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Trump is Pulling a Libya on Iran

Word is out that President Trump this week will “decertify” the nuclear deal with Iran, also known as JCPOA, for Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. This is the deal struck with Tehran not only by the United States but also by France, Germany, Russia, China, the UK, and the European Union. It’s a nifty word, “decertify.” It hides the real meaning of Trump’s planned action. The correct word is “renege.”

That’s a loaded word in polite society. It characterizes a person or organization or nation that doesn’t care about his or its character sufficiently to live up to his or its commitments and promises. To say someone has reneged on an agreement is to call into question that person’s honesty, self-respect, and sense of honor.

Trump is called upon every 90 days, based on the Iran Nuclear Review Act, to certify whether Iran is living up to the JCPOA deal, which suspended economic sanctions against the Islamic Republic in exchange for Tehran freezing, for 15 years, whatever nuclear weapons development it may have been engaged in. Trump hates the deal, as he has made clear since the beginning of the 2016 election cycle, and he doesn’t want to go on record saying Iran is living up to it.

But it is. That’s the judgment of all the other signatories to the agreement, as well as the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency, which has issued eight separate certifications of compliance since the deal was struck in 2015. According to news reports, when Trump previously certified Iranian compliance, he did so reluctantly and only under pressure from his three top foreign policy and national security staffers—Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, and Defense Secretary James Mattis. This time around, apparently, he doesn’t plan to listen to those officials.


But what are the consequences when a nation reneges on a solemn agreement with not just another nation but six other nations and a union of many more—with the entire world watching? How do other nations deal with a country that blithely casts aside the commitments it accepted through what were assumed to be good-faith negotiations?

We have a case in point that’s worth noting in the context of what Trump is about to do: Libya. The story of Libya brought shame upon the United States of America, which reneged on a deal it had struck with Libyan President Muammar Qaddafi, once one of the Near East region’s most obstreperous and violent anti-Western leaders.

The story begins in the late 1990s when Qaddafi, chafing at his country’s international isolation and the economic sanctions imposed against it, opened discussions about normalizing relations with the West. Over the course of years-long negotiations, Qaddafi was made to understand that such an outcome would require two big concessions on his part. First, he had to come clean about Libya’s role in the downing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988. This would include turning over to Western authorities those involved who were living under Libyan protection, as well as financial restitution for the families of victims. That was done, and UN sanctions were removed.

Second, Libya was told that if it wanted to rid itself of the more onerous U.S. sanctions and have normalized relations with the United States and the West, meaning acceptance in the community of nations, it would have to give up its efforts to develop weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear arms. As Flynt L. Leverett, a well-placed State Department official at the time, wrote in early 2004, “Libya was willing to deal because of credible diplomatic representations by the United States over the years, which convinced the Libyans that doing so was critical to achieving their strategic and domestic goals.” Qaddafi gave up his weapons program, ceased his terrorist activities against America and the West, and essentially removed himself from the civilizational clash that ensued after the 9/11 attacks on America. In return, the United States halted sanctions and vowed to leave Libya alone during good behavior.

Then, when Qaddafi came under attack in his own country during the so-called Arab Spring of anti-government fervor in several Middle East nations, the United States promptly joined the effort to unseat him, which inevitably led to his killing, as anyone of sound mind could have predicted.

One remarkable aspect of this was how little any Americans seemed to care about their country entering into an agreement with a foreign leader and then reneging on it. Indeed, New York Times reporter David E. Sanger wrote a piece [1] in March 2011 extolling America’s Libyan deal as having paved the way for the United States to destroy the Qaddafi regime. He quoted a senior administration official named Robert Joseph, who helped craft the Libyan deal, as saying that no one could say with assurance how far Qaddafi’s weapons program would have progressed absent the deal, but “there is no question he would have used whatever he felt necessary to stay in power.” In other words, the deal was salutary because it allowed America to upend Qaddafi contrary to the terms of the deal. That represents a distinctive diplomatic philosophy.

One distinctive commentator at the time who went against the grain of self-congratulations was Paul Pillar, former intelligence operative and now a fellow at Georgetown. He wrote that such actions carry inevitable consequences. He noted the statement of a North Korean official who suggested the Western powers had been playing a big game of bait and switch. “The Libyan crisis is teaching the international community a grave lesson,’’ the official said, adding that North Korea will not make Qaddafi’s mistake and would hold on to every weapon it had.

Indeed, as Pillar wrote back then [2], “The Iraq War, coupled with U.S. policy toward North Korea itself, taught the lesson that if you’re thinking of getting involved with nuclear weapons, go full steam ahead so you can get at least one bomb in the basement as a deterrent before the United States or someone else uses military force to get rid of you.” Turning to another nation on the other side of the globe, Pillar added, “The rulers in Iran, being no dummies, are almost certainly drawing the same lessons. It will be very difficult, and will take much time and effort, to cause such lessons to be unlearned.”

Just so. That probably explains in part why it took so long, and so much arduous diplomacy, for the JCPOA agreement to come together, to get Iran to agree to even a temporary suspension of activity on behalf of unconventional weapons development. The rulers of Tehran had to be convinced that, if they lived up to the agreement, the other parties would as well.

The Iranians have lived up to it, according to every dispassionate expert on the matter. But now the American president threatens to step away from it. He uses a clever circum-maneuver, since any decertification he issues will trigger a 60-day period for Congress to decide whether to reimpose sanctions. Thus he kicks the final action to lawmakers. If they reimpose sanctions, the United States will be in default on the agreement, and the two countries will be in a stance of friction towards each other that could accelerate to a point of actual hostilities. If they don’t, then Trump’s action will be merely a gratuitous diplomatic insult.

But don’t forget America’s recent history of regime change promiscuity—upending rulers, or helping to do so, or trying to do so. The list includes Serbia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen, and Ukraine. That’s a lot of involvement in the affairs of other nations. And that history can’t give other nations much of a sense of any American forbearance in foreign affairs, particularly when coupled with Trump’s forthcoming decision to renege on the Iranian nuclear deal.

Robert W. Merry, longtime Washington, D.C., journalist and publishing executive, is editor of The American Conservative. His next book, President McKinley: Architect of the American Century [3], is due out from Simon & Schuster in November.

45 Comments (Open | Close)

45 Comments To "Trump is Pulling a Libya on Iran"

#1 Comment By Fran Macadam On October 9, 2017 @ 11:07 pm

I have read that the Russians have concluded that the United States is incapable of making any deal it will stick to.

#2 Comment By Mary Myers On October 9, 2017 @ 11:13 pm

There is a longer list of U.S. meddling in the affairs of other nations. Latin American nations have been undermined as well. It goes way back if you read “The Brothers” by Stephen Kinzer. That book was a jolt that made me realize what America really is—a bully. General Smedley Butler’s book, “War is a Racket” is another eye opener.

Great article by Robert Merry!

#3 Comment By a person born here On October 10, 2017 @ 12:12 am

Fran: I have not only read it, I’ve heard it in Moscow, repeatedly. And the sad thing is, the Russians are right.

A rational actor, intent on maintaining his own country’s sovereignty, would be very foolish to trust the word of the US government.

#4 Comment By mohammad On October 10, 2017 @ 12:37 am

The hardliners in Iran have already started to mock the moderates for their negotiating the deal and sticking to it. It is their moment of “I told you so!”

Shame on the USA. Shame on you Americans. You have no honor! And please! Don’t blame the government or Trump. It is YOU! You love the war, you love the mayhem everywhere in the world except your country, you love violence, you love it and you export it as much as you love and export porn.

#5 Comment By Procivic On October 10, 2017 @ 12:52 am

Rnald Reagan’s “trust but verify” works both ways. Empires by nature are untrustworthy.America is no exception.

#6 Comment By yahuofizlude On October 10, 2017 @ 12:53 am

When have western powers ever not reneged on any deal they have made?

#7 Comment By balconesfault On October 10, 2017 @ 4:23 am

In return, the United States halted sanctions and vowed to leave Libya alone during good behavior.

Can you provide a reference for this “vow”?

I mean, we all know about the US signing the JCPA. I’d like to know the more specific details of our commitment to Qaddafi.

#8 Comment By Christian Chuba On October 10, 2017 @ 6:18 am

I read Fars News and the Iranians, as long as a year ago, frequently used Libya as an example of how untrustworthy the U.S. was in keeping agreements. This proves them right and they will justifiably play this up in the Arab street in the M.E. Cold War.

I’d add Saddam to the list as well. He gave up his WMD and we hanged him. The issue isn’t whether he deserved his fate or not, the issue is that he lived up to his agreement and we were the ones who broke it.

#9 Comment By Charles Dermer On October 10, 2017 @ 6:42 am

North Korea has become a regional power through the acquisition of nuclear weapons. Libya is a failed state following rejection of a nuclear-weapon program. Odd that Iran would forsake a nuclear weapons program that confers such international recognition. The Iran deal should be honored. Unfortunately, honor is not in so much in demand these days. Thoughtful analysis. Thank you.

#10 Comment By MEOW On October 10, 2017 @ 6:56 am

Put yourself in Netanyahu’s shoes and you will know exactly what Trump will do in foreign policy. Hillary would have been no better. This is not why people voted for Trump. Israel is a foreign country that aggressively supports its own agenda. This is to be applauded. Why can’t we have an American policy that does likewise for the U.S. even if it is not what Saudi Arabia and Israel want? Is there another Ron Paul in the political landscape that can redirect our overseas policies?

#11 Comment By Swamped On October 10, 2017 @ 8:20 am

“But don’t forget America’s recent history of regime change promiscuity—upending rulers, or helping to do so, or trying to do so. The list includes Serbia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen, and Ukrai”

You missed Honduras, one of Hillary’s gratuitous little asides at State.

#12 Comment By Mel Profit On October 10, 2017 @ 9:28 am

The whole nuclear dance is fraudulent. Those already part
of the club have no convincing moral right to nuclear arms. They are “acceptable” nuclear powers simply because they became so first. The very fact of Pakistan’s membership–a country no less dangerous than Iran, nor any less devious–clinches the point.

Nor is the ‘international community’s’ refusal to admit additional members in any way legitimate. Once inside, the current powers simply slammed the door shut, commencing a sixty-year lecture on the dangers of proliferation and the nuclear aspirations of rogue actors.

Hypocrisy, of course, matters not if the US, Russia and China subscribe to something, then validate it via that great hot air jalopy called the UN. Still, a farce is a farce, and the deplorables at the door aren’t the only ones who know it.

#13 Comment By ron On October 10, 2017 @ 10:11 am

Ask the American Indians how well the American govt. honors its treaties.

#14 Comment By Michael Kenny On October 10, 2017 @ 10:15 am

One could add to the list in the last paragraph the long-running attempts to destroy the EU.

#15 Comment By The Other Eric On October 10, 2017 @ 11:21 am

Since no other nation will support Trumps economic sanctions, all this does is allow Iran to develop nukes without worrying about sanctions

#16 Comment By EliteCommInc. On October 10, 2017 @ 11:26 am



In my view the weightier example is reflected in the reneged agreements with North Korea. Those failures were predicated on assumptions that M. Korea was cheating — but there as no evidence of cheating.

If the admin wants to take on the issue of of Iranian behavior outside the agreement they should do so. Of course that would require hard work and confrontation concerning details.

Dealing with difficult details seems to be an anathema to our entire political class and country as they abuse methodologies in favor of simple minded conclusions — even when the data contradicts the same.

Going to war in Iran is a simple solution but hardly one that would yield the results we seek. Even if one is attempting to block China ad Russia alliances in the region.

#17 Comment By EliteCommInc. On October 10, 2017 @ 11:28 am

as ever, a lousy idea to remove Pres Saddam Hussein — a sure fire buffer against Iranian ambitions real or perceived.

#18 Comment By EliteCommInc. On October 10, 2017 @ 11:53 am

here’s another take


sound reasonable But I think our allies are all in and dumping the deal doesn’t accomplish much.

#19 Comment By EarlyBird On October 10, 2017 @ 11:56 am

And the Trumpets will mindlessly applaud this, because Trump undid something which Obama did. It’s the entire reason Trump is doing it in the first place.

#20 Comment By Captain P On October 10, 2017 @ 3:37 pm

Whether Trump pursues regime change depends on whether he is a posturing buffoon or a true believer.

His actions in Syria — a one-time missile bombardment that did no serious damage and was done just to posture as a tough guy for the media — suggest that he’ll shy away from radical action, and just rely on Congress to pass some bill imposing restrictions on Iran’s military that doesn’t lead to war.

His irrational view of Iran and Kushner’s ties with the UAE, though, suggests the Saudis and Israelis might be leading him down the regime change path.

#21 Comment By cka2nd On October 10, 2017 @ 4:11 pm

And let us not forget U.S. efforts to bring down first Chavez and now Maduro in Venezuela. Nor how we treated another former CIA asset, Manuel Noriega, and his country.

#22 Comment By Derek On October 10, 2017 @ 4:49 pm

I’m not saying it’s a completely inaccurate comparison, but the gentleman’s agreement with Libya doesn’t even begin to come close to the complexity and importance of the JCPOA. And there is zero doubt that Qaddafi was planning to massacre his people to remain in power – the context is entirely different. It is a stretch that we had an obligation to stand aside while Qaddafi killed his countrymen because of the efforts to normalize relations that had occurred; it is explicit and entirely accurate to say we have an obligation not to issue sanctions related to the nuclear proliferation activities outlined in the JCPOA if Iran can be determined to be in compliance with the deal.

They can be. They are. This is nothing like Libya.

#23 Comment By Clifford Story On October 10, 2017 @ 5:40 pm

We’ve yet to fulfill our commitments under the Treaty of Paris* (by which Great Britain recognized American independence). So this goes back a very long way.

The agreement is not a treaty; as I understand it, it’s just an executive agreement, and Donnie could simply tear it up. It’s interesting, though, that he has chosen to non-certify. Technically, that doesn’t break the agreement; it’s just notice to Congress. If Congress acts as he wants it to do, that will violate the agreement. So he wants Congress to do the dirty work. From what I read, though, Congress is in no hurry to do so.

* We promised in the treaty to restore or compensate loyalists whose property we had expropriated (shades of Cuba!), but have never done so. This caused the British to retain the forts in the west they had agreed to give up, which was one of the causes of the War of 1812.

#24 Comment By balconesfault On October 10, 2017 @ 6:22 pm

@Captain P His actions in Syria — a one-time missile bombardment that did no serious damage and was done just to posture as a tough guy for the media — suggest that he’ll shy away from radical action

That is, if you don’t consider the possibility that any more serious action in Syria would have been stepping directly on the toes of Putin … which some embassy squabble kabuki aside, he’s been loathe to do.

In fact, evidence seems to be that the Syria strike was coordinated with the Russians to some extent, which helped minimize any impacts.

Now, would military strikes by the US in Iran or NK be adversarial to Russia, would they be neutral wrt to Russian interests, or would they actually advance Putin’s interests?

I think a strong argument can be made for the latter, in both cases … in which case we’d better be batting down the hatches for one helluva storm.

#25 Comment By Mark Thomason On October 10, 2017 @ 6:56 pm

The US also agreed in the Security Council resolution allowing action in Libya that it would not occupy Libya. Of course it immediately did, with the CIA stations of paramilitary like the one revealed in Benghazi, and then the CIA “general” sponsored to take over, then a series of “anti-terrorist” and arms buying bases in country.

#26 Comment By Donald On October 10, 2017 @ 7:07 pm

Mohammad— On the whole I think you are correct. Most Americans simply don’t care what our government does overseas unless it hurts Americans.

Derek—“And there is zero doubt that Qaddafi was planning to massacre his people to remain in power – the context is entirely different. “

Actually there is plenty of doubt. The British to their credit re- examined the evidence and the fact is that Qaddafi had already retaken towns without mass slaughter following. Americans require virtually no evidence when told that we have to intervene or genocide would take place.

I am too lazy to google the British investigation. It was largely ignored here.

#27 Comment By EliteCommInc. On October 10, 2017 @ 10:15 pm

In reading through several articles, the Libyan issues reflects what we did in North Korea. We engaged in practices that made it impossible or exceedingly difficult for them to fulfill their part of te agreement.

It’s like the person who takes out a loan and then the forces that made the loan or similarly situated organizations artificially hinder the loan payments by various means and then proceed to call the loan knowing that eventually payment would be impossible.

Ahh when in you are in a vulnerable spot, there are people will engage in all manner of chicanery to exert their will.

It’s very disappointing the lengths our supposed leaders will go to intimidate and act in bad faith. And then we throw a tantrum when they are not intimidated and simply say — “no”. Instruments of torture, in full display not withstanding Sounds very familiar —

#28 Comment By DrJorey On October 10, 2017 @ 11:00 pm

Wow, how timely. Fox has just reported Iran’s secret nuke sights exposed, so much for the decertification process

#29 Comment By stinky rafsanjani On October 11, 2017 @ 5:31 am

have we all forgotten……….1953?

surely the iranians have not.

#30 Comment By george Archers On October 11, 2017 @ 9:25 am

7 middle east countries need to be destroyed for security of Israel—that quote was introduced and approved by Bill Clinton 1996
Bone to pick with the author!
” after the 9/11 attacks on America. ” I suggest to the author he refrain from telling/repeating to us lies from the government.After 17 years,well known America was not attacked but self imposed.Ever heard of Black Flag operation?

#31 Comment By Christian Chuba On October 11, 2017 @ 11:11 am

@Derek, And there is zero doubt that Qaddafi was planning to massacre his people to remain in power

Rule #1 – never trust anything the U.S. State Dept says when drumming up a case for war.
Rule #2 – See Rule #1.

Gaddafi did not slaughter any civilians prior to Benghazi, he offered amnesty to any rebel who laid down their arms and then said, ‘they would hunt down the REBELS house by house’.

This was not a threat to destroy the entire city of Benghazi, this was HRC’s shining moment to outdo her husband’s Bosnia moment. In all fairness, this is the Neocon’s standard playbook so if you are/were an HRC supporter don’t get hung up my citing her role. She just happened to be the actor in that play.

#32 Comment By Janet Contursi On October 11, 2017 @ 12:36 pm

We can go all the way back to treaties between the US government and the Native tribes to see that the US never honors its word. That’s the nature of capitalism — greed trumps honor.

#33 Comment By Robert Anderson On October 11, 2017 @ 1:11 pm

Native Americans learned this long ago.

#34 Comment By rick On October 11, 2017 @ 2:01 pm


You sound like Hillary. It’s always genocidal when it’s our perceived enemy. And it’s always “self defense” when it’s our sh***y little friend bombing Gaza into the stone age. Libya had one of the highest standard of living in northern Africa. How’s that looking today?

#35 Comment By richard vajs On October 11, 2017 @ 2:04 pm

Honor? Did someone bring up “honor”? Please – America is now Harvey Weinstein and Harvey Weinstein is America.

#36 Comment By alex sardari On October 11, 2017 @ 8:23 pm

Very informative and how sad. Once I heard from Ronald Reagan, that “Government is nothing but an Expense”.These actions best describes it. One must look to see that how costly for our people and economy has been these entanglements and war mongering. over 21 Trillion national debt, Thousands wounded soldiers, suicides, and a run down infrastructures and a nation in debt.
Time to stop these costly grand standings, and perhaps to call the Congress and Whitehorse with our demands in not to proceed. Never mind that Iran wanted to purchase billions of Dollars of goods and services. So this foreign countries benefiting activities, will cost us a lot more, deprive s us of more business.
If this is not stupidity it must be called treason.

#37 Comment By Emil On October 12, 2017 @ 12:41 am

Ah, the cowardly American Conservative. Licking the boots of the Israeli lobby and sacking Giraldi. What a bunch of hypocrites.

#38 Comment By TR On October 12, 2017 @ 10:25 am

I think it is kind of axiomatic in Diplomatic History that accords last till one side decides the agreement is no longer in the national interest. Henry Kissinger would not disagree with that.

Nevertheless the catalog of past stupidities listed in various comments here is truly depressing.

#39 Comment By Courtenay Barnett On October 12, 2017 @ 12:07 pm

America gives itself a bad name by having a policy of seeking ‘global hegemony’. President Trump adds to the bad reputation, because while not all Conservatives are racists, Trump sure does do his best to make us think so:-


#40 Comment By EliteCommInc. On October 12, 2017 @ 8:18 pm

“And there is zero doubt that Qaddafi was planning to massacre his people to remain in power – the context is entirely different. It is a stretch that we had an obligation to stand aside while Qaddafi . . .”

It was a civil war. and the government was winning. He was not slaughtering civilians, in fact, it was clear that had he been less discriminate he could closed the matter sooner.

This was a political maneuver, one cloaked in humanitarian rhetoric, and it was false.




Given the compliance issues are use of the supposed arab spring which rapidly became an arab hot winter’s war is a lesson in needless intervention and while I am very fond of GB, their complicity in the ,matter is disappointing.

#41 Comment By Sababu A. Sanyika On October 13, 2017 @ 1:17 am

Trump must be the worst president ever – PERIOD! And I voted for him.

Many who voted for him know he has betrayed by doing opposite of his campaign promises on very significant issues, particularly making a more peaceful world including new more cooperative relations with Russia, pull by from NATO, holding those accountable who take jobs from US to foreign countries, make other nation pay more of expense for common interest involvements. It did not take him but a month to betray just like a regular Washington elected politician. Many expected much better. His actions have established him as more racist, bigoted, and war mongering then known.

IRAN IS NOT NOW, NOR HAS EVER BEEN THE PROBLEM. THE USA IS NOW AND ALWAYS HAS BEEN THE PROBLEM. Starting with 1953 CIA directed immoral, illegal, and treacherous coup until this very date, US has wronged the Iranian People big time.

Prayers the Iranian People are able to defeat any USA Tel Aviv ordered and led aggression.


#42 Comment By Joseph Garrick On October 13, 2017 @ 3:59 am

The problem is America is the loyal ever obedient servile vassal state of the nuclear armed terrorist state of Israel. Israel has some 200 nuclear warheads aimed at Iran. The Nuke Tech Vanunu revealed Israel’s nuclear weapons production.

America is committed to the expansion of Israel, Netanyajapoo lied to the American congress that Saddam had WMD and posed an existential threat to America to supply its loyal servant America with a Casus Belli.

I had visions of Saddam ordering his entire fleet of rowing boats towing behind them in Iraqi women’s washing tubs the imaginary WMD set to row across the Atlantic to attack America. 4,500 American mothers cried proud tears of joy that their children in the American military died for the greater glory of Israel. After all how noble it is for slaves to die for their masters in the Knesset !

#43 Comment By Rossbach On October 13, 2017 @ 4:49 pm

Since the US has no vital interests in Persia, this this particular policy smacks of Israeli influence. Correctly, the US should leave the Middle East – including Israel – to stew in its own juice. If the Iranians and Israelis really want to settle their difference, they should do it one-on-one and not try to use our country the way Poland used Great Britain in 1939.

#44 Comment By MEOW On October 15, 2017 @ 6:37 am

As Ron Paul stated If Israel wants to fight Iran. Let them. Let U.S. stay out of it. I am so sick of this small and dependent nation being at the forefront of U.S. news and policies.

#45 Comment By EliteCommInc. On October 18, 2017 @ 2:01 pm

“have we all forgotten……….1953?
surely the iranians have not.”

Ever o much misdirection. The Iranian coupe was and act by Iranians. The US did side with the conspirators. But the efforts by the US were all but for not. The Iranian military had every intention of replacing the government — regardless of the position of the US.

While, credit and blame ha been on the CIA, the real story is quite different. The CIA thought the idea shrift and was hard pressed to support it. When it was, that support was tepid and inconsequential.