Back in 2015, there was a raging policy debate about the value of signing the Iranian nuclear deal. The debate produced a lot more heat than light — most Americans knew less about the JCPOA at the end of the summer of 2015 than when the deal was announced. Still, it was a genuine debate in which the deal’s opponents had some not-entirely-crazy-sounding-at-the-time arguments.
This is important to note, in order to properly appreciate the galactic stupidity that defines the current U.S. approach to Iran. Because the combination of hawks and President Trump produces some God-awful policy.
The 2015 debate revolved around the priorities that should define U.S. policy toward Iran. For the Obama administration, this was a simple question. Obama officials cared far more about halting Iran’s nuclear program than regime change. Because of this, they were willing to cut a deal with Iran’s theocratic regime: a suspended, inspected nuclear program in return for some sanctions relief.
For the Iran hawks, that trade-off was unacceptable. Their overarching problem with it was something they could not really articulate in the public debate. As I wrote at the time, the hawks cared less about the nuclear program than they did about the regional balance of power. For hawks, any sanctions relief for Iran meant more resources for the regime to use to disrupt the Middle East: “From a hawkish perspective, you could argue that there are worse things than Iran trying to develop a nuclear deterrent under heavy sanctions. There’s an Iran flush with cash, abstaining from a nuclear weapon but aggressively trying to advance its aims in the Middle East.”
It is fair to disagree with this preference ordering. But if you prioritized Middle East geopolitics over nuclear nonproliferation, there was a logic to it.
Fast-forward to the Trump administration. Again, to be fair to the hawks, Iran did pocket some of the benefits from sanctions relief and use them to project more power in the region. As I noted in 2018, “the JCPOA did not contain Iran in any arena beyond the nuclear file. It’s an incomplete agreement.” So Trump withdrew from the JCPOA, implemented secondary sanctions to squeeze Iran harder, and ratcheted up demands on Iran even further. I was skeptical that this would work: “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.”
A year later, let me own up to an error in analysis: The new sanctions have hit Iran’s economy harder than I expected. After their reimposition, Iran’s oil exports fell by more than 50 percent, its GDP contracted, and the value of its currency fell by more than 60 percent. The Iranian economy is under serious strain. If you’re a hawk, that’s a good thing, right?
Wrong, for two reasons. The first is that as of Monday, “Iran has surpassed the cap on uranium enrichment set by a 2015 nuclear deal” according to my Post colleague Erin Cunningham. And as Slate’s Fred Kaplan notes, it is rather difficult for the United States to criticize Iran for violating the terms of an agreement that it violated first. Trump, despite decrying the Iran deal, has managed to push Iran into doing the one thing that the deal was designed to limit.
I suspect hawks like John Bolton and Mike Pompeo would live with the status quo. They don’t want Iran to develop nuclear weapons, but they don’t want Iran to have sanctions relief even more. They have therefore ratcheted up the demands while being comfortable with economic warfare against Iran.
And now we get to the fatal flaw of the current Iran policy. Iran, in response, has decided to escalate its asymmetric attacks on the United States and its allies in the region. Some tankers have been attacked. Drones have been shot down. The hawks have tried to argue that this was all necessary for regional stability. The region feels way less stable than it did four years ago.
Equally important, Trump’s bluff has been called. He backed down from responding to the drone shoot-down. He has also made it clear that he wants to negotiate with Iran. But — and this is the important part — Trump does not have the same preferences as the hawks in his own administration. Trump cares primarily about nukes. As he said in a recent TV interview, “You can’t have nuclear weapons. And other than that, we can sit down and make a deal.”
This is nuts. If the primary concern was nuclear weapons, Trump should never have withdrawn from the JCPOA in the first place. By doing so, and by applying maximum pressure on Tehran, he incentivizes Iran to take even riskier actions.
The one thing Iran will not do is the one thing Trump wants: to negotiate. As Politico’s Nahal Toosi reports:
President Donald Trump wants to sit down with Iranian leaders — but they don’t share his eagerness to talk, revealing the limits of the president’s personal diplomatic overtures. ...
A U.S. official familiar with the issue told POLITICO on Sunday that the Trump team hopes for three things: that Europe imposes some sanctions on Iran to keep it from further violating the deal; that a financial mechanism the Europeans have set up to help Iran obtain nonsanctioned goods succeeds; and that recent U.S. military maneuvers in the Middle East are enough to deter Iran from further military escalation.
“Fundamentally, we want them to stay in the deal,” the U.S. official said, when asked why the Trump administration wants the European financial mechanism, known as INSTEX, to work. There’s no desire to engage in an all-out war with Iran or see it build a nuclear weapon, the official said.
To appreciate the absurdity of the Trump administration’s current position, you have to understand that U.S. officials are now encouraging Iran and the European Union to the mechanism to evade sanctions that Trump officials have been criticizing for the past six months. A mechanism, by the way, that will erode the long-term ability of the United States to deploy secondary sanctions.
This is where we are. Rob Malley wrote in Axios that, “The U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA did not kill the deal, but new sanctions have made it difficult for anyone else to save the accord. As the Trump administration’s maximum pressure campaign continues, it leaves fewer and fewer off-ramps from potential confrontations.” To sum up: Trump is now articulating the exact same preference as the Obama administration. But his national security team does not share that preference ordering. By withdrawing from the deal and pressuring Iran further, the administration has tried to extract unrealistic concessions. In response, Iran has escalated multiple crises in the region. In response to that, Trump has tried to signal that all he wants is a nuclear deal — which is the very thing Trump sabotaged a year ago.
The Obama policy on Iran made sense, even if you disagreed with it. The hawkish policy on Iran also made sense, even if you disagreed with it. The Trump administration is not pursuing a hawkish policy any more. It’s implementing a contradictory train wreck.
This business will get out of control. It will get out of control, and we’ll be lucky to live through it.