May 8, 2018
Today, ahead of a self-imposed deadline of May 12, President Donald Trump announced his decision that the United States should essentially exit the Iran nuclear deal. The president’s contempt toward the Iran deal—officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA—mirrors his attitude toward another signature element of his predecessor’s legacy, the Affordable Care Act. Furthermore, his brinkmanship of the last few months over the JCPOA—meant to compel America’s European partners to “fix” the deal to his liking by a specified date—resembles nothing so much as his decision to unravel the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. In both those cases, he has put Congress in the political hot seat.
It’s a safe bet that Trump understands none of these complex policy matters in any depth. In each case, he has condemned an Obama-era law or policy in hyperbolic terms, while foisting responsibility for a replacement on whoever is invested in the outcome. After all, a blackmailer can hardly afford to care about his hostages.
So far, this policymaking-as-psychodrama has yielded approximately nothing in domestic policy. How will it play out in the case of the Iran nuclear deal, for which there has been no shortage of voices proposing a “fix?”
It would have been wiser to defer any decision on leaving the agreement indefinitely, because no better deal with Iran is forthcoming. The leverage that helped to bring about the JCPOA depended on a broadly multilateral front against the export-dependent Iranian economy, assembled painstakingly over many years. While America’s European partners, especially France, have sought to find some rhetorical middle path that might appease Washington, Trump has shown no interest in fig leaves. Now, if Tehran chooses to continue upholding the terms of the deal, it is unlikely that the Europeans—or any of Iran’s other major trade partners—will return to imposing sanctions. The deal is likely to continue in some form, only without the United States.
It follows that Trump’s decision to reimpose sanctions means only a major unforced error by the Iranians—an unnecessary decision to follow the US out the door—would spare the United States from isolation and loss of leverage.
Iran’s nuclear ambitions may not be a solved problem in any ultimate sense, but President Obama succeeded in putting the issue in abeyance for a generation. That achievement won’t be improved upon in the foreseeable future. It should not have been discarded so lightly, or at all.
Joshua H. Pollack
senior research associate at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey
editor of the Nonproliferation Review