In a midday speech on Friday, President Trump fulfilled another of his campaign promises—the kind one wishes he would fail to keep. As widely reported over the weekend, he decertified the accord governing Iran’s nuclear programs—a deal many view as one of the only foreign-policy successes the Obama administration had to show for itself. He is not formally withdrawing the United States from the 2015 agreement, Trump’s people were careful to note. By all appearances, his intent is to do as much damage to the pact as he can without provoking too great a firestorm of protest among other signatories and the agreement’s domestic supporters.
Trump having done his part to create this wholly unjustified mess, the scene now shifts to Capitol Hill. The Congress that detested the Iran agreement from the first now has 60 days to put pre-pact sanctions back in place. But Trump gave legislators an alternative. He asked them Friday to enact legislation that would establish trip wires that would invalidate the deal. If Iran develops and deploys ballistic missiles, if it declines to accept Washington’s demand to extend the agreement’s terms indefinitely, or if it achieves the capacity to build a nuclear bomb within 12 months, the United States could renounce the agreement and reimpose the sanctions that were in place prior to the signing of the accord.
There is nothing good in any of this. If Congress stops short of restoring the sanctions discarded two years ago—and a failure of nerve is quite possible—the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, as the nuclear accord is titled, will merely sail on with a gaping hole in its bow. If it does put sanctions back in place, the deal as negotiated and signed will be dead. If it gives the president the new conditions he wants, it will further intensify tensions already evident between the United States and a very great deal of the globe.
Instantly, we enter a state of confusion—which, in my read, is just fine with the Trump White House. There is no sound read yet as to what Congress will decide over the next two months. No one has said who will have a hand in shaping the legal language, should Congress settle on Trump’s proposal for “trigger points.” Hassan Rouhani, the reformist president who set nuclear negotiations in motion when he addressed the UN General Assembly four years ago, took to national television to declare that “no amendment whatsoever” can be considered. But he did not indicate what Tehran’s next move would be. Britain, France, Germany, and Russia—all among the accord’s signatories—came out vigorously opposed to Trump’s move. Federica Mogherini, the European Union’s foreign secretary, asserted that the agreement “is and will continue to be in place.” Should those who negotiated jointly with Iran as the “P5+1” group hold to the agreement without the United States, it would be the best outcome possible as of Friday. But it is not yet certain what the other signatories will do.
There are a few things going on here that are perfectly plain, however, and it is important to note them:
- Washington is again perniciously fiddling with an accord that bears its signature. It has a long history in this line: Sign an agreement and immediately commence complaining about things it does not cover, escalate these complaints into a threat, and sink a deal it probably never had much intention of observing. The Agreed Framework the Clinton administration negotiated with North Korea in 1994 is a notable example: In little more than a year, the United States began objecting to Pyongyang’s missile program, which was not addressed in the framework, and then failed to meet its obligations. This is a matter of record, providing one reads an accurate record. Let us not forget the Obama administration’s variation on the theme after it signed the Iran pact: It quickly set about objecting to Iran’s missile-development program and sent Treasury officials to Europe on a mission to threaten European banks, financial institutions, and corporations with sanctions should they do business in dollars with the Iranians. Ditto: This is a matter of record, but one must find the right one.
- In a stroke, the Trump administration has stripped out the multilateral character of the Iran accord—one of its greatest strengths, plainly valued by all other signatories. For one thing, it has effectively told these signatories—the four other Security Council members, Germany, the European Union—that US authority over the pact supersedes common agreement. For another, it decertifies and proposes new demands without consultation with the Iranians. This is unilateralism declared even more boldly than the second Bush administration ever dared attempt.
- We have just heard the first of a new policy toward Iran aptly described as coercive containment. It is a sure loser across the board. Washington has been overplaying its hand in foreign policy for years and more or less everywhere, but the consequences will now start landing on our foreign-policy cliques. Europeans have made it perfectly plain that they view the nuclear accord as key to bringing Iran out of isolation and into its deserved place in the global community. Sanctions are intended to isolate, but Treasury and Congress are sanctions-happy. If they end up reinstating the pre-accord sanctions regime on Iran, they stand to isolate the United States more than anyone else. The Iranians, the Russians, and the European all made this point over the weekend. And they are right.
This is a big moment in several dimensions. Most obviously, decertification will heighten the hostility that has prevailed in relations between Washington and Tehran since 1979—and since the 2015 agreement, indeed. Trump just threw mud on the admirably multilateral diplomatic effort that produced the accord and demonstrated anew Washington’s abiding propensity toward unilateralism. Large as these matters are, there is something larger to see in this move. This is at bottom an act of desperation that will cost the United States dearly. Washington has lost in Syria, if you have not noticed. In the course of this loss, the long-standing web of alliances Washington has maintained in the Middle East—source of more disorder and suffering than one wants to think about—has begun to unravel. We will have to see, but there is reason to think we are watching history’s page turn. Viewed in this context, Trump’s desire to pick a new fight with Iran is a lunge to salvage an order that other nations—Iran among them—are already superseding. This endeavor will not succeed—a very fine thing. Eyes downcast, the world is watching.