Terry H. Schwadron
Oct. 14, 2017
The broad brush with which Donald Trump handles issues of nuance is always disturbing, sometimes immediately dangerous, and usually devoid of context about where we are headed next. I think we can agree across the board that broad brush announcements don’t really “fix” anything, and in recent days, sound mostly like Trump anti-Obama sloganeering.
All of these thoughts melded yesterday as President chillingly announced he wanted to “de-certify” the Iran nuclear weapons deal–actually not certify, a move that apparently means he doesn’t like the deal (which is not news) and that he thinks leaves Iran intact to pursue missile development and to harass its Middle East neighbors, particularly Israel. From his remarks, you, like me, probably found yourself having to believe that a militarily strong American could force single deal with Iran would block nuclear development forever, that would stop other military flexing, that, indeed, would dictate to Iran what it could or could not do.
To be clear, de-certification by itself does nothing. It neither ends the agreement nor fixes what may ail it. The entire “certification” process is an American congressional invention to give a skeptical Congress quarterly assurance that the Iranians are holding up their end of the deal. But it does send a message, intended or not.
And, in perhaps his strangest view of “leadership” in such an issue, he challenged Congress to set the terms by adopting a Tom Cotton-sponsored measure that aims to trigger wide economic sanctions if Iran even comes within spitting distance of missile or nuclear development. Does the President lack the courage to act in a definite way towards Iran by turning the whole matter over to Congress — and specifically to Sen. Bob Corker, last week’s Trump tweet enemy, as head of the Senate Foreign Affairs committee. Apparently, the punt to Congress was a sop to his advisers — and other allied leaders–who opposed withdrawing from the deal altogether.
President Trump read his decisions somberly and with several related steps towards declaring Iran’s Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist target of sanctions; additional enforcement of missile and other weapons programs; inspection of Iranian military sites. He vowed to abridge the Iran treaty at any time if a new arrangement cannot be reached. (The Washington Post did a nice job of sorting through a few unreliable assertions in the argument.)
Let’s just start this discussion with the prospects of a new deal that the President suggests needs to emerge from a decision to avoid certifying Iranian compliance. I may have missed the Art of the Deal chapter in which the other party in a negotiation wants nothing to do with you. Iran seems to want little besides foreign investment in Iranian jobs and industry. It’s sort of an Iran First policy, to put it into our local terms. Why would Iran possibly want a broader, comprehensive agreement with the United States as a bilateral partner without even including Europe, Russia, China or others? If you don’t have a negotiation partner (or dancing partner), you are on stage alone calling into the darkness, no?
I have yet to hear Presidential reasoning (he uses slogans, not reason) to argue why Iran would want a bigger deal if the United States is showing that it is unwilling to continue an arrangement that international authorities say has been in compliance up until now. Few contest that Iran is a “bad actor” in the Middle East, but rather than build on the treaty to provide more protections, the Trump approach is to seek to tear everything down and stand, bully-like, expecting Iran to kneel before him.
While I understand that Trump may approach all issues as if they are real estate deals, the basic premise of those deals is that there is a buyer and a seller, two sides, who share some interest in common development or home or whatever is at stake. In the White House, this President has made it his daily business to remind friend and foe that he will approach all issues with a bias to help American interests. Fine, but you still have to have some interest from the other party in the goals of any negotiation.
That the president would take his position on Iran after pushing aside all advice from his generals and counselors is as troubling as that he seems to have simply forgotten that he has European partners in this Iran deal. That he is taking this position to de-certify the Iran deal while trying (or not) to engage with North Korea on the same sort of question is simply dangerous. Once you get by the Iranian promise to renew nuclear weapons development upon American abridgement of the deal, there remains the question about why North Korea ever would want to get into a deal with U.S. officials who prove themselves to be wafflers about a treaty after a relatively short time.
Of all voices on this Iranian question, I found an interview with former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak to be useful. Barak, a former Israeli general and leader known for his hawkish views on Iran, said it would be a “mistake” for President Trump to decertify the the deal, both because it would play to Iran’s advantage and because it would scuttle any hope of a negotiation with North Korea. “Even if America decides to pull out of it,” Barak said in an interview, “no one will join — not the Chinese, not the Russians, not even the Europeans. It will serve the Iranians” who will “continue to harvest” the economic benefits of the deal. An unconstrained North Korea could impel Japan and South Korea to acquire nuclear weapons, he said. In the Middle East, Iran’s renewed drive for a bomb would pressure neighbors like Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey to do likewise.
The whole point of treaties such as the Iran deal is that they are not subject to rethinking with each election, with each change of American leadership.
It is most unsettling.