The Iran nuclear deal and American policy towards Iran are not simple issues. The nuclear deal was negotiated by the Obama Administration over the course of several years. The text of the agreement and its annexes comes in at about 100 pages, much of which is technical detail about mechanisms and measures to ensure that Iran does not, for the duration of the agreement, acquire a nuclear weapon.
The interaction between the deal and American policy options for confronting Iran involves complicated trade offs. As we have argued since the agreement was signed, by focusing solely on the nuclear question the Obama Administration put itself and its successors in the position of having to look the other way for all of Iran’s other bad behavior in exchange for keeping Iran nuke-free for a few more years. The deal’s supporters counter that the alternative would have been the collapse of the sanctions regime, a nuclear-armed Iran, and, almost certainly, war.
The point of this preface is not to rehash the merits or faults of the nuclear deal, but to reiterate the difficulty and seriousness of the issue. It’s unfortunate, then, that the debate over whether or not President Trump ought to decertify the Iran nuclear deal has been so unserious.
The deal’s defenders have by-and-large resorted to the same “echo chamber” approach that helped the Obama Administration get the deal through in the first place. President Obama’s former speechwriter Ben Rhodes tried to defend the deal by ostracizing people who now agree with him:
Interesting to watch Republican hawks who trashed Obama's Iran policy now embrace the deal because they know the consequences of losing it. https://t.co/FYZpg4Qioy
— Ben Rhodes (@brhodes) October 11, 2017
Never mind that that category also includes Democrats like Eliot Engel and apparently most of the Israeli defense establishment. This should go without saying, but the Israelis understand the consequences of a nuclear Iran far better than Ben Rhodes.
Then there’s Samantha Power, President Obama’s UN Ambassador, who approvingly cited the Financial Times arguing that decertifying the deal will strengthen Iran’s “hardliners, grouped around Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader… at the expense of pragmatic conservatives and reformist supporters of President Hassan Rouhani”:
FT’s foreign affairs editor calls Trump’s coming Iran decision “an act of geopolitical arson” that will strengthen Khamenei, the IRGC, and other hardliners https://t.co/tf3jM370Uy
— Samantha Power (@SamanthaJPower) October 10, 2017
This notion that Iran’s hardliners will be “boosted” has been repeated ad nauseum in recent days. It’s entirely possible, even likely, that external pressure from the United States will consolidate the regime’s internal factions. But there’s no evidence that the deal had previously destabilized the regime to such an extent that the President of Iran was somehow in conflict with the armed forces of his own country, or that it had in any way limited the IRGC’s power. On the contrary, the IRGC has never been more powerful either within Iran, where it is newly flush with cash, or across the region.
This supposed threat of regime consolidation is also more than a bit ironic given that defenders of the deal accuse the deal’s critics of seeking regime change. The charge certainly rings true for some. An opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal this week, to give just one example, describes “How to Defeat the Islamic Republic.” But as I’ve written before, the unspoken but no less critical component of the deal is the naive hope of its proponents that it will lead to a fundamental transformation of the Iranian regime by empowering the supposed “moderates.” The sunset provisions, the structure of the economic incentives, John Kerry’s cheerleading for Iranian banks, all of this is part of a perverse system in which the deal will only succeed if 15 years of trade with the West creates a more pro-Western, diplomatically normal Iran. This is regime change by fantasy.
Unfortunately, the case put forward by the the Administration and by the deal’s opponents for decertification has been little better. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Face the Nation last month was asked how the Administration could decertify the agreement if Iran was in compliance with the deal. He replied:
Well, my view on the nuclear deal is they are in technical compliance of the nuclear arrangement. But if you go back and read the preamble to the JCPOA, the nuclear agreement, there clearly was an expectation between the parties, the negotiators from the Western parties as well as Iran, that by dealing with this nuclear threat we would lower the tension between Iran and the rest of the world and we would create conditions for Iran to rejoin the community of nations as a productive country that wants stability, and wants peace, and wants prosperity in the region.
That’s why all these sanctions were lifted. But since the nuclear deal has been concluded what we have witnessed is Iran has stepped up its destabilizing activities in Yemen. It’s stepped up its destabilizing activities in Syria. It exports arms to Hezbollah and other terrorist groups. And it continues to conduct a very active ballistic missile program. None of that, I would believe, is consistent with that preamble commitment that was made by everyone.
To paraphrase Allen Iverson—noted expert in international affairs—”Preamble? We’re talking about the preamble?” Please.
Nor have any other Trump Administration officials made a serious public case for decertifying. Secretary of Defense Mattis last week testified to the Senate Armed Services Committee that the deal remained in the national security interests of the United States and that Iran was in technical compliance with its terms. Those are, by law, the two metrics by which the President is required to certify the deal to congress. President Trump is clearly opposed to the deal as it stands and wants to decertify, but his criticisms have never been very specific. Presumably he will elaborate on his case and his strategy during the announcement, but it’s difficult to recall such a major shift in American foreign policy that involved such little outreach to the public, to U.S. allies, or to Congress.
Decertification, after all, will basically punt the issue to Congress. So why pick an unnecessary fight with the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on precisely this issue when you’re about to ask him to fix the deal for you? Maybe Corker is a squish, maybe the Corker-Cardin bill got us into this mess, but antagonizing such a critical voice in the Senate drastically reduces the odds that Congress’ “fix” for the deal will amount to much.
That outcome—a mostly symbolic “fix” of the deal—may be the most likely outcome. But it’s an outcome that neither the nuclear deal’s most vocal defenders nor its opponents want to consider, which perhaps explains why this debate has been so facile. Like President Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement, former Obama Administration officials defending the deal cannot be seen to admit that decertification of one of President Obama’s signature foreign policy achievements probably won’t change very much in and of itself. The deal’s opponents, particularly those trying to influence the President, want to offer a path for the President to fulfill his promise to renegotiate the deal. They could never admit that this is an ego stroking exercise; that the same objectives could be accomplished without decertification.
Regardless of the consequences of decertifying the Iran deal, President Trump appears set to present it as a fait accompli by the end of this week. But debate over decertification that pits those carrying water for the Obama Administration against those carrying water for the Trump Administration has failed to produce a serious discussion about what to do after decertification, or how to otherwise confront Iran. For all we can hope that Congress or the President’s national security team can come up with a better plan, this issue deserves a higher standard of public debate.