Trump's Wrecking Ball Aims at Iran Accord

His decision to undermine the nuclear deal could trigger a showdown

President Trump makes his statement on Iran policy Friday. Credit: Evan Vucci/AP

In a bombshell announcement Friday, President Trump all but exploded the landmark 2015 accord that froze Iran's nuclear research program. Though he stopped short of canceling it outright, he declared that unless America's allies and Congress work with him to renegotiate it – something that no one, neither those allies nor Russia and China nor Iran, believes remotely to be possible – then the accord that during his campaign Trump called "the worst deal ever" will be dead. "The agreement will be terminated," he said, reading prepared remarks in a robot-like monotone from a teleprompter in the White House. "Our participation can be cancelled by me, as president, at any time."

It's not like we didn't see this coming. Forced by law every three months to certify that the Iran accord is working properly, that Iran isn't violating its terms and that it serves America's interest, Trump has done so twice since taking office in January. But the last time around, in July, he warned that he'd done so with extreme reluctance, and he wasn't likely to do so again. Last month, in a bombastic address to the United Nations, he sent a dark signal about what was to come. "The Iran deal was one of the worst and most one-sided transactions the United States has ever entered into," he said, to a stone-faced assembly of world leaders. "Frankly, that deal is an embarrassment to the United States, and I don't think you've heard the last of it – believe me."

With his actions Friday, Trump has one-upped the old maxim, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." In declaring that he has concluded the 2015 agreement between six world powers and Iran over Tehran's now-frozen nuclear program is no longer in America's national interest, Trump has said, in effect, "If it ain't broke, let's push it over a cliff and see what happens." It sets into motion a dangerous, uncertain and irresponsible chain of events that could end up leading to U.S. military action against the Islamic Republic of Iran or, alternately, adding Iran to the list of U.S adversaries with a nuclear arsenal.

Not only did Trump already twice certify the accord is working well, but virtually all of his senior advisers and cabinet officials – including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff – have said explicitly that Iran is living up to its commitments under the accord. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), charged with monitoring the accord, has repeatedly declared that Iran is in compliance with all of its obligations under the agreement, called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA. And the ambassadors of Britain, France and Germany, along with the European Union's representative in Washington, have been meeting nonstop with administration officials and members of Congress in a last-ditch effort to prevent the destruction of the JCPOA.

Under the terms of the JCPOA, the signal diplomatic achievement of President Obama's administration, Iran agreed to give up virtually all of its enriched uranium, drastically limit its future stockpiles of such material to amounts far, far below what could be weaponized, disable a key reactor and accept stringent, ongoing inspections of all of its research and production facilities by the IAEA. At a stroke, a growing crisis that many feared might lead to a military confrontation between Iran and the United States was put to rest. Now, thanks to Trump's attempt to undo the accord, that fear is back. "We are sleepwalking into an armed conflict," warned Rep. Gerry Connolly, a Virginia Democrat, last week. Trump's plan, he warned, will "put the world back on the brink of conflict, and open up a second nuclear front."

So why now? Since Trump has taken office, nothing about Iran or the JCPOA has changed. There's no public clamor about Iran. No one believes Iran is acting contrary to the agreement. And there are plenty of actual crises, led by the concern over North Korea's nuclear bombs, that require the president's attention. As a result, Washington analysts in Washington are scratching their heads to figure out why Trump has chosen this moment to threaten to blow up the Iran deal, and some have concluded that – as with Obamacare and Obama's immigration deal over the Dreamers – it's all about Obama. "He really does seem to hate everything that has Obama's name on it, and the fact that he has to certify what is an Obama accomplishment, and do it every three months, seems really to have put him off balance," says Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council and author of Losing An Enemy: Obama, Iran and the Triumph of Diplomacy. "There's no logical reason why he's hostile to the accord. When his secretary of state, his secretary of defense, his chairman of the joint chiefs all say that Iran is in compliance, and he insists that it's not, what are we missing?"

Sen. Chris Coons, a Democrat from Delaware who's devoted a great deal of time to the Iran issue, agrees Trump's action may be acting out of personal pique over his predecessor. "I wish he would listen to the leaders of his national security and foreign policy team," Coons tells Rolling Stone. "But what's motivating him is a deep-seated dislike of this accomplishment by the Obama administration."

It's a law enacted in 2015, the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act (INARA), that compelled first Obama and now Trump, to certify the deal every three months. Under that same law, because of Trump's refusal to make that certification, Congress is now faced with a critical dilemma. "He's tossing a political hand grenade – the question of whether we ought to impose sanctions on Iran over their nuclear program or not – into the lap of Congress. And we will have 60 days to decide whether or not to do so," says Coons. "From public statements and from private conversations that I've had, there is wide opposition to blowing up the Iran nuclear deal, even from the people who voted against it originally. The majority opinion of the senators that I've spoken to, both among supporters and opponents of the deal, is that it has succeeded so far in constraining Iran's nuclear program … and that Iran has so far kept its part of the deal."

So Congress' Hobbesian choice is to either: Impose new sanctions, which Parsi says "would kill the deal," since the JCPOA explicitly forbids new nuclear-related sanctions unless Iran can be shown to be in violation of it. Or, as Coons suggests, a majority in Congress may refuse to enact new sanctions – in which case, according to Trump's statement on Friday, he will use his executive power as president to withdraw from the JCPOA. Either way, unless Trump backs down, the agreement is essentially dead. And what might happen next is unpredictable in the extreme.

Diplomacy, of course, it still an option. "I've spoken to ambassadors from several of our European allies, and earlier in the year I had a chance to meet with some parliamentary representatives from some of our … partners, and they couldn't be clearer," says Coons "They are willing to work with us to strengthen IAEA inspections, on challenging Iran's ballistic missile program, and they see clearly Iran's bad behavior in the region, in Syria, [in Yemen], and so forth. But if we unilaterally blow up the Iran deal, it will drive a real wedge between the United States and our European allies and it will significantly undermine our efforts to being the world together against North Korea's nuclear program."

The current concerns over North Korea's nuclear threats – unlike the case of Iran, which never actually possessed or sought to develop nuclear bombs – is a real one. That's why Trump's decision to confront Iran is astonishing, and troubling to many. Unlike North Korea, and unlike other parts of the, world such as Syria and Afghanistan – where the United States is involved in shooting wars – Iran is internally stable, and its nuclear program has been neutralized. In fact, says Coons, one of the ironic aspects of Trump's provocative new Iran policy is that it runs explicitly counter to what his own administration is trying to do vis-à-vis North Korea. "Secretary of State Tillerson has said repeatedly, publicly and privately, that they're trying to do in regard to North Korea almost exactly what the Obama administration accomplished against the Iran nuclear program, through diplomacy," says Coons.

In any case, virtually no one in Washington, or in Europe's capitals, believes there's any chance Iran will renegotiate the 2015 accord. And, in case anyone doubted that fact, in a lengthy government statement reacting to Trump's remarks, Iran made that clear.

"The JCPOA is a valid international instrument and an outstanding achievement in contemporary diplomacy," said the Iranian statement. "It cannot be renegotiated or altered. The nuclear deal is not a bilateral agreement that can be annulled by unilateral action, but a deal endorsed by the international community and incorporated as a part of Security Council Resolution 2231. Other JCPOA participants, as well as the rest of the international community, should not allow the president of the United States to continue to mock and undermine the deal. The Islamic Republic of Iran will not be the first to withdraw from the deal, but if its rights and interests in the deal are not respected, it will stop implementing all its commitments and will resume its peaceful nuclear program without any restrictions."

Having withdrawn from the Paris accord over climate change; canceled, unilaterally, a Pacific Rim trade agreement; withdrawn the United States from UNESCO, the UN cultural arm; promised to undo various international trade agreements, such as NAFTA, unilaterally; and called NATO "obsolete," perhaps it shouldn't be surprising that Trump would also let loose a wrecking ball aimed at the JCPOA. No doubt his advisers, U.S. allies and members of Congress will scramble, now, to prevent Trump's latest outburst from destabilizing the Persian Gulf, the Middle East and the world beyond.