May 8, 2018
It is clear from his reckless decision to pull out of the Iranian nuclear deal, as well as his statements during the campaign and since coming into office, that President Trump does not understand the purpose of arms control agreements.
The purpose of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), i.e. the Iran deal, was to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. While the United States, the other five signatories to the deal, and most of the international community would like Iran to make other changes in its national security policy, these other actions, like developing ballistic missiles or helping keep Assad in power in Syria, are not part of the nuclear deal. Can one imagine what would have happened if the US had pulled out of the Strategic Arms Limitation Agreement (SALT I) and the Anti-ballistic Missile (ABM) treaty with the former Soviet Union, which were negotiated by the Nixon administration in 1972, when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979 or continued to oppress their Warsaw Pact allies?
The president also expressed concerns that some of the provisions of the Iran deal have expiration dates. For example, the Iranians agreed to sharply curtail the quantity and quality of the enriched uranium it produces “only” for the next 15 years.
But almost all arms control agreements do have expiration dates. The Strategic Offensive Reduction Treaty (SORT) negotiated with the Russians in 2002 by the George W. Bush administration expired in 2012. The New START Agreement, negotiated by the Obama administration, expires in 2021. Ironically, Russian president, Putin, offered to extend it for five years, but Trump, seemingly unaware that New START had an expiration date, declined. Moreover, in the arms deal, the Iranians not only shut down most of their nuclear production facilities and shipped most of their stored fuel out of the country, but agreed never to develop nuclear weapons and to allow the inspections to continue indefinitely.
The real issue for Trump or any American president is whether keeping the Iran agreement enhances the security of the United States and its allies. By unilaterally withdrawing from the agreement Trump has weakened American security in at least five ways, something his secretary of defense and the Republican chairman of the House Arm Services Committee warned him about.
First, allowing Iran to develop a nuclear weapon would destabilize the Middle East and the world by possibly igniting a nuclear arms race in the region. Even the Israeli military (as opposed to Prime Minister Netanyahu) believes that getting out of the agreement undermines Israeli security.
Second, Trump’s action increases the influence of Russia and China, nations that the Trump national security strategy claims are now the major threats to the security of the United States. There is no doubt that the Russians will now work more closely with Iran in Syria and that the Chinese will move more forcefully into the Iranian oil market.
Third, Trump’s unwillingness to follow the advice of its major European allies—that is, Germany, the United Kingdom, and France, which urged the United States to stay in the deal—will make it more difficult to work with them to make modifications to the deal or on other issues, including Syria, Yemen, and Crimea.
Fourth, coupled with Trump getting out of the Transpacific Partnership (TPP) and the Paris Climate Accord unilaterally, abrogating an arms deal that was working will undermine the United States’ ability to preserve the liberal world order that it helped establish and that has prevented a major war for the past 70 years.
Fifth, Trump’s snapping back sanctions will undermine the power and influence of Iran’s moderate president, Hassan Rouhani, and increase that of the hardliners in the Iranian political system who were opposed to the deal. Their opposition was based on the claim that Iranians could not trust Americans to keep their part of the bargain. Moreover, there is no doubt that Trump’s decision will also have a negative impact on the Iranian economy, which is already in poor shape, further increasing the influence of the hardliners.
In his remarks Trump gave no indication that he has a Plan B for dealing with Iran or the other five countries that signed onto the JCPOA. Does he want regime change? Or is he just trying to undermine Obama’s legacy?
Lawrence J. Korb
Center for American Progress