After months of speculation and a flurry of last-minute European diplomacy, Donald Trump has taken perhaps the most consequential decision of his unconventional presidency with the re-imposition of U.S. sanctions on Iran in a deliberately provocative breach of the 2015 nuclear agreement. By torpedoing U.S. adherence to the accord, Trump has all but guaranteed its collapse, a move that opens the door to the unfettered resumption of Iran’s nuclear program and unleashes unpredictable escalatory pressures in an already volatile Middle East.
The premediated American dismantling of an agreement that was the product of more than a decade of intense diplomacy and economic pressure marks a staggeringly counterproductive step. That it was undertaken over the vocal objections of Washington’s closest allies and without a clear strategy of mitigating the newly heightened risks of Iranian proliferation and conventional retaliation represents an abdication of American leadership on the international stage that is unparalleled in recent history.
[Trump’s move] represents an abdication of American leadership on the international stage that is unparalleled in recent history.
Notably, it was precipitated by a president who could not even respond to a single, simple question, shouted by a reporter as Trump signed the order to re-impose sanctions with a flourish of his pen, about how his decision might make the country safer. That is the only question that matters: How is America safer now that the United States is unravelling its end of a bargain that curbed Iran’s nuclear activities?
A DEAL DISMEMBERED
Trump’s silence on this point illustrates more than simply his own limited familiarity with the complex issues at stake in the deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA, which he disparaged as “defective at its core.” It highlights the absurd logic that his administration has deployed in grappling with the challenges posed by Tehran. If the president truly believes that the JCPOA’s far-reaching inspections regime and its restrictions of 10, 15, and 25 years on various aspects of Iran’s nuclear activities are somehow insufficient to guard against Iran’s unshakeable yearning for a nuclear weapon, what risks then are posed by the evisceration of all constraints?
The inevitable consequence of American abrogation of the deal is the attrition of its constraints. American investment in negotiating a resolution to Iran’s nuclear ambitions—undertaken first by the George W. Bush administration and culminated by Barack Obama—furnished the requisite quid pro quo that persuaded Tehran to make historic concessions. Absent America, Tehran has ceded those ambitions for little more than European goodwill; trading diamonds for chocolates, as an influential Iranian politician once ridiculed a prior nuclear accord. Tehran walked away from that agreement, and over time it is sure to abandon the wreckage that remains of the JCPOA.
For Trump, the decision is all ego; dismembering the Iran deal satisfies a multiplicity of petty personal interests—in undoing his predecessor’s legacy, making good on his own campaign promises, and stroking his inflated sense of his own negotiating prowess as manifestly superior to Obama, who he charged with conceding “maximum leverage” in exchange for a “giant fiction.”
By contrast, for Trump’s advisors—most notably National Security Advisor John Bolton—and many others in Washington especially within the Republican policy establishment, the madness is the method. Guided by their mantra that Tehran only responds to force, Trump administration hawks have embraced the theory that the United States needs to be prepared to disrupt the status quo across the region, precisely because Iran has found it a conducive context for enhancing its own influence. They have no ready explanation for precisely how disruption will rebalance the regional power equation in America’s favor, and the only prior application of this strategic vision—the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq—is hardly a reassuring precedent.