Just when it had begun to look like President Trump had moderated his views on the Iran nuclear deal, he morphed back into Candidate Trump. In an interview televised Sunday on the Fox Super Bowl pregame show, President Trump strongly suggested that Candidate Trump’s threat to back out of the Iran nuclear deal was still very much on the table.
As always seems to be the case with Trump, it is unclear whether the statements aired on Sunday signaled a meaningful policy shift, or were just the most recent example of his penchant for promiscuous hyperbole that he will later dismiss as just “negotiating,” or perhaps deny altogether. God help us, but let’s hope it’s the latter.
Walking away from the Iran Nuclear Deal now would be disastrously self-defeating for the United States. The structure of the deal guarantees that walking away now would hand a breathtaking victory to Iran. It would be the worst of all possible worlds for the United States.
The Iran Nuclear Deal was reached in 2015 between Iran, the five permanent members of the UN National Security Council (the United States, United Kingdom, Russia, France and China), plus Germany and the European Union. The Deal required both sides to take certain prospective actions.
The U.S and its allies agreed to the deal because they wanted to curb Iran’s nuclear program and to delay, if not forever prevent, Iran from developing nuclear weapons. To that end, Iran agreed to reduce its uranium stockpile by 98 percent for 15 years, reduce its level of enrichment at its Natanz and Fordo facilities, repurpose its heavy water facility in Arak, export and cease reprocessing of its spent fuel, and allow inspection and monitoring of its nuclear facilities and supply chains.
In exchange, the United States and the other parties agreed to lift UN Security Council sanctions against Iran, as well as all economic and financial embargoes imposed by the United States and the European Union on Iran’s financial institutions and other specified industries.
The monetary benefit of this deal to Iran was enormous. Vast amounts of Iran’s assets were frozen by the embargoes, and therefore outside of Iran’s reach. Estimates vary, but whether unfreezing those assets would give Iran access to $10 billion, $20 billion, $50 billion or more, any way you look at it Iran would be getting access to a boatload of money.
Critics of the deal howled in protest. They said that the deal gave Iran a windfall to use to create mischief, destabilize the region and threaten Israel. They complained that the inspection regime was insufficient to keep Iran from cheating. They faulted the deal because some of Iran’s key obligations expired in 10 or 15 years, and therefore were not permanent. They claimed that the world would have had more leverage to strike a better deal if the sanctions had been strengthened instead of lifted. They believed, in short, that it was a bad deal.
Some of the objections to the deal were just plain stupid. Only Bibi and the new Republican Idiocracy could argue that an agreement that on its face dismantled and reversed Iran’s nuclear program for at least the next 10 years somehow did the opposite, providing Iran with a direct path to a nuclear bomb. If this deal survives basically intact for the next 10 years, at worst Iran’s nuclear position will revert to something resembling the position it was already in before the deal was struck. And the United States will then have all of the options it has now, including military options.
But most of the objections to the deal were legitimately within the realm of reasoned opinion. While I personally believe that the Iran deal may one day be recognized as the greatest foreign policy achievement of the Obama administration, and that it likely prevented another war in the Middle East, those who argued at the time that we were giving up too much for too little cannot be casually dismissed as kooks.
Not so today. What has changed is that the deal, like it or not, has been almost fully performed by one side, but not the other. The two sides of the deal were not equivalent in terms of the timing of performance. The key obligations on the US/UN/EU side of the deal – the lifting of sanctions and release of Iranian funds – were mostly to be fulfilled in the short term. Indeed, the sanctions have already been lifted and Iran got access to its previously frozen funds a year ago.
The key obligations required of Iran, in contrast, are longer term. They have only begun to be performed. Activities like reducing enrichment and repurposing plants cannot be performed in a single act. They must be sustained over a period of time. They can be halted and reversed. That’s why the deal includes an ongoing regime of inspection and monitoring.
That means that the United States now has everything to lose, and nothing to gain, by walking away after it has performed its side of the deal, while Iran still has much to deliver.
What kind of a moron makes a deal, performs all of his key obligations, and then walks away before the other side performs? Would you buy a car, pay for it in full, and then cancel delivery just because you disliked the dealer and wish you had paid less? Only if you could get your money back. And if anything is certain here, it’s that Iran is not going to give any money back.
The sanctions aren’t coming back either. Even if Trump could get Congress to go along, the United States, acting alone, could not impose sufficient sanctions to force Iran to bend to its will. If that could be done at all, it would require coordinated action with other nations who have the collective economic power to isolate Iran and impose a level of pain its leaders would be unwilling to bear.
That’s not going to happen. The United Nations and the European Union will not re-impose sanctions on Iran if the United States unilaterally walks away from the deal in a huff. Nobody wants Iran to re-start its nuclear program. And most of the world, including some of our closest allies, is chomping at the bit to do business with Iran. They are not going to give that up just because the United States has a temper tantrum.
So the stakes are entirely different now than they were at the time the deal was made. If we walk away from the deal now, Iran will be released from its obligations to continue to reduce its uranium stockpile, to continue to reduce its enrichment programs, to continue to export its spent fuel, to continue to repurpose its heavy water facility, and to continue to allow monitoring and inspection of its nuclear facilities and supply chains. In return, we would get nothing. What a deal!
Donald Trump, who fancies himself an ace negotiator, should be shrewd enough to understand that walking away from the Iran nuclear deal now would be an act of self-destructive insanity. Let’s hope that his renewed threat to back out of the deal is just another ham-fisted negotiating bluff, not something he takes seriously.
Philip Rotner is an attorney and an engaged citizen who has spent over 40 years practicing law. His views are his own and do not reflect the views of any organization with which he has been associated.