Throughout the 2016 campaign, candidate Donald J. Trump repeatedly lambasted the landmark Iranian nuclear accord as “the worst deal ever.” Trump promised supporters on numerous occasions that, should he succeed President Obama, he would “rip up” the international agreement.
And for once, Trump seems as good as his word: In July he grudgingly certified that Iran was in compliance with the terms of the deal, but it was clear by then that he was looking for a way out. Since the US president is required by Congress to certify the deal every 90 days, Trump has been doubling down on his efforts to “rip up” the deal in the remaining time leading up to the next certification in October.
The New York Times recently reported that Trump has said that “If it was up to me, I would have had them noncompliant 180 days ago.” (Who exactly did he think it was up to?)
Nevertheless, in an unwelcome echo of the lead-up to the 2003 Iraq invasion, David Cohen, who served as CIA deputy director from 2015 to ’17, claims that the administration is cherry-picking intelligence in order to bolster its case for pulling out of the deal.
Cohen warned CNN’s Fareed Zakaria that “If our intelligence is degraded because it is politicized in the way that it looks like the president wants to do here, that undermines the utility of that intelligence all across the board.”
But, for now, as The Guardian reports, “Intelligence analysts, chastened by the experience of the 2003 Iraq war, are said to be resisting the pressure to come up with evidence of Iranian violations.”
Nevertheless, a group of former top US diplomats, including John Kerry and Nicholas Burns, who formed the advocacy group Diplomacy Works, are accusing the US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley of “pressuring the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to begin inspecting Iranian military sites for nuclear activities without any clear evidence these activities exists.”
For its part, the National Iranian American Council sees evidence “mounting that the U.S. is trying to unilaterally withdrawal from the JCPOA [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action]. There appears to be little other way to explain Amb. Nikki Haley’s efforts to stir up controversy in the media over IAEA inspections of non-nuclear military sites in Iran.”
Indeed, it is Haley, who has as much foreign-policy experience as Donald Trump (which is to say, none), has emerged as the administration’s leading advocate for pulling out of the deal.
At a much-publicized speech at the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute (home of such notables as “torture memo” author John Yoo; architect of the Iraq war Paul Wolfowitz; and neocon propagandists Frederick Kagan and Marc A. Thiessen), Haley attempted to move the goalposts, claiming that “the question of Iranian compliance is not as straight forward as many people believe. It’s not just about the technical terms of the nuclear agreement.”
Haley then went on to declare that “the UN is too reluctant to address the regime’s so-called non-nuclear violations.” According to Haley, the agreement is “very flawed and very limited.”
“Iran,” she said, “has been caught in multiple violations over the past year and a half.” This last is an outright falsehood: In late August, the IAEA declared that Iran was in compliance with the agreement.
One of the consequences of pulling out of the deal—besides further alienating our European allies, the Chinese, and the Russians who are all a party to the deal—might be that it leads us down the road to a North Korea–type situation in the Persian Gulf. After all, Iran’s foreign minister warned in July, “If it comes to a major violation, or what in the terms of the nuclear deal is called significant nonperformance [by the United States], then Iran has other options available, including withdrawing from the deal.”
Should Trump choose not to recertify, Congress would have to decide within 60 days whether to impose the previously lifted sanctions on Iran—thereby violating the deal and leaving the door open for Iran to withdraw.
But Trump perhaps shouldn’t count on Congress’s acquiescence in the matter. Senate Foreign Relations chairman Bob Corker, formerly a staunch opponent of the deal, has said he has warned Trump that “you can only tear the agreement up one time” and that he “could create a crisis at the front end by doing so.” The New York Times also found that a number of Republicans and “some of the groups that once fiercely opposed the deal” are, for the moment, keeping their own counsel.
So while the amateurs at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue seem set on provoking a nuclear crisis with Iran, it may be up to Congress and the international community to stop them.