The think tanks, advocacy groups, and major funders who spent tens of millions of dollars to stop Obama from securing the nuclear agreement between Iran and UN powers in 2015 are back at it again. Reinvigorated by the Donald Trump administration, there is now a full-scale campaign underway in Washington to kill the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and convince the public that it is Iran – not the U.S. – who is violating the accord.
Some are campaigning for Trump to tear up the deal immediately, regardless of the consequences for the U.S. But the more sophisticated opponents of the deal offer an approach that is far more insidious – they want Trump to unravel the deal by demanding the agreement be re-opened and renegotiated to deliver a “better deal.”
If the Trump administration is serious about negotiating a “better deal”, it would first have to honor the deal that is before it and restore badly tarnished U.S. credibility. Instead, they are doing the exact opposite.
Yesterday, for instance, Donald Trump fulfilled a most basic U.S. obligation under the nuclear deal by renewing waivers of certain U.S. sanctions on Iran. Until yesterday morning, however, it was uncertain whether Trump would take this necessary step – despite verification from international inspectors that Iran continues to be in full compliance with the agreement. The fact that the world must continually wait with baited breath to find out whether Trump will decide to meet even the simplest requirements of the JCPOA has severely undermined confidence in the United States’ willingness to honor its commitments.
The next date of uncertainty is October 15, when Trump must issue a 90-day certification that Iran is complying with the JCPOA. Trump is strongly indicating he will not certify this time around, and his UN Ambassador Nikki Haley has previewed the highly dubious case for such an action. A steady trickle of op-eds and memos are now circulating from neoconservative think tanks and lobbying shops attempting to rationalize a de-certification.
A failure by Trump to certify in October would trigger a 60-day filibuster-proof process for Congress to “snap-back” sanctions lifted under the Iran accord – thus ending U.S. commitments under the deal and slapping sanctions on Europe and anyone else doing business with Iran under the terms of the deal. Many doubt Congress could be pulled back from the brink in such a scenario, even though many lawmakers understand there are few actions that would be more damaging to U.S. diplomatic credibility. The U.S. would no longer be trusted by its partners to collaborate on addressing even the most basic concerns regarding Iran, not to mention other international challenges. Exiting the deal would also give Iran significant leverage and maneuverability to either end the nuclear restraints of the agreement and ramp up its nuclear program or maintain elements of the deal in exchange for significant concessions from Europe and other parties to the accord.
The real aim of this scheme isn’t to restart talks, it’s to provoke Iran to withdraw from the agreement
Conveniently, the neoconservatives – whose influence is apparently ascendent within the Trump administration – are leveraging that disastrous scenario to offer their so-called alternative, urging that the U.S. should reopen the JCPOA and demand this mythical “better” deal. The notion that, after tirelessly chipping away at U.S. credibility with its negotiating partners and destroying any confidence that may have been established with Iran, the U.S. will be able to re-enter nuclear negotiations is an absurdist fantasy.
Proponents of the “better deal” approach understand this, but it is the most credible sounding bluff they have been able to muster. They know it is a nonstarter for the other parties to the accord – whether Iran, Europe, China or Russia. The real aim of this scheme isn’t to restart talks, it’s to provoke Iran to withdraw from the agreement and thus be the party that bears the responsibility of such a serious abrogation, putting it in the crosshairs for a major escalation and potential military action.
There is a real danger that some are actually convinced by the “better deal” ploy, particularly on Capitol Hill. For years the Bush Administration, and lawmakers who favored a more confrontational approach with Iran, claimed to be open to nuclear negotiations with Iran. The only catch was that Iran would first have to agree to a set of preconditions that everyone knew were untenable. Thus the U.S. could claim to be the flexible party without actually having to enter negotiations in good faith.
Now, the allure of the “better deal” myth threatens to seduce those in Washington who understand that abrogating the JCPOA would be a disaster but who continue to have serious concerns about Iran and face political pressure to do something. A superficial nod to diplomacy combined with a “tough” new posture towards Iran is just the kind of dangerous half measure that can pass for policy in such politically tenuous circumstances.
If policymakers want to restart talks with Iran, the U.S. would need to engage in a serious process – not a ruse in which inflexible demands are issued with the aim of provoking an Iranian withdrawal. And, as with any negotiation, the U.S. would have to prepared to offer benefits in exchange for compromises, not just threats. There is little indication that is palatable to much of Washington.
The tragedy here is that a “better deal” could have been possible – not through leaving the JCPOA but adhering to it, building trust, and using that as a launching point to tackle deeper disagreements. The bad faith and uncertainty manufactured by neoconservative hardliners has sapped the potential to build on what was a historic diplomatic breakthrough. It has severely undercut the United State’s capability to pursue diplomatic resolutions in the region and perhaps beyond – including the nuclear standoff with North Korea. Whether Trump and Congress understand this in the weeks ahead could determine whether the Iran deal lives or Trump makes himself a wartime president.
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