Commentary Magazine

Taking Trump Seriously on Iran

Iranian Presidency Office via AP

It wasn’t long ago that the president’s supporters justified their commitment to selectively hearing what Trump had to say, dismissing his more intemperate outbursts and mocking those who declined to follow their lead. But from trade wars to draconian border-security policies, Trump has recently demonstrated that he meant much of what he promised on the campaign trail. Therefore, we are best served by taking the most powerful man on earth both literally and seriously, even if that is sometimes politically inconvenient. And it is hard to envision a more inconvenient set of circumstances than those around Donald Trump’s proposed summit with the theocrats in Iran.

“I’ll meet with anybody,” said the president, stating the obvious, alongside Italy’s prime minister on Monday. “I would certainly meet with Iran if they wanted to meet.” When asked if he would set any terms for such an unprecedented meeting, Trump demurred. “No preconditions. If they want to meet, I’ll meet.”

The recklessness that would lead an American president into a room with a representative of the fundamentalist regime in Tehran, much less a head of government, is hard to imagine. But so, too, is the irrationality that compelled the president to perform acts of embarrassing summitry with his Russian and North Korean counterparts. So, even if it’s obvious, we’re obliged to illustrate why the meeting he has envisioned would be one of Trump’s worst ideas to date.

The Iranians have demanded that Trump consider reversing his decision to withdraw from the JCPOA as a precondition for the meeting, and that would be a disastrous prospect. When Donald Trump made the correct decision to withdraw the United States from the Iran nuclear accords, he did so after re-certifying Iranian compliance several times. In January of 2018, he warned that it would be the last time he would agree to waive sanctions on Iran in observance of a deal that was far too lenient on Tehran. The fact that Iran was nominally in compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was an indictment of the agreement, not a defense.

The deal as negotiated provided outside inspectors no access to suspect military sites, some of which the International Atomic Energy Agency claimed showed signs of being expanded. In 2016, German intelligence confirmed that Iranian negotiators had been caught trying to obtain “high-level” nuclear technology without UN Security Council permission. Joint Iranian-Russian efforts to build “installations for heavy isotope production” at the underground military facility Fordo continued apace. In April, a remarkable Israeli intelligence operation captured thousands of physical documents from Iran detailing the extent of their pre-JCPOA nuclear-weapons research. Those documents, which were deliberately concealed from inspectors in a civilian warehouse, suggest that Iran’s nondisclosures were designed to ensure that it could pick up on nuclear-weapons production where it left off when the JCPOA expired. Then, it would be unlikely that the financial and diplomatic benefits Iran enjoyed as a result of the deal could be rolled back.

In the interim, Iran has continued to earn its title as the world’s foremost state sponsor of terrorism. It destabilizes the Middle East through proxy forces like Hezbollah. It exacerbates conflicts and abets crimes against human dignity in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and elsewhere. It supports and collaborates with the world’s most abusive criminal regimes, including those in North Korea, Venezuela, Russia, and Cuba. It is a horribly governed, repressive theocracy that long ago sacrificed its legitimacy and regularly enforces its rule by violently suppressing anti-government protests.

Even despite the years of effort Barack Obama and his administration put into legitimizing the Iranian regime, neither the president nor his subordinates provided Iranian President Hassan Rouhani or his predecessors with the propaganda coup of a face-to-face meeting. Donald Trump would be unwise to build on the precedents Obama set, particularly when considering his questionable record of engineering diplomatic breakthroughs with other rogue states.

The president’s sit-down with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un was an unmitigated waste of American diplomatic capital. In the seven weeks that elapsed since that meeting, North Korea has taken some cosmetic steps toward compensating Trump for the propaganda victory Pyongyang has sought for over a quarter century. It has repatriated to Americans the bodies of some U.S. soldiers who died in the Korean War, shuttered a likely defunct nuclear test site, and dismantled portions of one missile-testing facility. Elsewhere in the country, though, missile-construction facilities are still being built, nuclear weapons facilities are still active, and intercontinental missile production continues. In sum, progress toward a reliable North Korean nuclear deterrent that can target the U.S. mainland has not been significantly arrested. Progress toward diplomatic normalization with North Korea has, however, progressed far more rapidly. On balance, Pyongyang’s position is stronger today and America’s is weaker.

Trump’s servile performance in Helsinki alongside Russian President Vladimir Putin seems similarly ill-conceived in retrospect. The president undermined his intelligence agencies and Cabinet officials and legitimized the Russian regime toward no discernable end, and for what? Since the Trump-Putin summit, Moscow has declined to acquiesce to American and Israeli requests for its help in forcing Iranian soldiers and proxy forces out of Syria. It was revealed that Russian cyber-espionage outfits allegedly sought to access private data associated with a Democratic Senator up for reelection, and Russia has been implicated in ongoing efforts to destabilize American politics through influence campaigns on social media. This is on top of Moscow’s complicity in grotesque human-rights abuses both at home and abroad, its continued occupation of sovereign Ukrainian territory, and its efforts to persecute human-rights activists and American diplomatic officials.

The fact that Trump is even considering the prospect of a meeting with Iranian officials given these embarrassments suggests that serious people should take him literally. Trump’s willingness to make concessions to rogue states, whether he views them as concessions or not, is a real threat to U.S. interests. The sooner that Trump is disabused of the notion that he is a competent negotiator, the sooner we can lessen the risks associated with his proclivity for fraught diplomatic endeavors.

Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!

For a very limited time, we are extending a six-week free trial on both our subscription plans. Put your intellectual life in order while you can. This offer is also valid for existing subscribers wishing to purchase a gift subscription. Click here for more details.

6 weeks free! Then 29.99/year

6 weeks free! Then 19.99/year