A Trump-Created Crisis with Iran

by Joe Cirincione

President Donald Trump is creating another crisis, and this could be the worst of all. He is planning next week to begin pulling the United States out of the agreement made with the nations of the world to stop Iran’s nuclear program. He reportedly will say that the accord, approved unanimously by the United Nations Security Council, is not in our national security interest.

Hardly anyone agrees with him – including his Secretary of Defense James Mattis, who told the Senate that the accord is in the national security interest. The entire national security team is with Mattis. At the same hearing, Chairman of the Joints Chiefs General Joseph Dunford said that Iran is complying with the agreement, echoing the unanimous conclusion of our intelligence agencies and repeated reports from the International Atomic Energy Agency that Iran is following all the limits imposed by the agreement.

Our European allies strongly want America to keep its word, stay with the agreement and forcefully reject the fanciful notion that Trump can somehow get a better deal. “We don’t think its possible to renegotiate it,” Germany’s ambassador to the United States Peter Wittig told a Washington audience last week, “and we believe there is no practical peaceful alternative to this deal.”

Even Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s former national security advisor, Uzi Arad, says keep the deal. “Doing away with the agreement is no real option,” he says, “My position is in support of preserving the agreement and strengthening the agreement.”

This is the nearly unanimous opinion of America’s nuclear security experts, 85 of whom (including this author) wrote President Trump last month that the agreement “has dramatically reduced the risk posed by Iran’s nuclear program” and the unprecedented verification measures “make it very likely that any possible future effort by Iran to pursue nuclear weapons, even a clandestine program, would be detected promptly.

If Trump pulls out, or tries some bizarre new legislation that puts the agreement in continual, imminent risk of termination, he will immediately create three unnecessary crises. 

  • First, it could very well mean that America is in violation of the deal. This would allow Iran to break free of any restraints on its nuclear program, ending intrusive inspections and allowing it to expand it production of nuclear material tomorrow. It will kill any prospect of new sanctions on Iran. Our allies have told us that if we walk away from this deal, we walk away alone. Iran will win; America will be isolated.
  • Second, and possibly worse, Trump will deliver a body blow to US credibility, already so tenuous that our closest European allies are talking about going their own way. This will convince many that they can no longer rely on America’s word. Trump will preside over an historic collapse of US global influence.
  • Third, and worst of all, with restrictions ended, new sanctions impossible, the only alternative to preventing the rebuilding of Iran’s nuclear program will be military action. Trump will put us on the path to a new, unnecessary war in the Middle East even as his impulsive behavior, insults and threats have inflamed the crisis with North Korea that threatens to erupt into war at any moment. This may be Trump’s preferred path. He ominously talked of “the calm before the storm” at a dinner Thursday night with his military advisors.

“We are sleepwalking into an armed conflict,” Congressman Gerry Connolly (D-VA) wrote on Thursday. He blasted the efforts to cherry-pick data to claim Iran was violating the agreement when the administration has presented no such evidence to Congress. “The hidden scandal of the Iraq War – the manipulation of intelligence to support a predetermined outcome,” he said, “is now an overt political strategy to undermine a multilateral nonproliferation agreement.” 

He is right. A small group of neoconservative groups in Washington have stroked Trump’s ego and fanned his obsessive hatred of former President Barack Obama to convince him that he could and must tear down Obama’s signature foreign policy achievement, just as he attacked Obama’s other achievements. They manufacture “violations” no agency can find, invent a “spirit of the deal” than never existed, and imagine an alternative future where Iran caves to new, unilateral American demands – or we use military force to remove the regime once and for all. 

This is not a dream, but a nightmare. Once Trump burns this bridge, there is no realistic plan for constraining Iran. Or negotiating restraints on North Korea’s nuclear programs. Or restoring American leadership of the western alliance.

America will not be made great again. It will be made much, much weaker.


A version of this article appeared in the NY Daily News.

"Once Trump burns this bridge, there is no realistic plan for constraining Iran" @Cirincione.

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