National Security & Defense

Why Did President Trump Really Extend the Iran Nuclear Deal Again?

President Trump with Secretary of State Tillerson (at left) in May 2017. (Reuters photo: Jonathan Ernst)
His move is disappointing, but he may well withdraw from the deal when he has a new national-security team in place.

Like many conservative Iran watchers, I was disappointed with President Trump’s decision last week to extend the controversial July 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran (the JCPOA) by waiving sanctions and giving Congress and European states a final chance to “fix” this agreement in 120 days. This decision was especially disappointing given the recent Iranian protests and that the president issued a similar ultimatum in October 2016.

However, there appear to be some undisclosed reasons for this decision that give me hope the president will kill this terrible agreement in the near future.


A Deeply Flawed and Dangerous Agreement

Critics of the JCPOA were hoping that President Trump would reimpose U.S. sanctions — which would essentially kill the Iran deal — because they believe he was exactly right when he said during the 2016 presidential campaign that the JCPOA is the worst deal ever negotiated.

To get this “legacy” nuclear agreement with Iran for President Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry and other Obama-administration officials made any concession necessary to Tehran. This included allowing Iran to continue enriching uranium with over 5,000 centrifuges and to develop advanced centrifuges; to construct a plutonium-producing heavy-water reactor in Iran; to wipe clean a long list of unanswered questions about nuclear-weapons-related activity; and to agree to a deal with extremely weak verification provisions. There are credible reports of Iranian cheating on the agreement, including several accounts from German intelligence agencies.

It gets worse. The JCPOA lifted terrorism-related sanctions from Iranians and Iranian entities. Iran’s missile program — which is a nuclear-weapons-delivery system — was excluded from the deal because of a last-minute demand by Iran. Under a side deal, the United States secretly paid Iran $400 million in ransom to swap five innocent Americans imprisoned by Iran for the release by the U.S. of seven Iranian criminals and the removal of 14 other Iranians from an INTERPOL wanted list. According to a bombshell December 18, 2017, Politico story, “The Secret Backstory of How Obama Let Hezbollah off the Hook,” the Obama administration also blocked an investigation of drug trafficking by Hezbollah — Iran’s terrorist proxy — to secure the nuclear deal.

President Obama and Secretary Kerry claimed that the nuclear deal would help bring Iran into the “community of nations” and improve U.S.–Iran relations. This didn’t happen, however. Iran’s behavior got worse. It sent troops into Syria after the deal was announced. It continued to support the Houthi rebels in Yemen and gave them missiles that they used to attack Saudi Arabia and ships in the Red Sea. It also has proceeded with its ballistic-missile program and tested some missiles with the words “Israel must be wiped off the map” emblazoned on them.

Iran also appears to have used sanctions relief to fund terrorism. In 2016, Tehran reportedly pledged $70 million to the Palestinian terrorist group Islamic Jihad to conduct “jihad” against the State of Israel. In 2017, the Iranian government quadrupled its annual support to Hezbollah to $830 million and resumed providing aid to the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas. Although the amount of Iranian payments to Hamas has not been released, we do know that Tehran provided it with $50 million per month prior to a breakdown in relations in 2012.

The Iranian government’s squandering of huge sums of sanctions relief for belligerent purposes worsened the country’s poor economy and led to the recent protests after a rise in prices of eggs and poultry. Food prices are a sensitive issue in Iran since the price of many basic foods increased by 40 percent over the last year. There also is a high rate of inflation — about 10 percent in 2016 — and youth unemployment of about 40 percent. The economic situation is so bad that there are reports, according to the Los Angeles Times, of Iranians selling their organs to raise cash.


President Trump’s Iran-Deal Fixes Fall Far Short

These and other major problems with the JCPOA are why President Trump has repeatedly criticized it. But last week, when Trump gave Congress and European leaders 120 days to fix its major flaws, he demanded the following changes that mostly fall far short of doing so:

1) Require Iran to allow immediate inspections at all sites requested by international inspectors. This fix misses the mark because Iran is already required under the JCPOA to allow IAEA inspectors access to any site they ask to visit. The problem is that the IAEA refuses to ask to visit places such as military bases that Iran says are off-limits to inspectors.

2) Ensure that Iran never comes close to possessing a nuclear weapon. A laudable goal, but vague and meaningless, especially since the president’s fixes do not address two of the JCPOA’s major flaws: allowing Iran to enrich uranium and giving it a light-water reactor.

3) Lifting the JCPOA’s sunset provisions so the deal never expires. This is also meaningless because it fails to address many flaws of the nuclear deal, such as uranium enrichment, and leaves unanswered questions about Iran’s past nuclear-weapons work. There is no point in lifting the JCPOA’s sunset provisions if Iran is allowed to continue enriching uranium.

4) Congress must legally link Iran’s nuclear and missile programs and subject the missile program to severe sanctions. Unlike the above changes, this one is sensible and long overdue.

The weaknesses of the president’s JCPOA fixes reflect the weaknesses of his top advisers on the Iran deal — principally National Security Adviser McMaster and Secretary of State Tillerson. Both have opposed President Trump’s efforts to withdraw from the Iran deal over the past year and have repeatedly tried to delay the president’s final decision on the agreement.

But it doesn’t matter how weak these fixes are because there is no chance that Congress or European states will do anything to implement them. Congress is divided between Democrats determined to protect President Obama’s legacy deal with Iran and Republicans who view it as a dangerous fraud. As a result, it is very unlikely that Senators Bob Corker (R., Tenn.) and Ben Cardin (D., Md.) will succeed in their effort to pass legislation to fix the accord. Europe does not want to amend the JCPOA, in part because of trade deals it struck with Iran after the accord came into effect. And to no one’s surprise, Iran is adamant that it will never renegotiate the JCPOA.


What’s Really behind President Trump’s “Final” Extension of the Iran Deal?

Although President Trump’s decision last week was disappointing, there may be three undisclosed reasons behind his move that suggest he plans to withdraw from the agreement in the near future. The first two reasons are based on a discussion about the Iran deal that a friend of mine had with the president last month. 

First, Trump told my friend that even though he gave Congress 90 days in October to pass legislation to fix the JCPOA, he believed that strong partisan differences among lawmakers would prevent them from passing any substantive fixes. I believe that this remains the president’s view.

So why would the president kick the nuclear deal to Congress for a second time if he predicts that Congress will not act?

That brings me to a second possible reason for president’s decision: As much as he hates the JCPOA and wants to kill it, he told my friend, North Korea takes precedence, and he does not want both crises blowing up at the same time. Given the extremely high tensions with North Korea and the need to work with our allies to isolate Pyongyang, it makes sense that President Trump might want to delay gutting the Iran deal at this time.

There may be a third reason President Trump extended the Iran deal: He needs better personnel to implement an exit from the JCPOA. With rumors swirling that McMaster and Tillerson could leave the administration over the next couple of months, Trump might be postponing a decision to exit the JCPOA until they are replaced by advisers who will fully support and aggressively implement such a decision.

Ambassador John Bolton would be the best person President Trump could bring into his administration to oversee a U.S. withdrawal from the Iran deal. Not only does Bolton have extensive government experience and an in-depth understanding of the Iran nuclear issue, he also authored a plan last August on how the U.S could withdraw from the JCPOA and work with our allies — especially Israel — to replace it with a much better arrangement. Making Ambassador Bolton the next national-security adviser could end the infighting in the administration on the Iran deal and also would probably improve the implementation of Trump’s national-security policies on radical Islam, North Korea, climate change, Russia, China, and other issues.

So I say to my fellow conservative Iran watchers: Take heart. Although President Trump’s decision to extend the Iran deal again was disappointing, I believe he had good reasons for delaying a U.S. exit from the agreement. Signs suggest that he will withdraw from the accord in the near future, possibly when he has a better national-security team in place.


How to Get Out of the Iran Nuclear Deal

Trump Should Decertify Walk Away From Iran Deal

Four Options for Getting out of the Iran Deal

Fred Fleitz, president of the Center for Security Policy, served in 2018 as deputy assistant to the president and to the chief of staff of the National Security Council. He previously held national-security jobs with the CIA, the DIA, the Department of State, and the House Intelligence Committee staff. He is the editor of the 2020 book Defending against Biothreats.


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