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Zumwalt: The Danger of Trump Throttling Back on an Iran Nuclear Deal Overhaul

President Donald Trump stands behind and in front of members of a Marine honor guard as he greets Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Sophie Gregoire Trudeau as they arrive at the White House in Washington, Wednesday, Oct. 11, 2017. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

President Donald Trump has never hesitated to make his opinion known on the nuclear deal negotiated by President Barack Obama with Iran.

Several times during his presidential campaign, he characterized it as “the worst and most one-sided transaction the US has ever entered into.” Months later, while delivering his first speech as president before the United Nations, Trump refused to back down, calling it “an embarrassment” for America.

Therefore, Trump’s announcement this month he is decertifying the agreement, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), came as no surprise. But, after listening to Trump berate the deal, what was a surprise was learning the U.S. would remain in the agreement — i.e., there would be no overhaul. It is like being advised our car is in need of a major overhaul, only to later be told it will just get a new paint job.

Has a body snatch occurred in the Oval Office? The Trump announcing JCPOA’s decertification is not the same Trump who asserted, if elected president, he would overhaul or rip the deal up. The only plausible explanation for throttling back is coercion by his advisors and allies.

Both positives and negatives flow from decertification, depending on whom you ask.

For those who oppose the U.S. staying in the deal, decertification keeps us in but allows Trump to go on record as not certifying it is in our national interest. That leaves Congress to impose sanctions. Tehran, therefore, is now on notice sanctions remain a viable option to force compliance.

Trump favors decertification despite the fact Iran has violated both the spirit and letter of the deal. Verification remains an issue as even the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) — responsible for ensuring Iranian compliance — acknowledges Iran blocks its access to so verify.

What remains unclear at this point, however, is delineating what would trigger U.S. sanctions. What is clear is, once so implemented, Iran probably would withdraw from the deal. Thus, whether decertification marks the first crack in the nuclear agreement’s foundation for its possible demise remains to be seen.

There are other actions Trump has taken, and not taken, that Iran may well interpret as more bark than bite.

Trump acted against Iran’s Islamic Republican Guard Corps (IRGC)—a group with immense political, economic and military power within the country. It is also heavily involved in terrorist activities, seeking global exportation of the Islamic revolution.

The good news: Trump ordered Treasury Department to levy sanctions on the IRGC. The bad news: he failed to formally designate it a foreign terrorist organization (FTO). While Treasury’s actions will freeze much of the IRGC out of the U.S. financial system, it will not inhibit its operability to the extent an FTO designation would.

Sticking with the car analogy regarding IRGC, what Trump has done is let some air out of its tires. While that may slow IRGC down, it will not impact its forward progress.

Another action Trump should have taken to show Tehran he is serious about its violations is to advise Qatar — also a terrorism-sponsoring nation closely aligned now with Iran — the U.S. will shut down Al Udeid, the largest U.S. airbase in the Middle East, relocating it to the UAE. Qatar needs to know we will not tolerate its serving as a gateway through which the Iranians, the Muslim Brotherhood, and other anti-Western terror groups can enter and endanger our aircraft, soldiers, and assets at Al Udeid.

Additionally, Qatar breaking its relationship with Iran would deny the mullahs badly needed banking and shipping networks with which to circumvent future sanctions the U.S. may impose.

Trump should also warn our European allies he could legally withdraw from JCPOA without consulting anyone, as the agreement is not a treaty. It is the same reason he could legally withdraw from the Paris accord on climate control. That which Obama gave us by failing to appropriately structure as a treaty, Trump can now take away for the same reason.

Our allies, many of which tend to put business deals with Iran ahead of their national security interests, will recognize that if they act in defiance of future U.S. sanctions they stand to lose access to U.S. business and banking — a much greater financial loss than what they would gain with the mullahs.

Our European allies should also be reminded just how far they have backtracked from their original goals when negotiations began with Iran in 2003. They vowed then Tehran’s nuclear program would be restricted to only peaceful uses. Similarly, President Obama later promised the American people the same thing. Yet the 2015 deal fails to achieve this, instead paving the way for Iran to build a nuclear arsenal.

If “the best and the brightest” were involved in negotiating the nuclear deal, it appears they all were sitting on the Iranian side of the table.

Though Trump’s effort to convey an ominous tone to get Iran to toe the line has generated whining from our European allies, our Middle East allies — including the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Israel — are fully supporting Trump. Saudi King Salman even called Trump to voice his belief a “firm strategy” on Iran is needed to confront its aggression. Interesting too is how the possibility of the existence of a future Iranian nuclear arsenal has driven the Saudis and Israelis into a more cooperative relationship.

Some members of Congress suggest, in considering sanctions, we tie them to developmental benchmarks Iran reaches, based on how close Tehran is to having nukes. This is foolish and dangerous.  We have no way definitively to determine where Iran’s nuclear program stands. Just as our intelligence assessments on North Korea’s nuclear program were inaccurate, there is no reason to believe our assessments of Iran will be any better.

Trump has stated he has a tougher approach in mind for North Korea than his advisors do. He had better have a tougher approach in mind for Iran too, because the one now tabled simply will not achieve the goal of preventing a nuclear-armed Tehran.

Lt. Colonel James G. Zumwalt, USMC (Ret.), is a retired Marine infantry officer who served in the Vietnam war, the U.S. invasion of Panama and the first Gulf war. He is the author of “Bare Feet, Iron Will–Stories from the Other Side of Vietnam’s Battlefields,” “Living the Juche Lie: North Korea’s Kim Dynasty” and “Doomsday: Iran–The Clock is Ticking.” He frequently writes on foreign policy and defense issues.


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