Courageous Trump Call on a Lousy Iran Deal
By Bret Stephens
New York Times
May 8, 2018
President Trump said pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal
sends a message that “the United States no longer makes empty threats.”
Of all the arguments for the Trump administration to honor
the nuclear deal with Iran, none was more risible than the claim that we gave
our word as a country to keep it.
The Obama administration refused to submit the deal to
Congress as a treaty, knowing it would never get two-thirds of the Senate to go
along. Just 21 percent of Americans approved of the deal at the time it went
through, against 49 percent who did not, according to a Pew poll. The agreement
“passed” on the strength of a 42-vote Democratic filibuster, against
bipartisan, majority opposition.
“The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (J.C.P.O.A.) is
not a treaty or an executive agreement, and it is not a signed document,”
Julia Frifield, then the assistant secretary of state for legislative affairs,
wrote then-Representative Mike Pompeo in November 2015, referring to the deal by
its formal name. It’s questionable whether the deal has any legal force
Build on political sand; get washed away by the next
electoral wave. Such was the fate of the ill-judged and ill-founded J.C.P.O.A.,
which Donald Trump killed on Tuesday by refusing to again waive
sanctions on the Islamic Republic. He was absolutely right to do so —
assuming, that is, serious thought has been given to what comes next.
In the weeks leading to Tuesday’s announcement,
some of the same people who previously claimed the deal was the best we could
possibly hope for suddenly became inventive in proposing means to fix it. This
involved suggesting side deals between Washington and European capitals to
impose stiffer penalties on Tehran for its continued testing of ballistic
missiles — more than 20 since the deal came into effect — and its
increasingly aggressive regional behavior.
But the problem with this approach is that it only treats
symptoms of a problem for which the J.C.P.O.A. is itself a major cause. The
deal weakened U.N. prohibitions on Iran’s testing of ballistic missiles, which
cannot be reversed without Russian and Chinese consent. That won’t
The easing of sanctions also gave Tehran additional
financial means with which to fund its depredations in Syria and its militant
proxies in Yemen, Lebanon and elsewhere. Any effort to counter Iran on the
ground in these places would mean fighting the very forces we are effectively
feeding. Why not just stop the feeding?
Apologists for the deal answer that the price is worth
paying because Iran has put on hold much of its production of nuclear fuel for
the next several years. Yet even now Iran is under looser nuclear strictures
than North Korea, and would have been allowed to enrich as much material as it
liked once the deal expired. That’s nuts.
Apologists also claim that, with Trump’s decision, Tehran
will simply restart its enrichment activities on an industrial scale. Maybe it
will, forcing a crisis that could end with U.S. or Israeli strikes on Iran’s
nuclear sites. But that would be stupid, something the regime emphatically
isn’t. More likely, it will take symbolic steps to restart enrichment, thereby
implying a threat without making good on it. What the regime wants is a
renegotiation, not a reckoning.
Why? Even with the sanctions relief, the Iranian
economy hangs by a thread: The Wall Street Journal on Sundayreported
“hundreds of recent outbreaks of labor unrest in Iran, an indication of
deepening discord over the nation’s economic troubles.” This week, the rial
hit a record low of 67,800 to the dollar; one member of the Iranian Parliament
estimated $30 billion of capital outflows in recent months. That’s real money
for a country whose gross domestic product barely matches that of Boston.
The regime might calculate that a strategy of confrontation
with the West could whip up useful nationalist fervors. But it would have to
tread carefully: Ordinary Iranians are already furious that their government has
squandered the proceeds of the nuclear deal on propping up the Assad regime. The
conditions that led to the so-called Green movement of 2009 are there once
again. Nor will it help Iran if it tries to start a war with Israel and comes
out badly bloodied.
All this means the administration is in a strong
position to negotiate a viable deal. But it missed an opportunity last
month when it failed to deliver a crippling blow to Bashar al-Assad, Iran’s
puppet in Syria, for his use of chemical weapons. Trump’s appeals in his
speech to the Iranian people also sounded hollow from a president who isn’t
exactly a tribune of liberalism and has disdained human rights as a tool of U.S.
diplomacy. And the U.S. will need to mend fences with its European partners to
pursue a coordinated diplomatic approach.
The goal is to put Iran’s rulers to a fundamental choice.
They can opt to have a functioning economy, free of sanctions and open to
investment, at the price of permanently, verifiably and irreversibly forgoing a
nuclear option and abandoning their support for terrorists. Or they can pursue
their nuclear ambitions at the cost of economic ruin and possible war. But they
are no longer entitled to Barack Obama’s sweetheart deal of getting sanctions
lifted first, retaining their nuclear options for later, and sponsoring
Trump’s courageous decision to withdraw from the nuclear
deal will clarify the stakes for Tehran. Now we’ll see whether the
administration is capable of following through.