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Opinion Trump should strengthen the Iran nuclear deal, not blow it up

President Trump and Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari hold a news conference in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington on Monday. (Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

Credit Israeli intelligence for another coup: Its agents smuggled 100,000 pages of documents out of Iran about that country’s nuclear program. The mullahs will now have to patch a major security leak. But the revelations contained in those papers are not quite as newsworthy as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu claimed in a made-for-American-TV presentation on Monday. “I’m here to tell you one thing: Iran lied. Big time,” Netanyahu said. So what did Iranian leaders lie about? That they had a secret nuclear-development program called Project Amad … that was shelved in 2003.

No kidding. Iran’s nuclear-weapons development program was widely known — and it was, in fact, the justification for the United States, Russia, China, the European Union, Germany, Britain and France to conclude the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran in 2015, imposing strict limitations on Iran’s ability to enrich and reprocess fissile material.

Netanyahu claims that Iran has violated the JCPOA, a.k.a. the “Iran nuclear deal.” But on that score his evidence is thin. “In 2017,” he said, “Iran moved its nuclear weapons files to a highly secret location in Tehran.” It’s possible that Iran did not come clean about its past nuclear activities, as it was supposed to do under the deal, but no one ever expected that the agreement would eradicate Iran’s nuclear know-how. It was only supposed to stop the actual development of nuclear weapons. Netanyahu is clearly eager to torpedo the nuclear deal, and if he had compelling evidence of Iranian violations he would have presented it — but he doesn’t and didn’t.

There is nothing in Israel’s revelations that contradicts that assessment of the U.S. intelligence community that Iran is complying with the terms of the nuclear deal. In February, Dan Coats, director of national intelligence, stated that “the JCPOA has extended the amount of time Iran would need to produce enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon from a few months to about one year” and that it “has also enhanced the transparency of Iran’s nuclear activities.” Just last week, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told Congress that, after reading the entire text of the nuclear agreement three times, he was impressed that “the verification, what is in there, is actually pretty robust.”

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These sober assessments hardly justify President Trump’s hyperbolic claims that the Iran nuclear agreement is the “worst deal ever.” It is, in fact, a successful deal that appears to be constricting Iran’s nuclear development — just as intended. There were, of course, real limitations on the scope of the nuclear deal, which is why I and other critics argued that President Barack Obama should have held out for tougher terms. It doesn’t allow unfettered inspection of all Iranian military bases. It doesn’t ban Iranian nuclear development in perpetuity; the caps on centrifuges will begin expiring in 2026. It doesn’t ban ballistic missile testing. And it doesn’t prevent Iran from destabilizing its neighbors.

But that’s not an argument for blowing up the JCPOA, as Trump seems intent on doing as early as May 12 (the next deadline for reimposing sanctions lifted under the deal). That’s an argument for strengthening it. French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, in their visits to Washington last week, offered Trump a way to accomplish this goal by negotiating a side agreement with the Europeans. The United States and European Union could state their intent to apply sanctions on Iran if it tests ballistic missiles, continues destabilizing its neighbors, dramatically expands the number of working centrifuges, or attempts to weaponize its nuclear program at any point in the future. The United States could also declare that it will keep troops in eastern Syria to contain Iranian power — something Trump is loath to do.

The beauty of a side agreement is that it would not require the assent of Iran, Russia and China — which is unlikely — and it would give Trump the ability to boast, truthfully, that he had increased the pressure on Iran. But it would require him to cease his incessant denigration of the nuclear deal, which he seems to hate mainly because he wasn’t the one who negotiated it, and force him to admit that he failed to rewrite it.

That would be the grown-up thing to do, which is why our juvenile president is unlikely to do it. As Macron said, he is likely to “get rid of this deal on his own, for domestic reasons.” Netanyahu’s performance on Monday night, clearly coordinated with the Trump administration, is intended to give the president the excuse he needs to act on his impulse.

But has Trump thought about what comes next? Silly question, I know. If the United States reimposes nuclear sanctions on Iran, even though there is no evidence that Iran is cheating on the nuclear deal, Iran may continue abiding by its limitations — or it may not. The Europeans may go along under threat of secondary sanctions — or they may not. No one knows what will happen next, but the likelihood is that nuking the JCPOA will undermine, rather than strengthen, attempts to limit the Iranian threat.

Trump is already dealing with one nuclear crisis in North Korea. It is hard to know why he wants to start another one in the Middle East.