During his first address to the United Nations General Assembly, President Donald Trump declared the Iranian nuclear deal “an embarrassment to the United States,” assuring the audience that they haven’t “heard the last of it.” Four blocks away, at “Iran Summit 2017,” speakers including former Florida governor Jeb Bush, former senator Mike Kirk, General David Petraeus, former senator and vice presidential candidate Joe Lieberman, and other diplomats and congressmen gave a similar assurance: Support for the Iran deal is as low as ever.
The summit, held by the bipartisan group United Against Nuclear Iran, involved a series of panel discussions during which speakers explored the threat that Iran poses to the United States and its allies. Speakers agreed that preventing a nuclear Iran should be Trump’s top priority. Per the terms of the Iran “deal,” drafted in 2015 by the Obama administration, the United States agrees to lift sanctions if Iran closes a percentage of its uranium-enriching centrifuges and keeps its nuclear materials below the enrichment levels necessary for weapon development. Though the deal was broadly unpopular in 2015, due in part to its failure to guarantee a non-nuclear Iran after its expiration, the focus on issues such as health-care reform and the debt ceiling during the early days of the Trump administration has put it out of voters’ minds.
But not, it seems, out of all minds. Indeed if the UANI summit is to be trusted as a barometer, the renegotiation of the Iran deal is still a high priority for many in Washington, D.C., even within a Congress that is frequently willing to stonewall Trump legislation. In statements made to National Review, Mike Kirk confirmed he has full confidence that Congress won’t block Trump’s decision to rescind the deal, should the president decide to do so. When Congress voted on the deal in 2015, four Democratic senators and 19 Democratic representatives joined the Republican majority to vote no. According to Kirk, the only force blocking more Democrats from voting against the deal was influence from the Obama White House, so Trump should have an easy path forward. “The only thing saving Iran was Barack Obama,” Kirk said. “Iran has no allies now.”
Kirk also cited Iran’s close relationship with North Korea as a reason why public frustration with the deal remains strong. It was a point that many other speakers made in their comments. Lieberman opened his remarks by reminding the summit’s audience that the partnership between those two nations was bad for the stability of the world: “Any development in North Korea [in ballistic-missile technology] we will see next in Iran.” Or, put another way: A deal that fails to prevent Iranian ballistic-missile development and ensure nuclear deproliferation after it expires also threatens to increase North Korea’s power.
Many at the summit spoke in support of Trump’s foreign policy. Surprisingly, Trump’s 2016 primary foe Jeb Bush was one of the most ardent defenders of the president. Speaking opposite former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson, a Democrat who opposed the deal, Bush responded to a question about Trump’s behavior toward Iran and North Korea by praising the president’s use of “chaotic language” as an appropriate strategic maneuver for “set[ting] the table” when dealing with hostile regimes.
Despite pressure from the moderator, NBC News’s Nicolle Wallace, Bush specifically credited Trump’s foreign policy as “moving in a more traditional way.” Bush did criticize Trump’s lack of “consistent policy,” but he recognized the president’s generals and U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley are “leading the charge” and commended them on “doing a good job.”
Many at the summit spoke in support of Trump’s foreign policy. Surprisingly, Trump’s 2016 primary foe Jeb Bush was one of the most ardent defenders of the president.
Supporters of the deal have attempted to cut public support by employing the same arguments used in the debate over leaving the Paris climate agreement: The deal is better than nothing, and ending it would alienate our allies. But as many on the summit’s panels pointed out, renegotiation is central to the decision. Pulling the deal cold would certainly be worse than the original deal, which is why correcting mistakes and producing a new deal is so important. Representative Steve Israel (D., N.Y.), who broke party lines to vote against the Iran deal, explained that a central focus of renegotiations would be expanding it to include Middle Eastern countries, such as Israel, that were not parties to the original pact.
Panelists agreed that the U.S. should rapidly increase funding for its missile-defense program while the deal is still in place, because the deal fails to prevent Iran’s development of ballistic missiles. Considering that the U.S.’s missile-defense systems cannot adequately protect against an attack from even North Korea, building the program is key to national security. Kirk told NR that Israel’s current defense systems are also inadequate, being too old to target, let alone track and fire back at, incoming missiles. If Iran launches an ICBM at Tel Aviv or the United States before the deal is renegotiated, the odds are low that either nation will be able to protect itself.
For Americans concerned about the weakness of the Iran deal, the summit should provide some hope. Despite attacks from the left on Trump’s seemingly inevitable decision to back out of the deal, many on both sides are working to remind the public — and Congress — of its problems, and how important renegotiation is to national security. If the summit is any indication, the deal’s supporters are still few in number, and its repeal and revision will be swift.