear weapon.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Listen, after – after the Israelis revealed what they were able to find —
QUESTION: All old stuff, all old – before.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Listen, it was – we have acknowledged for quite some time that the Iranians had a nuclear weapons program, but nobody knew until the Israelis found it, this well curated archive, the level of detail, right. And the – I think it reinforced in a very meaningful way that all of the Iranian statements throughout the negotiations and after were lies.
Did the official say how or why we’re in a better place? No.
The conversation continued:
QUESTION: But again, I just want to understand: You do not know at this point what the Europeans are going to do in terms of the entire ancillary agreement you’ve negotiated? You do not know at this point what the Europeans are going to do, whether they’re going to fight you and – and, like they do with Cuba, protect their companies against your secondary sanctions or what – you do not know what the Europeans, your closest allies, are going to do vis-a-vis any of the ancillary effects of getting out of this deal. Is that right?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: We’re in constant conversations with the Europeans on this.
QUESTION: But you don’t know at this point? You don’t know? You didn’t get to that in your discussions, what’s going to happen?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: We did not talk about a Plan B in our discussions because we were focused on negotiating a supplemental agreement, so we did not – we did not talk about Plan B.
QUESTION: And what makes you think that Iran is going to go along with a whole new renegotiation?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: We don’t know if they will. We don’t know if they will, and the President said that in his statement. He doesn’t know if the Iranians are willing to talk, but he said at the end of the statement that he’s willing, able, and ready to talk. . . .
QUESTION: [The Europeans] tell us that they want to stay in the deal as is. . . . They see this deal as essential to their national security and you have no Plan B, you have no idea whether they will stay in the deal, whether they will defend the deal, whether they will fight you on the deal, whether they are going to go off with Iran against you.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: I mean, I think we have some idea because the President and President Macron, when he was here for the state visit, talked in their press availability about – President Macron called it a four-pillar new deal. What he tweeted today seemed to me – I think there were four pillars in what he tweeted today – seemed to me, again, to echo his desire for a broad new four-pillar deal.
QUESTION: But one of the pillars was keeping the JCPOA, which he made certain to emphasize repeatedly.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Right, but he tweeted today something that seemed to indicate to me a French willingness to work with us.
QUESTION: So you guys have a positive tweet out of it. That’s amazing.
The disdain from veteran State Department reporters regarding this amateurish performance was palpable. This is what comes from an impulsive president surrounded by aides who think reciting talking points they could get away with only on Fox News constitutes foreign policy. If you were anxious before that the administration was careening toward a crisis, or at the very least putting the United States in a worse spot than it was when the JCPOA was operative, you now have every reason to be downright panicked.