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Opinion We can all now agree: There is no Plan B on Iran

For the United States, the Iran deal is about much more than nuclear negotiations. It's about freeing Americans from prison, says opinion writer Jason Rezaian. (Video: Adriana Usero/The Washington Post)

Pundits and politicians who either (1) opposed the Iran nuclear deal at the time and cheered President Trump’s pullout; or (2) opposed the deal at the time, but worried about the impact of a unilateral pullout, can at least agree with those who supported the deal and opposed its abrogation: There is no Plan B.

The last two groups (both of which opposed the pullout, whether they supported the original deal or not) are entitled to point out there is not now, nor was there ever, a backup plan. You can understand their mistrust of those who egged President Trump on, without producing a coherent explanation as to how this would all play out. In short, Trump operated by temper tantrum, and those who enabled him didn’t really level with the country about the ramifications of giving in to his irrational desire to rip up everything his predecessor did.

Sure, there is hysterical talk about “bringing Iran to its knees” — but that would require a unified alliance and a revival of international sanctions, both of which are made more difficult, if not impossible, by Trump’s decision. It would require a confrontation between the United States and its allies, one in which we essentially threaten economic sanctions against the countries that choose to uphold the deal. It would also require an actual policy for dealing with Iranian aggression in places such as Syria, which we do not presently have. And it would entail the credible threat of military action — another Middle East war, to be blunt.

Suzanne Maloney of the Brookings Institution writes:

Trump has repeatedly insisted that he will steer clear of embroiling America in yet another long, messy, costly conflict in the Middle East, but his decision to target the nuclear deal elevates the odds of Iranian escalation and, with it, even greater threats to U.S. interests and allies. The irony is acute; Trump derided the JCPOA [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action] because “it didn’t bring calm, it didn’t bring peace,” but undoing the deal will only inflame a region already riven by extremism and sectarian rivalries, making it harder for the United States to extricate itself as the president himself has promised. Until and unless the administration resolves the contradictions between the president’s maximalist objectives, his disinclination to take on the Iranians on the ground, and Washington’s divergence from its core allies on this question, Trump cannot hope to make progress on any element of the Iranian challenge.

Supporters of Trump’s rip-it-up strategy may not have intended to bring us closer to military confrontation, but the effect of proceeding in this fashion without a reasonable method of obtaining a better result than the JCPOA will most certainly move us toward either conflict or acquiescence to Iran’s emergence as a nuclear power.

Richard Haass of the Council on Foreign Relations writes: “Trump’s decision could force a showdown over Iran’s nuclear program now rather than in a decade. If Iran were to resume nuclear activities proscribed by the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), there is a real risk the U.S. or Israel would launch attacks against it, starting a regional conflict of unknown dimensions.”

Haass continues: “There was no urgency to change U.S. policy now. A wiser path would have been to live with the JCPOA, continue negotiations with Europeans and others on a successor pact to extend Iranian nuclear constraints, push for new sanctions tied to Iran’s ballistic missile program and do more to frustrate Iran’s efforts around the Middle East, including keeping U.S. military forces in Syria.”

That would have required a rational president, not one motivated by resentment and personal animus toward Barack Obama.

In failing, in a really big way, to think through second- and third-order problems, supporters of the current approach seem to have forgotten the lessons of the Iraq War: proceed with caution, consider unintended consequences, and examine what the downsides will be if your assumptions prove to be wrong and operate in concert with allies and Congress.

One really has to wonder whether the administration has answers to any, let alone all, of the following questions:

  • What are we prepared to do if both Iran and the remaining parties to the deal continue to abide by its terms?
  • Are we prepared to take economic action against our own allies to prevent them from remaining in the deal?
  • Are we prepared to force our own companies to abandon ongoing deals in Iran?
  • If we are able to force the other powers to abandon the deal, what will we do if Iran sends inspectors packing?
  • If inspectors leave, how will we be in a better position than we were under the JCPOA to detect Iran’s process toward a nuclear war?
  • If Iran picks up where it left off, or worse, makes a dash for the bomb, are we prepared to take military action — even unilateral action?
  • What would the results of such military action be?
  • Why would our allies now cooperate with us on sanctions against Iran for non-nuclear behavior, or commit to help us in checking Iranian regional aggression?
  • What do we do if Saudi Arabia renews its threats to get its own bomb?

Whatever you think the answers to these are, I think we can all agree the president hadn’t gone through these and literally dozens of other questions before deciding to pull out. The extent of his thinking is: “Iran deal bad. I end Iran deal.”

When advocating for withdrawal from the Iran deal, politicians and pundits should have leveled with us. The truthful question they were presenting was: Should we pull out of a flawed deal without going through all the downstream consequences, and without a complete understanding with allies as to next steps? Because no rational person would respond to such a query with “yes,” the architects of this leap into the dark made it seem as though they had it all figured out. They would have had us believe there was no risk, that we would be in far worse shape without the JCPOA than with it. For that, they bear a heavy political and moral responsibility.

Let’s hear it: What comes next, fellas?