In American foreign policy circles, the worst insult one can lob at someone is to call them naive in their thinking. International relations is a cold, hard business, and to be accused of naivete is to be accused of not really understanding how that world works.
To guard against the charge of utopian thinking, the foreign policy community loves to describe agreements as “flawed” or “imperfect.” The Paris climate accords? Nice try, but without any binding restrictions it is imperfect. A U.N. Security Council resolution? A lowest-common-denominator approach. The Iran deal (JCPOA)? A flawed agreement, to be sure.
When foreign policy folks do this, they may well be right on the substance. But they are also hedging against looking naive. Describing an agreement as flawed signals to others that you are cynical about the ways of world politics. When even more hostile critics try to eviscerate an existing arrangement, such criticism can seem like the safe middle road to take.
Let me propose an amendment to this kind of detached analysis: Calling something “flawed” is useless unless one also can proffer feasible suggestions for how to reduce the flaws. Tearing down Plan A makes little sense unless there is a Plan B.
Which brings us to Tuesday, and President Trump’s announcement that he would terminate U.S. participation in the JCPOA. In his speech, the president listed many bad things that Iran has done. None of them had anything to do with Iran’s compliance with the JCPOA, but that is kind of the point. As I wrote in 2015: “You could argue, from the hawk perspective, that the worst-case outcome is that Iran complies fully with any deal. If Iran complies, sanctions are lifted, and Tehran gets lots more resources to pursue its foreign policy aims in the region, and doesn’t divert those resources toward an illicit nuclear program.”
That is pretty much what happened, which means Iran has exercised more influence within the region. So, yes, the JCPOA did not contain Iran in any arena beyond the nuclear file. It’s an incomplete agreement. And by scuppering it, the Trump White House promised a lot of results, including an end to Iran’s ballistic missile program, its adventurism in Yemen, its support of terrorists and so forth.
So how will the Trump administration accomplish these ends? As Nicholas Miller pointed out at The Monkey Cage: “Three factors made the 2015 concessions possible: an uptick in Iranian nuclear provocations, a powerful multilateral coalition to stop those and domestic receptivity in Iran. None of those conditions exists now.”
Here Plan B begins to bear more than a passing resemblance to the Underpants Gnomes Theory of Profit. Step 1 is terminating the Iran deal. Step 3 is Iran complying with all U.S. demands. Step 2? Step 2 is a wee bit hazy.
The White House fact sheet offers only one suggestion on this point: “President Trump will work to assemble a broad coalition of nations to deny Iran all paths to a nuclear weapon and to counter the totality of the regime’s malign activities.” But how, exactly, does the administration propose to do this? Sure, Israel and the Persian Gulf countries are happy. But since they do not really trade much with Iran anyway, they do not add much to the coalition. It is not clear at all why Russia and China will agree to any changes in the JCPOA.
Reinstating sanctions undercuts the U.N. Security Council, as well as our European allies that are signatories to the JCPOA. But the only way Iran feels any uptick in economic pressure is through secondary sanctions pressuring European countries to scale back their trade and investment in Iran. So, in essence, the Trump administration is deciding that the way they will improve the Iran deal is by threatening to sanction our NATO allies.
Are the European countries on board with this strategy? Signs point to no. There’s this tweet:
There’s the fact that E.U. governments are preparing to shield their firms from U.S. secondary sanctions.
Most important, there’s this trainwreck of a background briefing on the JCPOA decision offered by senior officials in the State Department. The entire transcript is worth reading, but this part stood out:
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 [to the JCPOA], so we did not — we did not talk about Plan B.
In other words, the Trump administration has no idea what it is doing other than “not Plan A.”
Five years ago, powerful multilateral sanctions were able to push Iran into signing the JCPOA. There is no reason to believe that less powerful sanctions from a narrower coalition is going to yield greater concessions from Iran.
Some Iran hawks have already expressed the hope that renewed sanctions will lead to regime change in Tehran. I hope that they prove to be right. But hope is not a viable Plan B. It is far more naive than anything contained in the JCPOA.
Is the Iran deal a flawed agreement? Absolutely. There is no such thing as a pristine international agreement. All deals like the JCPOA are, by their very nature, compromises. But that’s not what matters. What matters is whether the alternative has fewer flaws. The Trump administration has a lot of lofty, utopian goals on Iran. But its hawks sound like the most naive foreign policymakers on the planet.
There is no Plan B. And that is a far worse outcome than staying in the Iran deal.