Every indication is that Donald Trump will decertify the Iran nuclear deal next week and announce a tough new approach to the Islamic Republic. Yet there’s one big question: Why? More concretely, what does he hope to gain for the United States and how does he hope to gain it?
Advocates of a bid to renegotiate the nuclear deal have been clear on the first point: They want a better deal. They’ve been quite vague on the second, spending most of their energy arguing that tougher policies are possible, not that they will produce better outcomes. But better outcomes are typically the point. What’s the plan?
Trump himself has been a cipher. Media accounts portray his opposition to the deal as a kind of irrational animus. We hear of a heated meeting at the last certification deadline in July in which, reports Politico:
Trump unleashed a tirade in which he demanded more options and adamantly refused to recertify the deal. Tillerson and McMaster warned him that if he declined to do so, and Congress moved to reimpose sanctions, he would spend the rest of his term embroiled in a bitter debate over the merits of the agreement with allies and foes alike. The president ultimately bowed to his advisers, but only after what one senior administration official described as a “knock-down, drag-out fight” that lasted several hours.
Accounts refer frequently to the president’s emotional state and rarely to what was actually said in the meetings.
If the president does have a reasoned basis for his opposition to the deal, the press has done the public a grave disservice in not providing it. However, this gap in press accounts seems consistent with a broader reality: Opponents of the deal have provided no full, compelling theory of how to get from decertification and renewed pressure to a better deal and an improved international position for the United States.
Indeed, essays and speeches by prominent decertification proponents follow a similar structure. First, the critics list offenses Iran has committed against the United States, instances where it has misled international agencies, and geopolitical advances it has made in the Levant.
Second, they enumerate the deal’s shortcomings. Many of these shortcomings are real—parts of the deal really do expire, and Iran does get to retain a small enrichment program. Others are misleading or false: allegations that Iran received massive, irreversible, up-front financial benefits, or that military sites are off-limits to inspectors, or that the deal “gives the clerical regime … intercontinental ballistic missiles.” (If by “give” you mean not actively working to forever prevent something that you probably can’t stop anyway, I personally “gave” the Chicago Cubs the World Series last year.)
Third, they argue that backing away from the deal won’t necessarily lead to a massive diplomatic crisis with our own allies, and that Europe will grudgingly go along with us. Fourth, they describe what a better deal would look like, sometimes adding that America should indicate its openness to launching a preventive war against Iran or to implementing a policy of regime change should renegotiation fail.
The critics consistently leave out any substantive account of how the new approach they advocate will actually lead to that better deal. They would have America undertake a massive, risky policy shift on the grounds that it has some nonzero chance of success. The assurances their plan provide are not promising:
—Our allies in Europe will indulge our denying them, again, billions of dollars in potential economic opportunities (a denial which, if Trump also imposes broad sanctions on the pervasive Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, could functionally be forever).
—Our relations with these European states would not suffer too much in spite of that.
—The Russians and Chinese would not put up too much resistance, in spite of both countries’ long opposition to being jerked around by the United States and to U.S. measures that squeeze Third World regimes.
—They would not treat this as a sign that America is an unpredictable, dangerous nation that they’d need to keep at bay by working together.
—The Iranians would negotiate seriously, even though we’d just shown our word in negotiations to be unreliable, and they’d give up deeper concessions than before, even though previous negotiations had used similar pressure.
—This concession would be humiliating to Iran, but humiliation at the hands of a superpower would not make Iran feel so threatened that it wants deterrents against superpower attack—deterrents like nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.
Moreover, the critics do not seriously reckon with the deal’s accomplishments in making an Iranian nuclear weapon less likely. In particular, the deal severely limits the level, scale, and location of enrichment activities for 15 years, blocks reprocessing for 15 years, and permanently strengthens international oversight of Iranian nuclear facilities. Critics of course have the right to observe that it would be better if the deal were more intrusive or did not expire. Yet this is not relevant to the policy question facing Trump: Is backing off from this deal likely to yield those improvements, and is it worth the risk of returning to the pre-deal era, in which the current restrictions were not in place?
That era, remember, featured constant discussion of military action by the United States or Israel. Such an action would have likely yielded a few years’ delay in Iran’s nuclear program—a delay far shorter than under the deal, and one that would come at a much higher cost. Thus the critics’ failure to explain how they’ll get from backing off to a better end-state is a fundamental shortcoming, no matter how nice they make the better end-state sound. Politics is the art of the possible: It must take reality as the fundamental matter of policy. And today that reality is the Iran deal.
All this makes it unsurprising that Trump’s advisors have never seemed eager to revisit the nuclear agreement. At testimony in Congress on Tuesday, both Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford seemed to deviate from Trump’s line, with Dunford stating the deal “delayed the development of a nuclear capability by Iran,” and Mattis saying that keeping the deal was in America’s interests. Indeed, the Trump team’s reported “unanimous” recommendation that the president decertify contrasts with their prediction in July that backing off the deal could “embroil” him in an endless political struggle. With several Republicans in Congress on the fence, many Democrats opposing decertification, and public attitudes toward the deal steadily supportive, that prediction looks right.
No clear path to a better deal, abundant risks at home and abroad: Decertifying is in neither Trump’s interests nor America’s. And so the question remains: Why?
John Allen Gay is the executive director at The John Quincy Adams Society and coauthor of War with Iran: Political, Military, and Economic Consequences (Rowman and Littlefield, 2013).