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U.S.-Iran: An Unsteady Case Study

Terry H. Schwadron

July 24, 2017

President Donald Trump, apparently backed only by advisor Stephen Banning, pushed back against a wall of national security advisers before reluctantly agreeing to certify that Iran continues to comply with an international nuclear agreement that he had strongly criticized.

There never was a question about compliance, but Mr. Trump hates the deal that the U.S. and European leaders had reached with Iran, both on the argument that Iran does other non-nuclear things that the U.S. (and Israel) opposes, but because there was no particular American business uptick built in. It was the second, and perhaps last, time that the U.S. signed the compliance order.

For its part, Iranian leadership accused the U.S. of backtracking on its end of the agreement, and made growling noises about perhaps junking the whole agreement to restart its nuclear ambitions. From all that I have read, a frustrated Mr. Trump has tasked his security team with coming up with a tougher approach with Iran by the next 90-day compliance deadline.

The President still has not quite grasped that “negotiation” with someone holding nuclear weapons might be a bit more complicated than just following blindly instructions from a belligerent White House. Frankly, it makes me wonder what the White House will want to achieve in North Korea at the same time; at the very least, the Obama deal with Iran took a rogue nuclear program off the table without a shot being fired. Somehow that feels as if it is worth more than a faceslap for his predecessor by a president who has yet to achieve a similar outcome with North Korea.

By law, the administration is required to notify Congress every 90 days whether Iran is living up to the deal, which curtailed nuclear development in exchange for the lifting of many international sanctions. Since that agreement, Iranian oil, like oil worldwide, is worth a lot less, and the actual economic benefits to Iran have been modest.

All this played out with the President and Bannon on one side of White House debate and Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster, the national security adviser, and Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, on the other.

Of course, the U.S. still penalize Iran for behavior such as its development of ballistic missiles or support for terrorism, but it cannot simply reapply the same sanctions that were lifted under a different guise. Iran has the right to appeal to a joint committee and make the argument that the United States is in violation. European officials have long argued that the agreement was intended only to restrict Iran’s nuclear program, not the other issues, and have expressed little interest in revisiting the agreements.

Indeed, the President warned Iran over the last few days that it must release three U.S. residents who have been detained there or face grave consequences.

Still, President Trump has not ripped up the agreement, despite conservative arguments that the nuclear agreement “remains palpably harmful to American national interests,” per John Bolton, former U.N. ambassador.

Meanwhile, Iran has sent troops to fight ISIS, which might be considered a complication here.

Tehran’s clerical government argues that Mr. Trump has already violated the nuclear agreement by pressuring businesses not to engage with Iran even though the nuclear sanctions have been lifted.

Were the White House to opt not to certify would trigger a 60-day period in which Congress could vote to re-impose the secondary sanctions lifted as a condition of the deal, or to strike it down altogether. Of course, with European leaders opposing withdrawal, no one is prepared for the result. The White House lacks an overall Iran policy, as it lacks overall, publicly understood policies in the Middle East altogether, Syria, North Korea or other areas of conflict. All foreign policy is being seen as transactional, flexible and somehow tied to American business interests.

As things stand, the Iranians, must continue to allow international inspections of their nuclear sites and limit their stockpile of low-enriched uranium over the lifespan of the deal, which expires in the next 8 to 13 years. Iran has already received much of the money that was frozen in foreign banks under the crippling sanctions that brought its representatives to the negotiations. So pulling out of the deal now would leave Iran cash rich and under no obligation to cap its nuclear stockpiles or allow international inspections.

The Treasury Department is still reviewing a proposed sale of civilian airliners from Boeing to Iran’s largest airline. That deal is under scrutiny because Iran uses its civilian air fleet to send supplies, personnel and weapons to the war in Syria.

It is a good case study that slogans like America First are insufficient to set U.S. international policy.


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