Trump alienates America’s allies and hands Iran a victory

The New York Times | : For months, President Trump has made no secret of his desire to tear up one of the Obama administration’s top national security achievements: the nuclear accord with Iran, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or J.C.P.O.A.

Mr. Trump repeatedly bashed the agreement during last year’s campaign. Once in the White House, American law required the president to certify to Congress every 90 days that Iran was complying. Even Mr. Trump’s adversarial relationship with the truth could not dodge the fact that Iran is in compliance — as determined repeatedly by the International Atomic Energy Agency, the American intelligence community and our closest European allies. Mr. Trump has found it galling to certify — not once, but twice — that a deal he described as “the worst ever” and “an embarrassment” is working.

So, the only remaining question was how Mr. Trump would justify pulling out. Now we know. In a tortured statement at the White House on Friday, Mr. Trump laid out a long litany of Iranian misdeeds, from the 1979 hostage crisis to today, as the predicate for the need to deny the government in Tehran access to nuclear weapons. This presented the president with a logical dilemma, since that is exactly what the nuclear deal accomplishes, well into the future. To overcome it, Mr. Trump waxed disingenuous about the deal — weaving together misstatements, exaggerations and distortions — to trigger the one totally subjective standard for decertification in the 90-day review law: an assertion that the nuclear steps Iran is actually taking to implement the J.C.P.O.A. are insufficient to warrant the suspension of sanctions.

Mr. Trump’s false narrative began with a whopper: that the Obama administration lifted sanctions “just before what would have been the total collapse of the Iranian regime” — an assertion wishful thinkers in Washington have been making every year for the past four decades. To the contrary, while sanctions succeeded in bending the regime enough to get it back to the negotiating table, it had become clear they could not break it.

The Iranian regime is nothing if not resilient. It fought an eight-year-long war with Iraq to a draw despite losing hundreds of thousands of lives; it has survived decades of isolation.

Meanwhile, Tehran had invested its national pride and an estimated $100 billion in its nuclear program. The regime was not about to give up on those investments, even though international sanctions painstakingly built by the Obama administration cost it some $150 billion. In fact, at the time the nuclear deal was negotiated, Iran was on the threshold of becoming a nuclear state with the ability to produce enough highly enriched uranium for a weapon in a matter of weeks. The J.C.P.O.A. pushed that “breakout time” to more than a year.

Next, Mr. Trump trotted out the canard that the deal gave Iran “over $100 billion its government could use to fund terrorism.” Never mind that the money in question is actually Iran’s — the proceeds from oil sales that countries around the world froze in bank accounts at the United States’ behest — or that virtually all of it is being dedicated to unmet domestic needs, to pay off debts and to prop up Iran’s currency.

As to Iran’s nuclear obligations under the agreement, Mr. Trump asserted that “we got weak inspections in exchange for no more than a purely short-term and temporary delay in Iran’s path to a bomb.” This will be news to the I.A.E.A., which now benefits from the most intrusive and transparent inspection and monitoring regime ever devised. Its major provisions last 20 to 25 years, and under the Additional Protocol that Iran is obliged to adopt under the agreement, the I.A.E.A. will have the right to access declared and undeclared sites in perpetuity, including Iran’s military facilities.

And that “short term” delay in Iran’s race to a bomb? Mr. Trump ignored the fact that while certain constraints on Iran’s enrichment capacity go away in 10 or 15 years, it is permanently barred under the Non-Proliferation Treaty from acquiring a nuclear weapon or doing weapons-related work. If Iran nonetheless moves in that direction, thanks to the inspection regime a future president will have a much greater likelihood of seeing it and a united international community to confront it — both of which the United States will lose if it reneges on the deal.

Now that Mr. Trump has decertified Iran’s compliance with the nuclear agreement, Congress has 60 days to decide whether to reimpose sanctions. Mr. Trump called on Congress and America’s allies to use the time “to address the deal’s many serious flaws.” If not, he said, “the agreement will be terminated.”

By “fix” Mr. Trump means legislation to impose new conditions on Iran beyond the purview of the agreement and to extend its constraints indefinitely. That would put the United States, not Iran, in violation of the agreement and isolate Washington, not Tehran, around the world. It would allow Iran to resume its pursuit of nuclear weapons or to stick with the deal for its economic benefits, forcing the United States to sanction its closest allies for doing business with Tehran. It would provide a “we told you so” gift to Iranian hard-liners in their struggle with pragmatists. It would shackle, not advance, Mr. Trump’s ability to sign others on to his broader strategy to confront Iranian aggression. More broadly, it would undermine America’s credibility — and its ability to strike agreements that make the country safer in the future.

Congress must resist the temptation — and the political pressure — to unilaterally renegotiate the Iran deal and therefore kill it. Instead, it could usefully lay out what Mr. Trump’s speech did not: an actual comprehensive strategy to contend with Iran’s non-nuclear behavior, including diplomatic efforts to end the conflicts in Yemen, Syria and Iraq that Iran exploits; stronger security cooperation with the Gulf States and Israel; better coordination with America’s allies; and targeted sanctions on Iran that do not violate the nuclear accord. Unlike Mr. Trump’s decision to decertify Iran, that would be a real contribution to America’s security.