Throughout the long and contentious debate over the nuclear deal with Iran, the question of Iranian compliance with any agreement was one of the most contentious. The pact was bitterly criticized for setting up an inspection process that was far from the “anytime, anywhere” system initially promised by the Obama administration. But in a stroke of irony, nearly two years into the life of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, it is not just Iran’s compliance that is being debated. Tehran is accusing the U.S. of violating the deal, a charge backed up by a feature in the New York Times.
The president should embrace the breach, and he should realize he erred in certifying Iran’s own compliance with the deal earlier this week — a decision he reportedly made at the behest of his counselors, going against his own inclinations. The next time the U.S. has to certify compliance, Trump should have the courage of his convictions and say no. Though America’s allies won’t like it one bit, the U.S. can force them to follow its lead in confronting Iran. It’s time to stop pretending that the high cost of Obama’s decision to kick the nuclear can down the road is worth the price the world is paying in terms of acquiescing to Iranian terrorism and missile violations.
The Times is technically correct about America’s violation. As the article helpfully points out, the deal’s text states that the signatories “will refrain from any policy specifically intended to directly and adversely affect the normalization of trade and economic relations with Iran inconsistent with their commitments not to undermine the successful implementation” of the agreement. And yet the administration announced new sanctions just a day after certifying that Iran was in compliance with the letter (if not the spirit) of the deal, alleging that Iran was supporting terrorists and continuing work on a ballistic-missile program that violates U.N. resolutions.
The problem is that Obama painted his successors into a corner on Iran sanctions. Though he and Secretary of State John Kerry had promised that the previous sanctions could be “snapped back” in response to certain nuclear-weapons violations, the deal gave the U.S. no leverage by which to restrain Iran’s broader quest for regional hegemony, assisted by its Hezbollah terrorist auxiliaries.
At the heart of Obama’s effort was the notion that, in his words, the pact gave the Islamist regime a chance to “get right with the world.” He didn’t insist on language that would limit its use of terrorism — though his own State Department had repeatedly proclaimed Iran to be the world’s leading state sponsor of terror — because he believed the pact would be the starting point for a new era in relations in which the benefits of trade would lead it closer to the West.
Iran’s apologists now claim that Trump is killing that dream with the new sanctions. But this is a revisionist myth. The deal did nothing to moderate Iran’s behavior or to empower so-called moderates like President Hassan Rouhani — who are actually loyal Islamists who support terror, the eradication of Israel, and the quest for nukes, rather than wanting to end hostility to the West. Iranian behavior in the region, including the war it has helped the Russians wage in Syria to preserve the Assad regime, proves that Iran is still every bit the rogue regime that the deal’s critics insisted it was all along.
The only rational argument for sticking with the deal in spite of Iran’s bad faith is that it accomplishes the minimal goal Obama embraced: postponing an Iranian bomb for a decade until the moment when the weakly drafted agreement expires and Tehran can do as it likes. Sinking the agreement now would, in the view of Obama’s apologists, free the Iranians to resume the nuclear activity they stopped and allow them to quickly move to a “breakout” and build a weapon.
That’s a daunting prospect, but it raises the question of how the West can punish Iran if it behaves in this manner. Obama and Kerry claimed that the deal they got was the best to be had, but that was merely an excuse to justify the fact that they gave in to Iranian demands at every impasse in the talks.
The same international sanctions that forced Iran to the negotiating table in 2013 are, despite the conventional wisdom that it is impossible to recreate them now, actually not beyond the reach of the administration. It is true that neither the Western Europeans nor the Russians and the Chinese have the least interest in starting over with Iran. With the possible exception of the French, all of America’s partners in the talks were satisfied with a weak deal and eager to avoid a confrontation with Iran. None of them support scrapping the agreement, let alone going toe-to-toe with the Iranians again. And without international support, unilateral U.S. sanctions would be futile.
But the same sanctions that bite the Iranians could also compel other nations to comply. If the U.S. is serious about stopping Iran, it can make it clear that those who do business with Tehran will also be prohibited from conducting transactions with U.S. banks. Since the U.S. is the linchpin of the global economy, that means U.S. sanctions can isolate Iran no matter what the Germans, Russians, or Chinese think.
Would new sanctions succeed in bringing Tehran to heel on terror as well as stopping its nuclear progress?
Would new sanctions succeed in bringing Tehran to heel on terror as well as stopping its nuclear progress? If Iran is hell-bent on going nuclear in the short term, the answer is no. But if, as proved to be the case in 2013, the Islamist regime understands that crippling sanctions could bring them to their knees, then success is a real possibility.
Why should Trump risk such a confrontation with less-than-eager allies and a truculent Iranian regime?
It’s not just that Trump can’t let go of his valid conclusion that the Iran deal was a classic example of what happens when one party in a negotiation (the U.S.) wants a deal more than the other side. It’s also that the dangers of acquiescing to an emboldened Iran are far greater than those of provoking another confrontation.
Contrary to Obama’s hopes, Iran is using the space provided by the deal to advance its efforts to achieve regional hegemony. The Iranians’ triumph in Syria — which Trump wrongly seems willing to accept in order to ingratiate Russia — has accentuated the terrorist threat it poses to the West. With a land bridge of Iranian influence stretching through Iraq and Syria to Hezbollah-dominated Lebanon, it is no longer possible to treat either terror or missiles as a side issue that may be ignored in order to postpone the nuclear threat for a few years.
The U.S. should do everything in its power to turn back the page to 2013 and make it clear to Iran that if it wants to re-enter the global economy, it must renounce its nuclear program for good (as Obama promised would be the goal of the talks during his 2012 reelection campaign) as well as its terror apparatus. Rather than being talked into going along with Obama’s folly, Trump should start the process of rolling back the nuclear deal the next chance he gets. It’s the most sensible course for the United States to follow if it wants to stop the terror threat and forestall an Iranian bomb.
— Jonathan S. Tobin is opinion editor of JNS.org and a contributor to National Review Online.