As the October 15 deadline approaches for President Donald Trump to inform Congress if he will recertify the nuclear deal with Iran, or the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), his final decision presents an opportunity for him to chart his own course in Republican foreign policy—one that puts Americans’ interests above the interests of their Middle Eastern allies who consider Iran their greatest geopolitical threat.
Congress passed the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act (INARA) right after the JCPOA, requiring the president to inform Congress every three months if Iran is complying with the nuclear deal. If the president finds that Iran is not complying, the United States doesn’t automatically exit the deal, rather, Congress then has 60 days to decide whether to reimpose economic sanctions on the country.
During the presidential campaign, Trump often criticized the JCPOA as “an embarrassment to our country,” saying Obama should have treated the release of American prisoners in Iran as a prerequisite for any deal, and claiming Obama gave Iran the impression that it would not walk away from the negotiating table regardless of the outcome.
Trump told the Wall Street Journal in July, “If it was up to me, I would have had [the Iranians] noncompliant 180 days ago.” Then, in his speech before the United Nations on September 19, he blasted the Iranian government for masking its corrupt dictatorship, funding terrorists, “undermining peace throughout the Middle East,” and “building dangerous missiles.”
But Iran’s missile program can’t reach the U.S. Furthermore, even if it could, without nuclear warheads, it would be completely impotent against the superior conventional militaries of Israel and the U.S., not to mention the U.S. nuclear arsenal. In addition, Iran’s missiles don’t factor into the deal.
Nikki Haley, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, has also expressed outright hostility toward the deal and the nation of Iran itself. In a speech to the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) on September 5, she insisted that Iran has violated the deal. But the only two examples she could give were when Iran briefly exceeded its suggested limit of heavy water twice in 2016.
Under the agreement, Iran is only allowed enough heavy water as it needs, and the signatories estimated that 130 tones would be enough. The reason for this limit is that such water could be used as a moderator in nuclear power stations, which could then produce plutonium from the spent fuel of the reactors. Once Iran reaches that level, it’s supposed to sell its excess water.
Haley complained that when Iran surpassed its heavy water limit, former President Barack Obama, rather than declaring the country in violation of the deal, “helped Iran get back into compliance.”
But Obama was not purposely looking for an excuse to rip the deal up like Trump and Haley. Furthermore, when the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) brought the issue up, Iran complied in a timely manner and shipped the excess water to the country of Oman.
Haley said the IAEA “does good work,” but pointed out that the agency is saying that “of the sites they’ve seen, the Iranians are in compliance.” She said that “no one is talking about the sites they haven’t seen.”
She is convinced the Iranians are trying to develop a nuclear weapon at military bases and has been lobbying the IAEA hard to demand the Iranians allow the agency to conduct intrusive inspections of those bases. She offers no proof for her suspicions and bases her reasoning on nothing more than Iran’s history of belligerence toward the U.S., most of which predates her graduation from high school.
But as Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, recently noted,
The IAEA to our knowledge has not requested access to any site and been denied. Furthermore, the agency cannot and should not seek access to a site simply to test the Iranians’ cooperation. They must have a legitimate reason.
Nevertheless, Haley and others in the foreign policy establishment, who are urging Trump to decertify the deal, would not be satisfied if Iran was found in compliance after opening all its military bases.
For instance, Senator Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas) said as recently as October 3 that Trump should decertify the deal, even if Iran is complying.
But how bad of a deal is the JCPOA for the U.S.?
The deal provides Iran with over $100 billion, but that money is not foreign aid—it’s Iran’s own money that the U.S. and other countries froze when they placed sanctions on the country.
What does the U.S. get in return?
Americans get peace of mind, if they want it, that Iran is not developing nuclear weapons. It may be decades before Iran’s government moderates and modernizes. But in the meantime, it would be much easier for the U.S. if it could focus on its citizens and on countries that actually pose a geopolitical threat, while letting the IAEA keep an eye on Iran.
Trump has so far recertified the deal twice, and the IAEA has confirmed eight times that Iran is complying with the deal. Furthermore, most in Trump’s administration have concurred with the agency and see no reason for the U.S. to withdraw.
The nuclear agreement with Iran is by no means a perfect deal for anyone involved, but it offers a better alternative than the option that Haley and other anti-Iranian hawks prefer. Unless Iran clearly violates the terms of the agreement, the U.S. has no reason to abandon the deal.
It’s really about regime change in Tehran.
For many “conservatives,” however, it’s not about compliance, or even the “terrible deal” itself—it’s about regime change in Tehran.
Cotton, in fact, explicitly stated in June, “The policy of the United States should be regime change in Iran.”
In a speech at the Commonwealth Club of California in 2007, General Wesley Clark, Supreme Allied Commander of NATO during the 1999 War on Yugoslavia, claimed that the U.S. experienced a foreign policy coup after the 9/11 attacks.
“Some hard-nosed people took over the direction of American policy, and they never bothered to inform the rest of us,” he said.
He went on to recall that a general in the Pentagon told him in 2001 of a policy memo that laid out a plan to overthrow the governments of seven countries in the Middle East (Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and Iran) within five years.
Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) said in a presidential debate in 2015 that the U.S. should topple the Iranian regime, claiming the country “has declared war on us.”
Trump’s CIA director Mike Pompeo, last year as a Congressman, publicly called for congressional action to “change Iranian behavior, and, ultimately, the Iranian regime.”
As head of the CIA, Pompeo has approved new authorities for U.S. intelligence officers to begin placing funds in secret accounts belonging to Iranian officers to create the impression that those officers are working for foreign powers.
Shortly after Trump’s inauguration, Politico reported, that the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a D.C.-based think tank, circulated a seven-page memo throughout the National Security Council and the White House, urging the new administration to enact regime change in Iran.
“Iran is susceptible to a strategy of coerced democratization because it lacks popular support and relies on fear to sustain its power,” the memo read. It reminded Trump that no one has greater power to foment dissent abroad than the American president, stating that the goal in Iran should be “a tolerant government that adheres to global norms.” It suggested Trump “use trade unions, student organizations and dissident clerics to highlight the economic, political [and] moral shortcomings of the Iranian regime.”
Trump officials were careful to tell Politico that the administration relies more on internal, rather than external proposals and mentioned they had also consulted the Brookings Institution for foreign policy advice.
But Brookings has also called for regime change in Iran. In 2009, it issued a report entitled, “Which Path to Persia,” which prescribed a deceitful war of aggression. It argued that the U.S. should create a situation to make Iran look as if it’s blowing a chance for a peaceful solution to the nuclear issue. This would then allow the U.S. or Israel, to attack the country, “in sorrow, not anger.” The tactic, the report stated, would convince at least some in the international community that “the Iranians brought it on themselves.”
Newsweek reported that Henry Kissinger, Secretary of State under former President Richard Nixon, also visited the White House shortly after Trump’s inauguration to advise the president on the Islamic State (ISIS). Kissinger cautioned that defeating ISIS could lead to a “radical Iranian empire” across the Middle East.
Kissinger’s viewpoint mirrors that of an influential Israeli think tank, the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies (BESA), which the University of Pennsylvania has ranked one of the three top think tanks in the Middle East and Africa. BESA released a paper on August 2, by Efraim Inbar, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University, entitled, “The Destruction of Islamic State is a Strategic Mistake.” In it, Inbar argues, “IS can be a useful tool in undermining Tehran’s ambitious plan for domination of the Middle East.” ISIS, he states, should be weakened but not defeated, adding,
The West yearns for stability, and holds out a naive hope that the military defeat of IS will be instrumental in reaching that goal. But stability is not a value in and of itself. It is desirable only if it serves our interests.
When Breitbart News chairman Steve Bannon was the White House chief strategist, he asked former U.S. ambassador to the UN and senior fellow at AEI John Bolton to draw up a game plan for Trump to withdraw from the JCPOA. Bolton obliged, and in it, urges the president to “expedite delivery of bunker-buster bombs; announce U.S. support for Kurdish national aspirations, including Kurds in Iran, Iraq, and Syria; provide assistance to Balochis, Khuzestan Arabs, Kurds, and others—also to internal resistance among labor unions, students, and women’s groups.”
Cotton, proposing along the same lines as Bolton, has noted that Iran has numerous minority ethnic groups, including Arabs, Turkmen, and Balochs who “aren’t enthusiastic about living in a Persian Shiite despotism.” He too advocates a combination of economic, diplomatic, and covert actions to pressure Tehran’s government, and “support internal domestic dissent.”
To wage war on the Iranian regime is to wage war on the Iranian people.
But, what those on the warrior bandwagon fail to understand is that any attempt to wage war on the Iranian regime, regardless of how dissatisfied most Iranians are with their backward government, would necessarily wage war on the Iranian people.
Iran’s president Hassan Rouhani won all the major Sunni-populated provinces by overwhelming margins in this year’s election. This says something about Iranian religious minorities’ view of Rouhani, considering voter turnout in those provinces exceeded the national average. Furthermore, Iran is not an artificially created country like Iraq and most African countries that were colonies of the West. Iranians of all religious affiliations and ethnicities can trace their history in Persia back three thousand years.
But a more pressing problem for the would-be saviors of the oppressed Iranian people is the fact that there is no serious opposition to empower.
Iran’s only operational dissident group is the Mujahideen-e Khalq (MEK), with roughly 5,000 to 13,500 members. The fact that most of them are dispersed outside of Iran means that MEK could not possibly destabilize Iran’s government. Furthermore, the group sided with Saddam Hussein in the eight-year war between Iraq and Iran that cost hundreds of thousands of Iranian lives, meaning MEK is not even popular with the Iranian people. Some may argue the U.S. could heavily arm the group the way it has done with dozens of dissident groups throughout history. But the State Department has already designated MEK as a terrorist organization.
In addition, claims that the Iranian regime’s policies—particularly concerning its nuclear program and aid to fellow Shiites in the region—lack popular support is void of evidence. A recent poll shows that 81 percent of Iranians believe it is “very important for Iran to develop its nuclear program” and 68 percent thought that Iran should “seek to increase the role it plays in the region.”
Another argument for regime change is that all Iranian politicians must be hard-liners because they have to support the revolutionary philosophy of the Islamic Republic to get elected.
But this thinking assumes all Iranian politicians take their constitution more seriously than American politicians take the U.S. constitution.
The U.S. has already been down this path before.
In 1953, the U.S. overthrew Mohhamad Mossadegh because he started drifting a little too far to the left for Cold War sensibilities. A quarter century later, in 1979, Iranian revolutionaries cited that grievance more than any other as the reason for their 444-day occupation of the U.S. embassy.
Regime change sounds like a noble goal to pursue when it is on paper and in theory, but it is because of regime change that a nuclear Iran is an issue in the first place.
Where does President Trump really stand on Iran?
Trump’s motives for his opposition to the JCPOA are a bit harder to pin down than most politicians. For starters, the president is no ideologue and takes practical conservatism to a level unseen in recent American politics.
But while the virtues of homespun, practical conservatism are many, it can just as easily produce dangerous homespun ignorance.
In a televised speech at the Rose Garden with the Lebanese prime minister, Trump praised Lebanon’s government for fighting Hezbollah—a militia with representation in the Lebanese parliament. A former U.S. official, in fact, has told Reuters that Hezbollah and Iranian-backed Shiite militias in Iraq have been “very helpful” in recapturing vast swaths of the caliphate that ISIS declared in 2014.
Then on Sept. 26, Trump tweeted,
Iran just test-fired a Ballistic Missile capable of reaching Israel. They are also working with North Korea. Not much of an agreement we have!
The tweet was in response to a video of the test firing of a Khoramshahr missile that aired on Iranian state television. The only problem is that the video footage was from a failed Iranian missile test last year.
But bombastic gaffes and seeking out advice from militaristic ideologues doesn’t automatically make the president and his administration militaristic.
Unlike Ted Cruz, who promised to rip the deal to shreds “on the very first day in office,” candidate Trump promised to honor America’s word to its allies, who also signed the deal with Iran.
Trump told MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” in 2015, “We have a horrible contract, but we do have a contract.” He added, “I would love to tell you…I’m going to be the toughest guy in the world, and I’m just rippin’ it up, but you know what? Life doesn’t work that way.” Instead, he promised to enforce the terms of the deal “like you’ve never seen a contract enforced before.”
In Bannon’s recent ‘60 Minutes’ interview, he said, “President Trump wants to get out of the deal and either go make a better deal or just view it from the outside.”
This doesn’t imply that Trump or his economic nationalist support base are interested in pursuing a costly, covert, or overt, crusade to topple the Iranian regime.
Trump views his image above all else. If he thinks it will help his image to remain in the deal, he will. If he feels it would make him look like a strong leader to tell the rest of the world to take a hike, like he did with the Paris Climate Accord, he will do that instead.
Government officials recently told the Associated Press that “the future of the Iran nuclear deal may hinge on a face-saving fix for President Donald Trump so he doesn’t have to recertify the Islamic republic’s compliance every 90 days.” Likewise, White House sources have confirmed that Trump feels the periodic reviews mandated by Congress are a “source of embarrassment.”
The fact that Trump hates being forced to recertify a law he railed against fits his broader persona. Trump dislikes the nuclear deal with Iran for much the same reason he dislikes the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare). They’re not his deals.
Trump’s tirades against the JCPOA could be his way of railing against the INARA, which requires his personal stamp of approval every three months on his predecessor’s legacy.
If Trump decertifies the JCPOA, what then?
If Trump decides to declare Iran in noncompliance on October 16, would Congress be willing to reimpose sanctions unilaterally without the support of America’s allies?
The objections of the deal’s critics don’t make sense without any grand vision of forced regime change in Iran. Although the IAEA inspections are not as intrusive as people like Haley would prefer, at least the West gets to monitor Iran’s nuclear program—a luxury we don’t have with North Korea.
Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, said recently, “if the U.S. leaves the treaty and Europe follows, then this deal will certainly collapse and Iran will go back to what it was before and, technically speaking, to a much higher level.”
The U.S. will never force Iran to give up its nuclear program, a program more than 80 percent of the Iranian population supports, without declaring war on the country and launching a full-scale invasion. But if one believes former General Clark, such a plan would not fall beneath many in the foreign policy establishment.
But even if Trump decertifies the deal and Congress reimposes sanctions, U.S. allies would likely not do the same.
After Trump’s remarks at the UN, 78 European officials signed a letter to his administration, expressing great concern over “reports that the U.S. Administration might unilaterally declare Tehran non-compliant with the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.” The letter quotes the IAEA’s director general who declares Tehran in compliance and states, “Iran is now subject to the world’s most robust nuclear verification regime.” In addition, more than fifty Asia Pacific political, diplomatic, military and civil society leadership figures also signed a joint statement, urging the U.S. to uphold its end of the bargain.
This is a recipe for a trade war between the U.S. and the rest of the developed world if Washington tries to impose secondary sanctions on other countries’ financial institutions for not bending to its will.
American citizens do face existential threats. Among them: hurricanes, floods, a madman leading a brainwashed regime in North Korea, and rising insurance premiums because of the Affordable Care Act that prevent people from getting the healthcare they need. But a nuclear-gagged regime with a limping economy in the Middle East and a few hundred rockets that can’t even reach Western Europe is not one of them.
“This could be the calm before the storm,” said Trump at the White House on Friday.
“On Iran? On ISIS? On what?” asked a reporter.
“You’ll see,” came the subtle reply, with a wink, as the president and first lady posed with military leaders and their wives for a photo-op.
If Trump is as swayable on Iran as he was on Afghanistan, then Americans have already seen.
They saw for eight long years as thousands of lives and millions of dollars sank in Iraq. They saw as the most left-wing administration in the nation’s history rose from the frustration Americans felt toward a senseless so-called “conservative” foreign policy. Then, they saw as ISIS rose from the ashes they left behind to become a greater menace than the original evil they sought to depose.
Obama nailed it in 2012.
“The 1980s called and they want their foreign policy back,” he said in a presidential debate, mocking Mitt Romney’s boorish Cold War-lite statements.
Apparently, the 80s are still on the phone.