President Trump’s dramatic decision to withdraw from the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, marks a sea-change in American foreign policy in the Middle East. Under the deal, the United States and its allies had agreed to lift economic sanctions against Iran in exchange for its halting of the development of nuclear weapons for a fifteen-year period. Trump denounced the deal as “horrible,” while the United Kingdom, France, and Germany all lamented the breakdown of the agreement. They urged the Iranians to keep to their half of the bargain, even as the United States was poised to impose additional sanctions on Iran and indeed on any country that sought to do business with Iran.
The decision to break with the status quo in a time of apparent peace is always a risky venture that necessarily increases uncertainty. Nonetheless, the President should be commended for carrying through with his campaign promise to terminate the Iran deal. The single most important development in the Middle East over the past decade has been the systematic decline of American influence. Barack Obama went out of his way to find excuses for not using force in the Middle East. That attitude was manifest in President Obama’s decision to turn to Russia for assistance when the Syrians crossed his “red line” by using chemical weapons against civilians in its effort to stamp out insurrection within its borders.
To be sure, President Obama faced a ticklish situation in having to act militarily on his own initiative, given Congressional reluctance to endorse a strike. But the upshot of his equivocation was the military reentry of the Russians into Syria, coupled with the open and active support that the Iranian government has given to the murderous Bashar al-Assad. As a result, thousands have died and millions have been displaced. Elsewhere, ISIS made major territorial inroads that were not reversed until after President Obama left office, and the instability in Iraq led to the slaughter of too many Yazidis. Libya, too, has become a failed state. By “leading from behind,” President Obama escalated tensions and tragedy throughout the Middle East.
It would have been easy for President Trump to announce that whatever the weaknesses of the original 2015 Iranian deal, it was too late to back out now given the numerous political and legal expectations that have formed in its wake. But to take that course would only be to acquiesce in a situation that has continued to get inexorably worse. The two most immediate consequences are the dangers to Israel of having an Iranian presence on its northern border, and the ramping up of tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia, as Tehran continues its deadly escalation of tensions by engaging in proxy wars in Yemen and Lebanon.
By taking a tough, unilateral stand, President Trump has forced every other party to reevaluate its own position. And for the most part the early results have been highly encouraging. On the diplomatic front, the first pleasant consequence is that Britain, France, and Germany are urging the Iranians to keep to the deal, knowing that they will be forced to join the U.S. in more forceful actions if the Iranians pull out to rev up their nuclear program to procure atomic weapons. It surely counts as an advantage for the moment to keep the Iranians tethered to the deal. The heavily regulated and often dysfunctional Iranian economy will find it difficult to respond, for religious fanatics screaming “Death to America” and “Death to Israel” usually make poor management decisions.
As Bret Stephens writes in the New York Times, it will be hard for even Germany to continue to do $25 billion in business with Iran if it puts at risk any fraction of its $755 billion in trade with the United States. Still, tough talk on trade is always risky business, so it is probably far wiser to use targeted sanctions against bad Iranian actors than any diffuse sanctions against our leading trading partners. The decision of the Department of Treasury, in cooperation with the United Arab Emirates, to cut off Tehran’s access to U.S dollars for Iran’s elite military units is a good, targeted first step in that direction. It is also symbolically important because it reverses one of the major blunders of the Obama Iran deal—the release of perhaps $150 billion in funds to Iran, which it could use to sponsor its terror campaigns throughout the Middle East and elsewhere.
Even better news comes from the military front. Most importantly, the basic ground rules in the Middle East have changed: American and Israeli passivity in the face of foreign provocation is no longer the norm. Instead, the new ground rule seems to be that force will be met with proportionate force, which involves two key principles. First, any use of force against American or Israeli units will be met with a stronger response. Second, the response will be limited to the theater of the original provocation. Just this scenario played out in an Iranian missile attack on northern Israel this past week. The attack caused little or no damage but gave the Israelis the opportunity to launch a counterattack of their own, which reportedly crushed the Iranian forces without provoking a further response. Iran still exerts a powerful influence over Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza strip. But nothing whatsoever in the nuclear deal prevented the Iranians from supporting these groups in their effort to cripple, if not destroy, the state of Israel. At this juncture, Iran could still decide to up the ante yet again, but it will do so from a position of diplomatic isolation and military vulnerability that would have the effect of turning the British, French, and Germans against them.
Of course, defenders of the original deal are out in force. Barack Obama denounced the Trump decision as a “serious mistake.” In his words, “Iran has destroyed the core of a reactor that could have produced weapons-grade plutonium; removed two-thirds of its centrifuges (over 13,000) and placed them under international monitoring; and eliminated 97 percent of its stockpile of enriched uranium—the raw materials necessary for a bomb." These are valid points, but there is another side to consider. What was destroyed earlier still has to be rebuilt or replaced, which should leave time for the current deal to be renegotiated in ways that address some of its key weaknesses on such vital measures as the scope of the foreign inspections of all Iranian facilities, the continued expansion of the Iranian missile program, and Iran’s murderous foreign policy. Even the British, French, and Germans believe that these vital matters should be renegotiated. But as long as the United States stays committed to the Iran deal, that will not happen. If the Iranians want peace, correcting these defects should be a painless way to obtain it.
Elsewhere Hillary Clinton has predicted that pulling out of the Iran deal will “make it harder to negotiate successfully with North Korea or anyone else.” It is, of course, worth noting, as legal scholar Jack Goldsmith has explained, that President Trump did not violate any treaty obligation when he pulled back on Obama’s “political commitment” to the Iran deal. That initial deal was a constitutional travesty. President Obama, knowing that he could not win the approval of two-thirds of the Senate, so he rammed the deal through via an executive order. The deal’s Achilles heel was that the next president—who turned out not to be Hillary Clinton—could walk away from it without legal repercussions, either domestic or foreign. The takeaway from this episode is not that the United States under Trump’s leadership can no longer be trusted, but that the United States will act in a forceful but responsible fashion to undo its prior mistakes. When presidents want to bind the next generation for both domestic and foreign purposes, they should do so in a lawful way, in this case by using the treaty option.
Nor is it likely that the Trump decision to withdraw from the deal will slow down the summit negotiations with North Korea, now scheduled for Singapore on June 12. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has trotted out both carrot and stick in the effort to get the North Korea to back off its stalled nuclear program. After the release of three American prisoners, it looks as though the issue is now back in play. And if Iran sees that North Korea has dropped its nuclear program, it may well decide that renegotiation of the deal is not the worse option after all. So today, the prospects for American foreign policy seem brighter than before. The Trump strategy is hardly risk free. But through the international fog, this basic principle still remains: Force cannot work without diplomacy; nor can diplomacy work without the willingness to use force.