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.
As I read it at the time, things have been fated to come to this since Rouhani extended the hand of reconciliation to President Obama when he addressed the UN in 2013. The moment Obama grasped it, there was no avoiding a renovation of the old order in the Middle East, however much Washington may have wished and asserted otherwise. Make even tentative peace with Tehran, and Washington’s two bedrock relationships in the region—with Israel and Saudi Arabia—could not possibly be sustained as they were. We witness now the fruit falling from the tree. Trump and his people fail to see this. Neither did the Obama administration appear to understand the inevitable implications of what it had done when it signed the agreement with Iran, fair to say. Coercive containment is intended to reassure the Israelis and Saudis that the old order remains intact. But clocks can be turned back only if one does not want to know what time it is. The old order has already begun slipping into the past.
All the talk now is of risks. Trump’s critics assert that Iran will resume efforts to weaponize enriched uranium and begin to build bombs. Some believe this new nuclear nation, already understood to sponsor terrorism, will behave even more aggressively. These are the greatest risks, one reads. There are indeed risks attached to Trump’s plan to decertify, and they are large, let there be no question. But the two just outlined do not count among them. These are not big risks. They are certainly not the risks we ought to be talking about now, as the administration readies itself to buck the whole of international opinion with the sole exceptions, so far as I know, of Israel, the Saudi monarchy, and the Sunni-sectarian Gulf emirates.
If Iran were intent on possessing nuclear weapons, would it have signed the pact with the United States, the other four permanent members of the Security Council, Germany, and the European Union? Of course not. Will it develop such weapons if the United States causes the accord to fall apart? Not if the record is anything to go by. Iran made an ethical and moral decision in the early years of this century to eschew nuclear weapons, and the accord is a prima facie demonstration of this commitment. My sources in the intelligence apparatus told me for years before the 2015 agreement that Tehran liked having the capability of weaponizing as it developed a nuclear-energy sector, but considered this, and not a nuclear inventory, deterrent enough against its adversaries. There is no reason to assume this will not remain Tehran’s view, even if the most reactionary Congress to sit in my lifetime now chooses to do the worst.
Trump viciously attacked Iran in his Friday speech. This was a reprise of his address to the General Assembly last month, in which he called Tehran a disruptive, destabilizing regime with blood on its hands, the author of chaos and violence across the Middle East, a regime that deprives its people of the national wealth that is their due, and so on. One would not think an American president would have the nerve to use such language in front of 190-odd world leaders—not given the US record of the past 14 years (just to limit our universe). But this is Trump. “The Iranian regime’s support for terror is in stark contrast to the recent commitments of many of its neighbors to fight terrorism and halt its financing,” Trump added in his UN speech. In his next sentence, he praised Saudi Arabia and its terror-financing Salafist allies.
It is hard to take such rhetoric seriously, but one must, for it is emphatically not only Trump’s—a point no American should miss: Like so much of what the president says, this is merely a ballooned-out expression of the orthodox American view, held across the aisle, of a nation, its intentions, and its activities. Once again, Trump turns out to be symptom, not cause. Liberal interventionists and neoconservative hawks—which covers just about all of political Washington, sadly enough—are alike in bringing US policy to this dreadful point. Few of any mainstream stripe, if any, can credibly escape responsibility.
But there is the aforementioned record as regards the consensus imagery of Iran. It is difficult for Americans to look squarely at the record, buried as we are under decades of relentless propaganda since the shah was deposed. Do so, however, and you find that Iran is nothing like a terrorist nation. It has acted consistently to extinguish terrorist insurgencies across the region and has observed international law while doing so. It has, indeed, been terrorism’s victim. It has, on the very face of it, no reason to cultivate instability, violence, and refugee crises in its own neighborhood. In an essay published in The Atlantic last week, Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister and one of the ablest diplomats now on the scene, pointedly stressed Tehran’s enthusiasm for a “working regional mechanism” dedicated to resolving common security questions. That is where Iran stands in the matters of stability and a terror-free order in the Middle East.
Having trouble with the above thought? We have examples of what I mean before us as we speak. Sometime soon, our media might get around to acknowledging that yet another US effort to destabilize yet another Middle Eastern nation has failed. In my read, between Syria and Ukraine, Washington is now on notice that the “regime change” game is over. We should all be pleased. Iranians know a thing or two about such operations, it is well to recall. Dreadful as the suffering of Syrians has been, Iran helped, albeit modestly, spare them the fate of Libyans. It has done much more against the Islamic State in Iraq. In both cases, it acted at the behest of a sovereign nation—which is to say lawfully. Syria has held together against a foreign-financed onslaught dense with Salafists. Whatever one may think of the Assad government, this is the desired outcome.
What are the genuine risks, then, as Trump takes the first step away from an agreement that, despite lingering American hostility, can stand as a model of 21st-century conflict resolution and the kind of diplomatic negotiation that reflects the here-to-stay realities of a multipolar planet?
The most serious of these risks is war, of course. But what we are more likely to get is more, endless, wasteful confrontation.
If the pact’s other signatories, the International Atomic Energy Agency, and the State Department acknowledge in unison that Iran abides by the JCPOA’s terms, it is clear that Trump and some of those around him now propose to square off with the Islamic Republic. Trump has been critical of the pact from the first, but that is a deal maker talking. I would say some of those around him are the prime movers at this point in wanting to orchestrate more pressure and impose more sanctions on Iran, and I put Defense Secretary Mattis and H.R. McMaster, Trump’s national-security adviser, at the top of the list, even though Mattis has on occasion spoken in favor of maintaining the accord.
These two retired officers, often described admiringly in the liberal press, have records indicating firm commitments to military intervention in the Middle East. Both have served in Iraq, and both are acutely aware that Iran’s influence persists in spite of their efforts to carve out a regional order of US design against all challenges. There is a longer history at work, too. Thirty-eight years of Iranian resistance to US domination preface this moment. It is the only influential nation in the region to have managed this. Decertification, in this context, has to be read as a purposeful act of American pressure. The Trump administration also authorized the Treasury Department to sanction the Revolutionary Guards. Given that the Guards are Iran’s special forces, this is another provocation. Reinstating sanctions, should Congress so decide, will be another. And there will be others after these.
While prospects of a settlement between Tehran and Washington have never been bright, in its practical effect the administration’s move forecloses on them. At the core of the Mattis-McMaster thesis is containment, not war. This seems to be what Trump and his advisers want in the North Korean case, too—an expensive, indefinitely extended state of confrontation. But the danger is greater in the Iran case, arguably. Iran is an influential regional power—there is simply no pretending otherwise—and understands itself as such. It is in any prolonged effort to push Iranians back into a state of extreme isolation that the risk of war lies.
As for North Korea, damaging a fragile situation is less a risk than a certainty. Decertification without credible cause will seriously impair, if not scuttle, what chance there may have been to bring Pyongyang to the negotiating table. This is already plain. It beggars belief to think the Trump administration does not understand this. To me there is only one outstanding question here: Is the Mattis-McMaster axis, Pentagon to White House, willing to risk this consequence, or does it desire this consequence? I incline to the latter explanation at this point.
Now to the Europeans. There was some thought earlier that the EU signatories would propose to renegotiate the agreement, or begin new talks on questions it does not cover, to accommodate Trump. Emmanuel Macron, France’s president, had suggested as much in recent weeks. I do not see mileage in this, and as of this weekend it does not appear the Europeans do, either. The process would be monumentally cumbersome. Tehran is unlikely to accept such a proposal, in any case. There is no certainty the outcome would satisfy the Trump White House. It is impossible to predict an alternative outcome, but the best possible would be for the Europeans, along with Russia and China, to stay with the accord without US participation—as Austria’s envoy to the UN suggested last week—and as Mogherini seconded at the weekend. All signatories other than the United States understood Iran’s emergence from isolation to be among the pact’s virtues. They will not now be inclined to surrender this benefit.
Washington has overplayed its cards with the Europeans for many years, in my view. And there are gathering signs now—especially since the NATO and G–7 summits earlier this year—that Trump has reignited Europe’s impatience as an acquiescent follower of American foreign policy. This is an old story, but the Iran deal ranks with the climate pact as something Europeans value for its many-sided diplomatic process. The risk of more American isolation now extends to its historically closest allies. For the record, I view the prospect of greater distance between Washington and the European capitals favorably. So it is not a risk, in my book. It is a benefit, perversely achieved, if it means more principled European opposition to reckless American policy.
Remember when Russian bombers flew their first missions in Syria, against Islamic State targets and anti–Assad insurgents, on the last day of September two years ago? Ash Carter, the defense secretary at the time, was prominent among the many who predicted certain failure. This was instantly the orthodox line straight across the board. Looking back now, this view reeks of complacency, nostalgia, and an inability to accept self-evident new realties—three impediments that perennially afflict our foreign-policy cliques, now that I think of it. Washington stumbled when Russia entered the Syrian conflict, and it has never since regained its footing.
The demise of the American destabilization project in Syria has been predictable for some time—providing you read something other than the US press. Less discernible, at least until recently, have been the wider consequences of this welcome failure. Memory again: Remember when Russia, Iran, and Turkey agreed last year to convene new peace talks in Astana, the Kazakh capital? Remember when they issued a peace plan in January and declared themselves its guarantors? Remember when Washington chortled and then declined to attend other than to send its ambassador in Kazakhstan as an observer? It is well to remember these events, for in them lie the bones of an alliance suggesting a very new dynamic is taking root in the Middle East. Many are the commentators who already assert that the Russia-Iran-Turkey triangle, Moscow its maestro, is swiftly replacing a worn-out framework Washington still assumes is the enduring shape of the region.
Russia’s ties to Iran—old, complicated, historically uneven—are now solid and operational. Its relations with Turkey, despite heated animosity after a Turkish jet downed a Russian bomber in late 2015, appear to be well-mended. Turkey now follows the Russian lead at Astana. Moscow has succeeded in surmounting longstanding animosities between Turkey—a NATO member, let us not forget—and Iran. The new talk in Washington starts to resemble the “Who lost China?” theme after the 1949 revolution. Who lost Turkey? Russia and China are braced to lead the postwar reconstruction project in Syria; Iran may also play a role. Did anyone miss the import of King Salman’s four-day visit to Moscow a couple of weeks ago for a summit with Vladimir Putin? None other than Benjamin Netanyahu has recently held talks with the Russian leader. Like the Saudi monarch, the Israeli prime minister turns to Moscow, in effect, to address the Iranians.
There is no grasping Trump’s decertification other than in this context. Washington moves from regime changer to spoiler on behalf of strategic alliances now seemingly regarded by their most prominent participants as belonging to yesterday, not tomorrow. Think about Washington’s current obsession with sanctions in the context of the triangular alliance just outlined. Do more sanctions stand to isolate Iran and reassure the Saudis, as intended, or will they accelerate the gradual development of a de-dollarized financial system at some point in the medium-to-long-term future?
Barack Obama attempted to implement, here and there, a new kind of American internationalism in his foreign policies—grandest among them the Iran nuclear accord. But he was guilty of a glaring omission. He tried to adjust the methods of American policy (more multilateralism, more diplomacy with adversaries), while leaving the goals of US policy—global primacy, in a phrase—intact. The flaw proved fatal to his effort. It came to no more than confusion, a humiliating lack of clarity, and constant resistance in Washington—all this along with repeated muddle and failures abroad.
The Obama years suggested to me precisely what they were intended to refute. Washington, and some proportion of Americans, are not equipped to negotiate their way well into the 21st century. Too few of us possess a sufficiently worldly vision such as our time requires of those who will lead. Too many of us seem to assume imagery unrelated to reality—read Trump’s remarks last Friday again—are enough to carry the day. Trump is monumentally provincial, as is the current Congress. But provincialism comes in many forms. Is there anything so provincial as our incessant claims to be indispensable?
Events in the Middle East now proceed at an astonishing pace. And they seem to be answering this question as we speak.