Since the parameters of the Iranian nuclear accord became apparent in 2014 until Donald Trump canceled the deal on May 8, Washington essentially divided into three camps: those who supported the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, those who thought it was a seriously deficient accord but didn’t have the stomach to challenge it since that would oblige them to accept the risk of another war in the Middle East, and those who opposed the accord and were prepared to accept the risk of conflict. The second group was probably the largest. A fair number of Democrats and Republicans, who really didn’t like what Barack Obama had wrought, took refuge there. Unquestionably, the smallest group in Washington was the last.
It is an odd political fate that the Republican presidential candidate who was so hostile to the Republican foreign-policy establishment’s internationalist spirit, who out-Obama-ed Obama in his desire to see America downsize its responsibilities and influence in the Middle East, took a decision that returns the United States to the region with a vengeance and draws a clear red line for military action against the mullahs. If the clerical regime were to attempt to reconnect a large number of its IR1 centrifuges at the Natanz uranium enrichment facility or the still-unperfected IR2m machines at the buried-beneath-a-mountain Fordow site, President Trump would have to strike militarily or see America’s position collapse. It’s a decent guess that the more conventional Republican presidential candidates, Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, and even Lindsey Graham, who all ardently campaigned against the JCPOA, would have kept America in the agreement. They were, most likely, in Camp Number Two. Trump’s unorthodoxy, his vivid dislike of President Obama’s achievements, and his ability to live with messy situations have surely allowed him to act when others would have punted.
Trump’s decision is condign punishment for Obama, who cut out the Senate (with the complicity of most Democratic senators) from rendering judgment on what was obviously a treaty. Ditto for the Obama officials, especially his secretary of state John Kerry, who tried to sell the nuclear deal as a “permanent” panacea to the mullahs’ nuclear quest. The accord manifestly did not “cut off every pathway that Iran could take to develop a nuclear weapon,” as President Obama put it in 2015. Given the sunset clauses in the agreement, its failure to include Iran’s continuing development of long-range ballistic missiles, its timid verification procedures (close surveillance of known sites but no access to military bases or nuclear personnel and paperwork), the deal was at best a temporary respite from the clerical regime’s atomic ambitions at the price of transferring billions of dollars to Tehran’s imperialism.
This is probably the point—the temporary surcease to our nuclear anxiety in exchange for our blind eye to slaughter—that former Obama officials try most assiduously to ignore and react against most vociferously when pressed. The deal strategically makes sense if you adopt Obama’s left-wing “realist” approach to the Middle East: If Washington officially doesn’t really care how many Syrian Sunnis are slaughtered by the Damascus-Tehran-Moscow axis, if Washington doesn’t really care if Iraq becomes an Iranian satrapy, if one believes that Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic need to learn to “share” the region, and if one believes that America’s presence in the region prevents a détente from developing between Washington and Tehran, then it doesn’t matter that Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei transfers a big slice of his JCPOA profits to the Revolutionary Guards and his foreign adventures.
It is by no means clear whether President Trump can handle the repercussions of what he has unleashed by scuttling his predecessor’s proudest foreign-policy accomplishment, but he has been Oscar-worthy in his very male, outrageously American version of Nemesis. Hubris usually has a price, and President Obama’s flippant unilateralism—his unwillingness to acknowledge bipartisan restraints on his grand ambitions at home and abroad—led to Trump and May 8. The Obama crowd may yet get the last laugh if Trump and his advisers don’t design a tolerably coherent approach for dealing with the mullahs and the Europeans, who are obviously angry about Trump’s actions. And one can feel considerable sympathy for the Europeans, as they were often perplexed by President Obama’s overly concessionary, rushed approach in the nuclear negotiations with Tehran. They were regularly dismayed by the too-close and too-trusting relationship that developed between Secretary Kerry and Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who, to put it politely, has a penchant for lying.
A temptation now for the administration, with the worst possible consequences, would be to go easy on secondary sanctions against European companies with business interests in Iran. That may still be the bureaucratic reflex in Washington, where transatlantic sympathies and concerns have a way of softening American foreign policy. However, the only real economic leverage the White House has over the Islamic Republic is through the secondary effect of American sanctions. President Trump is, of course, ideally suited to bring greater pressure on Europe since he seems to care even less than his predecessor about transatlantic ties. His advisers, especially Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the philo-European State Department, may try to compensate for Trump’s disinterest by slowing the punch or diminishing the bite of extraterritorial sanctions.
That would be a huge mistake, especially if one cares about the Western alliance. The amount of bureaucratic effort now required of Washington to bring enormous hard-currency pressure on Tehran isn’t that much. Since 2015, when the nuclear deal was concluded in Vienna, the lingering specter of American sanctions has slowed, if not stopped, a lot of European commerce with the Islamic Republic. A telling example of this power was the refusal of German companies, fearing American sanctions, to refuel the aircraft of foreign minister Zarif when he went to the Munich Security Conference in February. German chancellor Angela Merkel had to order the Luftwaffe to refuel Zarif’s plane. It would be far less harmful to U.S.-European ties to let the Europeans know clearly and quickly the range and depth of American sanctions that will hit them. If Washington suggests that there may be some wiggle room, that the “snapback” of American sanctions will take longer than what is spelled out in the governing legislation, then the Europeans will be more likely to invest themselves in hope and blocking actions.
Given his speech, President Trump appears ready to take a maximalist approach toward the reimplementation of sanctions. National security adviser John Bolton is surely in favor of more, sooner. The wild card is whether the “fix-the-deal” diplomatic talks that Brian Hook, the head of policy planning at State, was leading up until the last hour convinced Secretary Pompeo that the “fix” approach hasn’t yet played out. The possibility of Americans and Europeans renegotiating the deal might remain alive precisely because the Europeans could conclude, however reluctantly, that they can guide Washington better by compromising their attachment to the original JCPOA in exchange for some sanctions flexibility by the Trump administration. It is always essential to recall that the driving force behind the European engagement with the clerical regime in 2003, after Iran’s clandestine nuclear sites were revealed, was fear of American or Israeli military action. Obviously, President Trump has reenergized that fear. The Europeans may surprise themselves by a newfound fondness for working with President Trump provided he goes easy on their business interests.
If no one else, Bolton will certainly intercede to try to stop such a self-defeating American compromise. He probably understands that any attempt to “renegotiate” the JCPOA means that the Trump administration is de facto adopting a regime-change strategy toward the Islamic Republic since the requirements for a “good deal” would mean that Tehran would have to shut down permanently its quest for the bomb and stop its aggression in the Middle East. Any deal that would allow sanctions relief to Iran while the Revolutionary Guards and their allied Shiite militias are running amok would take the Trump administration right back to where the Obama administration left off. There can be no new deal without the Islamic Republic changing its spots. Logically, this is where the White House is headed; it’s just not clear whether the president and the national-security bureaucracies, especially the State Department, fully understand the course that Trump laid out in his May 8 speech.
Reuel Marc Gerecht is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.