Trump’s Iran speech on Friday afternoon was every bit as bad as I expected. He refused to certify that the nuclear deal is in the national security interests of the United States, and that opens the door to the saboteur efforts that are already getting started with the destructive Corker-Cotton legislation. The goal of that legislation–making all existing restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program permanent–represents an attempt to alter the terms of the agreement, which is itself a violation of that agreement. Put simply, the legislation Trump endorsed in the speech would mark a breach of U.S. obligations if it became law. He wants the deal gone one way or another. He may prefer that Congress be the one to hand him the knife, but he intends to do what he can to kill the deal even if they don’t.
In the event that the new legislation fails to get enough support, Trump made plain that he would renege on the deal outright:
Key House and Senate leaders are drafting legislation that would amend the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act to strengthen enforcement, prevent Iran from developing an inter – this is so totally important – an intercontinental ballistic missile, and make all restrictions on Iran’s nuclear activity permanent under US law. So important. I support these initiatives.
However, in the event we are not able to reach a solution working with Congress and our allies, then the agreement will be terminated [bold mine-DL]. It is under continuous review, and our participation can be cancelled by me, as president, at any time.
In my preview of the speech, I said that the decision not to certify the deal would set in motion the process to break U.S. commitments and that sending the issue to Congress was just a way to give the administration cover for reneging on the deal. Assuming that Trump follows through on what he said on Friday, I was unfortunately right.
To justify his terrible decision, Trump cited “multiple violations” by Iran, but the things he referred to were very minor and quickly resolved because of the verification measures available to the IAEA under the deal. Opponents of the deal can’t credibly argue that Iran isn’t in compliance. Trump never mentioned the repeated verification of Iranian compliance by the IAEA that every other party to the agreement accepts, because that fact flatly contradicts the lie at the heart of his decision not to certify the deal. He referred to Iran’s “illicit nuclear program” at one point. That tells us that he and his administration either don’t understand that Iran is permitted to have such a program, or it means that they know better but want to mislead the public into thinking that Iran is engaged in “illicit” behavior when it is doing things it is actually allowed to do.
There were a few other sections that merit comment. The decision to sanction the IRGC under the Treasury’s counter-terrorism authority didn’t amount to adding them to the Foreign Terrorist Organization list (which would have been extremely dangerous), but it is nonetheless a provocative and dangerous act that will likely come back to bite the U.S.:
“This is reckless beyond the extreme,” said Barbara Slavin, an Iran expert at the Atlantic Council. “The reason being is that to designate the armed forces of another country as terrorists is to invite retaliation. Would the designation mean that US drone attacks on IRGC personnel are fair game? If so, expect to see Iranian proxies start killing US military personnel again in Iraq or in Afghanistan or Syria.”
Trump’s expression of “total solidarity with the Iranian people” rings hollow on several levels. His hostility to the nuclear deal puts him at odds with most Iranians, as does his determination to blame their government for everything that goes wrong in the region. His promise of increased sanctions shows his indifference to their well-being. Finally, his decision to bar almost all Iranians from traveling to the U.S. reveals that his contempt for them and their country goes beyond opposition to the current government.
The threat inflation in the speech was as heavy-handed as ever. At one point, Trump said that Iran’s government “spread death, destruction and chaos all around the globe.” Iran is certainly responsible for the destructive effects of its policies in Syria and Iraq, but since when have they been spreading chaos “all around the globe”? Trump also referred to Iranian “aggression” that was happening “all around the world.” These statements wildly overstate Iranian power, and I assume this is done on purpose to make them seem much more threatening than they really are. It is weird and unseemly that a superpower is so obsessed with combating the influence of a much weaker, medium-sized regional power, and so we are told tall tales about the supposed global reach and ambitions of a state that doesn’t even dominate its own neighborhood.
The litany of complaints at the beginning of the speech was remarkable for how dated most of the references were. Some of the claims, such as Iran’s supposed “assistance to Al Qaeda,” are discredited old talking points from more than a decade ago. Many of the other grievances date back thirty years or more. It was striking to hear the laundry list from Trump because it is already well-known and because it has so little bearing on the present. Imagine how ridiculous it would be if a president were giving a speech in the 1990s on China and was still dwelling on the Korean War or the Cultural Revolution as justifications for hostile policies in the present. Consider how absurd it would be to let grudges over events from decades ago shape our current relationship with Vietnam. The U.S. and Iran have gone back and forth with their respective lists of grievances for almost forty years, and dwelling on those injuries has done nothing but poison relations for that entire time to the detriment of both countries. Perhaps the most dispiriting thing about Trump’s abysmal Iran speech was how conventional and typical most of it was. The speech confirmed that the U.S. is going to stay stuck in the same rut of fruitless antagonism with Iran for many years to come.