A source “familiar with the meeting” described President Trump as “furious” at Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Secretary of Defense James Mattis, and other advisers for defending the Iran nuclear deal in a July meeting, the Washington Post reported on Wednesday.
“He threw a fit,” the source said of Trump. “He was furious. Really furious. It’s clear he felt jammed.”
According to this report, it was National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster who came up with the compromise proposal to decertify the nuclear deal and throw it back to Congress, rather than killing the deal outright.
“The sometimes angry internal debate also provides another illustration of the way in which Trump’s gut impulses and desire for dramatic action have often collided with the subtlety of international diplomacy,” the Washington Post writes.
The Post then sticks up for the deal by insisting it was “never designed to do many of the things Trump criticizes it for lacking,” and arguing that everyone from European leaders to members of Trump’s own party “see it as a valuable tool in stopping an Iranian nuclear bomb.”
Trump’s opposition to the deal is derided as pure political posturing by Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies Dean Vali Nasr, who said Trump “doesn’t want to certify that any piece of the Obama strategy is working.”
The WaPo nevertheless proceeds to quote Trump aides who make a strong case that decertification is not just posturing, but rather part of a negotiating process that could lead to new concessions by the Iranians, or new sanctions on them. The strategy is dubbed “decertify, pressure, and fix.”
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is portrayed as a potential stumbling block for this strategy, because “ally after ally has bent his ear with arguments that the deal should be preserved as it is.” Also, the implication is made that Congress might simply remove the quarterly irritant to President Trump by discarding the requirement that he certify Iranian compliance every 90 days.
Conventional wisdom inside the Beltway says congressional Republicans don’t want the Iran deal dumped in their laps by decertification. “As flawed as the deal is, I believe we must now enforce the hell out of it,” advised House Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-CA), as quoted by CNN. “Let’s work with allies to make certain that international inspectors have better access to possible nuclear sites, and we should address the fundamental sunset shortcoming, as our allies have recognized.”
The trick would be how to attain those goals without seriously rattling Iran’s cage, as it has shown no inclination to respond to polite requests for better access to the military sites it absolutely forbids the International Atomic Energy Agency from inspecting.
At the moment, Iran has the strong hand when it comes to forcing concessions since deal defenders constantly express terror that Trump will make them angry enough to walk away from the arrangement. It’s an inescapable quagmire in Washington, but Tehran could trash it at any moment if provoked.
For example, CNN quotes ranking House Foreign Affairs Democrat Eliot Engel (D-NY), originally a skeptic of the deal, warning that withholding certification would be “a distraction from the real issues” and “playing with fire.” CNN national security analyst Peter Bergen warns that it could touch off another North Korea-style doomsday confrontation. Trita Parsi of the National Iranian American Council likens decertification to opening a “nuclear Pandora’s Box in the Middle East” and launching a “devastating war of choice.”
And yet, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HA) writes in an op-ed for The Hill that the nuclear deal is no obstacle to playing hardball with Iran on other issues.
“A common misconception is that upholding the deal will somehow prevent us from confronting Iran on other non-nuclear issues such as development of ballistic missiles capable of carrying a nuclear warhead. This is not true. Despite its flaws, the Iran nuclear deal set a high water mark for diplomacy with a nation we otherwise do not have diplomatic ties with. We must continue to address these issues with Iran, outside of the construct of the nuclear deal,” Gabbard argues, without elaborating on how that can be done when Iran claims all U.S. sanctions are violations of the agreement. The question deal defenders should be asking themselves is what Iran will do once it thinks the danger of President Trump decertifying the deal has passed for good.
In a similar vein, Gabbard worries that North Korea will not take American negotiators seriously if the U.S. walks away from the nuclear deal because they will think “our country cannot be trusted to hold up its end of an agreement.”
Why in the world does anyone think North Korea can be trusted to hold up its end of an agreement, especially when it has been working with Iran on banned missile technology, and very possibly banned nuclear weapons? How many times does the hideous dictatorship in Pyongyang have to explicitly declare it’s not interested in “dialogue to discuss the issue of making freeze or dismantle” its nuclear arsenal like Iran, because its nukes are “not a plaything to be put on the negotiating table,” before Western opinion-makers hear what they’re saying?
Related question: isn’t delaying Iran’s nuclear program by ten years, maximum, with the Obama deal something of a farce when everyone knows high-rolling Iran can cut the cash-hungry regime in North Korea a check to buy nuclear technology? North Korea doesn’t reinforce the case for the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action – it weakens that case tremendously.
President Trump reportedly remains firm in his resolution to do something about the JCPOA. According to Reuters, he has been “telling foreign leaders and U.S. lawmakers that his refusal to certify the Iran deal would not blow it up,” and he is less likely to trash the deal entirely if Congress and foreign partners “work with him on making it better.”
Whatever other arguments might be held about Trump’s approach to deal-making, his central insight has been that serious negotiations are impossible if one side perceives there is no chance the other will walk away. The Iranians certainly seem to understand that.