By Roger Cohen
May 8, 2018
President Trump is withdrawing the United States from an Iran nuclear deal that has worked, in the name of unrelated demands that are unworkable, at very high cost to America’s alliances and the value of its word, with no viable alternative policy in place and at the risk of igniting the Middle East.
Only Trump can believe that makes sense. But believe it he does, with a vengeance. From Day 1, it has been the deal Trump loves to hate. He knows who authorized it: Barack Obama. Whether he knows its content is another matter.
The nuclear accord, reached in 2015, was a watershed. It was not intended to end Iranian-American enmity, virulent since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, but it did dent dangerous confrontation through dialogue.
It was a gamble on drawing Iran, a hopeful and highly educated society, closer to the world and so weakening the Islamic Republic’s hard-liners. It was not about Iranian interference in neighbouring Arab states or about its ballistic missile program. It concerned centrifuges and Iran’s clear but never avowed quest for a nuclear bomb.
The agreement put a ring fence around Iran’s nuclear program into the second quarter of this century. It slashed centrifuges by two-thirds; virtually eliminated its uranium stockpile; capped enrichment levels at 3.7 percent, a long way from bomb grade; cut off a plutonium route to a bomb; and redoubled international inspection.
On all this, Iran was in compliance, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency. Its nuclear ambitions had been checked, a reason several Israeli military and intelligence officials, including former heads of Mossad and Shin Bet, backed the accord, along with former Prime Minister Ehud Barak.
It was not “a horrible, one-sided deal,” as Trump grotesquely claimed on Tuesday. It was not about delivering “peace,” as he absurdly suggested. It was not a “rotten structure,” as he emptily claimed.
It was a painful compromise where each side got less than it wanted: Iran a cash windfall, potential reintegration in the global economy and partial lifting of sanctions; the other signatories, including France, Britain, Germany, Russia and China, a bulwark against a Middle Eastern nuclear arms race. That’s what diplomacy is about: imperfect solutions, arrived at between enemies, that are better than the alternatives, the worst of them all being war.
Iran remains a repressive and disruptive regime, with a hideous human rights record, that has jailed several Americans since the deal, pursuing interests opposed to the United States in Syria, and underwriting Hezbollah. The nuclear deal was concluded in full knowledge of the Islamic Republic’s character, perhaps with the hope of tempering Iranian behaviour over time, but never with any illusion that Iran would suddenly reinvent itself.
Yet this is what the Trump administration has demanded. America has made a mockery of the value of its signature on an international agreement. The world will take note.
Nothing in Trump’s speech was more scurrilous than this very Orwellian inversion of the truth: “If I allowed this deal to stand, there would soon be a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. Everyone would want their weapons ready by the time Iran had theirs.” In fact, Trump has single-handedly fast-forwarded that race by removing the constraints the deal imposed on Iran.
What are the president’s alternatives now? Prodded by his hawkish national security adviser, John Bolton, Trump apparently believes he can bring Iran to its knees, perhaps even precipitate regime change, through new and restored sanctions. At the least he wants a broader, longer-term deal than the one he’s ripping up. All that’s a pipe dream.
Iran is not North Korea. Braggadocio will get Trump nowhere with a proud nation used to working around the cost of confrontation with the United States. The diplomatic unity of purpose that led Iran to acquiesce to the deal in 2015 is now frayed. European allies are angered, Russia and China certain to push their own agendas. Iran’s economy is strained, and there are strong internal political tensions, but the 39-year-old Islamic Republic is resilient. Angered, it will not fold.
In truth, Trump was led to this decision not by any serious calculus about the deal, but by his susceptibility to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Saudi fury at Iran, the pressure of conservative American Jews who support him and his iron principle that whatever Obama did must be bad. He succumbed to Iran derangement syndrome, a well-known American condition.
In an interview in Riyadh, Adel al-Jubeir, the Saudi foreign minister, told me the deal was bad from the outset, and “We want to make sure that there is something in place that prevents Iran from ever going nuclear.”
He continued: “We want Iran to be a good neighbour. We want Iran to comply with international law. We want Iran to stop interfering in the affairs of Arab countries. We want Iran to stop supporting terrorists. We want Iran to stop harbouring terrorists. We want Iran to stop attacking our embassies, to stop killing our diplomats. We want Iran to not give ballistic missiles to terrorist groups. Simple. Once they do it, it’s a different Iran.”
But nothing with Iran is simple. The question has always been: Do you change Iran by isolating it or by engaging it step by step? The nuclear deal was a possible starting point in engagement, and it had immense value in itself because it kept Iran much further from the bomb that would lead the Saudis and others to go the same route.
Now all that has been thrown up in the air by Trump. Through an act of utter petulance, he has done a grave disservice to American interests and alliances.
I saw Mohammad Javad Zarif, the Iranian foreign minister, in New York last month. He said the deal — “a conscious decision not to deal with everything” — could have been “the beginning of a new type of engagement.” Instead, Iran may now restart those centrifuges and race for a bomb.
Perhaps something can be salvaged by European powers. I doubt it. Trump has done what he likes to do: express his anger, break things and hope for the best. His Iran decision is a reckless gamble, even by his standards, the shredding of a singular diplomatic achievement.