Donald Trump has the ability to adopt smart positions and make them seem dangerous. Barack Obama, for his part, often did dangerous things and made them seem not only smart but also inevitable. That’s worth keeping in mind when thinking about Trump’s reported plan to decertify Obama’s Iran nuclear deal.
Supporters of the Iran deal, and even some who opposed it, are complaining that Trump’s position (if it’s really his position) is reckless. It’s anything but. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) is already a confirmed failure according to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The UN’s nuclear watchdog reports that Iran will not allow for inspections that would determine whether or not the Iranians are working on an explosive nuclear device. So the crazy, dreaded, scary thing that Trump is about to do is… tell the truth.
If Trump were not to decertify the deal, he would be lying about one of the gravest matters of American national security. He’d be declaring, against the testimony of the IAEA, that Iran is allowing for certain crucial inspections when, in fact, it’s not. The United States would become Iran’s duplicitous representative to international bodies.
Why do that? Well, the thinking goes, Iran has already received tens of billions of dollars as a result of the JCPOA. Killing the deal wouldn’t help us recoup those losses; it would only further limit our ability to keep tabs on Iran. This is a compelling argument but only because there are always compelling reasons to let bad actors have their way. Those reasons boil down to the idea that confronting dangerous parties is riskier than appeasing them.
It is this very thinking that has for decades guided our mistaken policy on Iran and North Korea. While institutional inertia ensures no change in bad American policy, the countries we try to deter strengthen their hands and become effectively undeterrable. That’s how the world’s worst problems—North Korea’s nuclear program, for example—become unsolvable.
The Iran deal is only two years old. Let’s not make it a calcified feature of American national security. The United States can re-impose international sanctions on Iran and those sanctions will bite because other countries don’t want to risk trade relations with the United States. Despite the declarations of Barack Obama and the court journalists who sold the JCPOA to the American people, the only thing inevitable about the deal was that it would fail.
Is there a better deal to be had? I doubt it, but it could be worth trying. A new report from Reuters even offers a reason for hope. Iranian officials now say that, as a result of pressure from the Trump administration, they’re willing to discuss limits on Iran’s ballistic-missile program, something Tehran had previously said was out of the question. So Trump’s small pause in our drift toward JCPOA permanence is already bearing fruit.
What if the JCPOA is dismantled and there’s no better deal to be had? That question has become verboten. In the run-up to the Iran deal, the Obama administration portrayed any notion of bombing Iran as the suicidal wish of America’s very own right-wing mullahs. But it wasn’t and it isn’t. Iran wants to dictate to or destroy the United States or its allies by possessing a deliverable nuclear weapon. If that doesn’t warrant consideration of a bombing run, nothing does.
And if you’re inclined to laugh at that conclusion, then you have to explain why the Obama administration was so committed to a deal with Iran in the first place. Why did John Kerry jump through hoop after flaming hoop just to declare a deal? Why did Obama upend his entire foreign policy just to make it happen? Because Iran isn’t a massive threat to us? No, the deal was intended to stop an emergency-level menace. But it was the wrong response. We need not live with it.