Donald Trump gave his first address to the United Nations General Assembly yesterday, and he lived up to his billing. Trump used a forum for diplomacy to threaten to annihilate an entire country, and to denounce an accord preventing another country from obtaining a nuclear weapon. He slammed an ideology that informs, to one degree or another, many countries around the world, including many of America’s closest allies. He effectively declared that the United States doesn’t care about values or human rights in its approach to international affairs. Yet, at the same time, he preached the sanctity of sovereignty while urging regime change in other countries.
That’s a lot to take apart. But let’s focus on what Trump has been threatening since the early days of his campaign: to destroy the Iran nuclear deal (also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA). It’s no surprise that the JCPOA is in jeopardy. Trump famously promised to “tear up” the deal during his campaign for the White House. Although his advisors convinced him that such an action would be unwise, he has been seeking to destroy the deal since long before he took office. Trump has reluctantly certified that Iran is complying with the deal twice already, as he must every 90 days, as mandated by a law Congress passed. Many are concerned he will not do it a third time on October 15.
Yesterday’s speech more than justified those concerns. It is difficult to see how, Trump could possibly reconcile his words at the General Assembly with recertifying Iranian compliance with the deal to Congress.
“We cannot let a murderous regime continue these destabilizing activities while building dangerous missiles, and we cannot abide by an agreement if it provides cover for the eventual construction of a nuclear program,” Trump told the General Assembly. “The Iran deal was one of the worst and most one-sided transactions the United States has ever entered into. Frankly, that deal is an embarrassment to the United States, and I don’t think you’ve heard the last of it, believe me.”
That statement seems to make it clear that Trump intends to withdraw from the agreement. Supporters of the deal are under no illusions about the danger this enormous foreign policy achievement is in. The real question going forward will be how Trump intends to go about abandoning the deal. This will be a key factor in dictating the strategy to defend it.
Obama Staffers Team Up Again To Defend Deal
To defend the deal, a remarkable group of former high-level diplomats from Barack Obama’s administration formed a group called “Diplomacy Works.” The group’s advisory board includes such notable names as former Secretary of State John Kerry, former Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs and key JCPOA negotiator, Wendy Sherman, former Deputy National Security Advisor Anthony Blinken, former National Security Advisor to the Vice President Colin Kahl, Kerry’s former Chief of Staff and Director of Policy Planning, Jon Finer, and others.
With deadlines for renewing the waiver of sanctions against Iran and for recertifying Iran’s compliance looming, Diplomacy Works organized a media call last Wednesday. Sherman, Kahl, and Finer were the speakers. Their words were a clear call to action.
“Why,” Sherman asked, “would we want to … kill this deal and then eight years from now say, ‘Well, how did we get to this situation where Iran now has multiple nuclear weapons and the delivery system to deliver them?’”
All the speakers agreed that the United States leaving the JCPOA would not create conditions for a better deal.
On the contrary, Kahl said, “I think what you would also find from our European partners is a deep skepticism that Iran would agree to do more for the same benefits or even less. That is, there seems to be this narrative that if you threaten to blow up the JCPOA or threaten to impose more sanctions, you can coerce Iran into abandoning their ballistic missile program or extending the life of the Iran deal in perpetuity. It’s unlikely that we would be able to marshal sufficient pressure to generate a better deal. In fact, there’s no way we would get the international consensus to get us even back to the pressure we had in 2015. You can’t achieve 125% of this deal with 80% or 90% of the leverage we had before.”
The day after this media briefing, the Trump administration did renew the sanctions waiver. But the deadline for recertifying Iranian compliance still looms. Kahl explained:
If Trump decides not to certify in mid-October. it would not immediately lead to us walking away from it. What it would do is it would take the issue to Congress for a 60-day expedited period to consider snapping back all of the nuclear-related sanctions that were suspended as a consequence of the deal.
A lot of outside proponents and perhaps some on the inside believe that this may be a moment of potential leverage where essentially you use the congressional debate to drive everybody back to the table to get a “better deal” but … that’s not how it would work out. What it would do is it would drive a huge wedge within the P5+1, something that would likely allow Iran to play us against our other partners. It would weaken our leverage, not strengthen our leverage, and it wouldn’t lead to a better deal. It would probably lead to the collapse of the deal or at the very least a weaker version of it.
The consequences of abandoning the deal go far beyond the JCPOA itself. The United States would be furthering its own isolation, especially from Europe.
“In terms of the issue of whether the Europeans want to reopen this deal, my understanding from my former colleagues is that they want the deal to proceed forward,” Sherman, who was a key negotiator of the JCPOA, said. “There is no doubt that everybody always is looking for what could have been even more perfect than the deal that was done here, but it is very hard, if not impossible, to reopen this in any way without the entire deal unraveling. Europeans have made it clear that they will not follow and when they have been quoted or heard saying they want to supplement or complement, this is aspirational and wanting, I think, to show that they’re trying to be colleagues with the United States even though they want to proceed forward because the IAEA has now said eight times that Iran is in compliance with the deal.”
A U.S. withdrawal, therefore, does not bring sanctions back at anything close to the levels they were at under Obama. The United States has a variety of sanctions in place against Iran, many dating all the way back to the early days after the current theocracy took control of the country from the US-allied Shah Reza Pahlavi. The JCPOA removed only the nuclear-related sanctions.
Abandoning JCPOA Won’t Bring Iran Back to the Table
The sanctions had teeth because they were combined with European and United Nations sanctions. A US withdrawal would not reimpose those. Thus, as Colin Kahl pointed out, the sanctions the US would reimpose would not apply the same pressure they did.
A US abrogation of the JCPOA would still have real consequences. The Trump administration could certainly create an atmosphere where European and other businesses perceived doing business with or in Iran as too risky, since the US is obviously a much bigger and more important market. This, indeed, is precisely what opponents of the deal hope will happen. As Finer said,
One of the things the Iranians will be looking at is not just governmental decisions, not just what United States decides to do and whether or not the European countries follow suit—which I think would be unlikely if the United States re-imposes sanctions—but how private entities that are either doing business with Iran already or contemplating doing business with Iran will behave. Remember that for Iran the benefit of this bargain in which they allowed massive intrusive presence of monitors and significant constraints on a nuclear program is that they were re-integrated at least to some extent, their economy. Not the United States but to many other countries in the world—in Europe and in Asia.
If those private companies sort of see the writing on the wall because the United States has declared Iran out of compliance either halts the progress on business deals or stops doing business for those that have already started down that road, then I think it becomes very difficult for Iranian leaders to justify to their own people and to hardliners in their government why they’re in this deal in the first place. You know, President Trump is fond of talking about the spirit of the deal, but the Iranians have a sense of what the spirit of the deal might be as well and if the United States either by explicitly re-imposing sanctions or by giving every indication again, by declaring Iran not to be implementing the deal, that those sanctions might be coming back and that kills all business dealings with Iran or a significant percentage of dealings with Iran. There’s going to be heavy pressure for Iran to back out. I don’t think that’s a scenario in which the United States is absolved of blame. I think many people will see that as United States inducing the unraveling of the nuclear [deal].
Whither North Korea?
A key point here is that, while Trump may be able to find a way to spin a collapse of the JCPOA as Iran’s fault to domestic audiences, our allies will not likely be fooled. That means the US making the deal so worthless that Iran pulls out would severely undermine trust in any deal the US makes.
In the long term, that is damage that will surely last far beyond Trump’s time in office. It will take a long time before other countries can believe that, even if they trust the next person in office, that person’s successor won’t back out of a deal the US signed in good faith.
In the short term, it completely destroys any possibility of a negotiated settlement with North Korea. Sherman quoted Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT), saying “Backing out of the Iran deal now would effectively end any hope of achieving a diplomatic solution to the North Korean nuclear crisis.”
This is obvious. Even if Trump offered North Korea huge concessions, why would Kim Jong Un believe that the U.S. president would honor an agreement? Worse, it’s clear that to address the North Korean issue, an international coalition, including not only our European allies but China and Russia as well (much like the group that negotiated the JCPOA) would be needed. But how can our allies, much less countries that have a less comfortable relationship with the United States, possibly work with us after we destroyed a deal that the international community put so much effort into?
North Korea is much, much harder because they have nuclear weapons and are well on their way to an ICBM to deliver them even to the continental United States, if not there already. They are a much more hermetically sealed state than Iran was. They don’t have the kind of trading relationships and the US does not have the leverage that we did in the Iran situation, so it’s much tougher. But you have to bring all of government and all of your tools together in a very disciplined, comprehensive way working with the international community to have any chance at all at resolving [the nuclear crisis with] North Korea.
Instead, Trump is threatening to completely destroy the country. Even if Trump were being a bit hyperbolic, something that is by no means a safe assumption, the fallout of any military action would be enormous, even if confined just to the Korean peninsula. And that is unlikely given that China would certainly feel the need to respond to any US aggression there.
There is simply no benefit to the United States to destroying the JCPOA, as the American and Israeli military and defense communities continue to maintain. Yet that is clearly where Trump is going, and with Americans justifiably concerned about domestic matters like health care, growing divisions, and racism, it may be very difficult to mount sufficient force to stop him.
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