President Trump made the courageous and correct decision to pull out of the Iran nuclear agreement. There is pretty general agreement, even among the Europeans, that the deal was seriously flawed. I would put it much stronger than that. We gave everything the Iranians wanted up front — a hundred billion dollars in sanctions relief — in return for their promise to comply in the future with certain limits on a nuclear-weapons program they wouldn’t even admit they had.
Moreover, even the minimal limits in the agreement would sunset after ten years, leaving the Iranians free to build the warheads which, thanks to the recent Israeli intelligence coup, we know beyond a shadow of a doubt the mullahs always wanted.
I thought at the time of the agreement that the Iranians would cheat around the edges of it but would mostly comply in the short term. They wanted to enjoy the sanctions relief, and they needed time to develop ICBMs and more advanced centrifuges. The agreement gave them both money and time. Why cheat on a deal that gives you everything you want?
But the Iranians made two big mistakes.
First, the deal was never ratified as a treaty, because, as everyone knew at the time, it would have been laughed out of the Senate. So, it’s a simple executive agreement, which doesn’t require ratification. That seemed like a neat sleight of hand by the Obama administration three years ago, but it meant that the deal wasn’t binding, in law or honor, on any subsequent president, whether the Iranians complied with their part of it or not.
In other words, the agreement was no more than a promise by one president to lift the sanctions on Iran under certain conditions that he deemed sufficient to justify doing so. The president in question — Barack Obama — faithfully kept this promise through the rest of his term in office.
That was what the Iranians bargained for, and that was what they got. No doubt they hoped that the next president would be someone who would bow to the weight of European opinion and the arms-control establishment, and continue giving them benefits while they continued fomenting aggression against America and its interests. That was a gamble against the future; it’s their problem, not ours, that they lost.
Second, the regime promised their own people that it would use the sanctions relief to improve conditions inside of Iran. Instead, they spent the money — or that part of it that the Iranian Revolutionary Guards didn’t steal — to support Bashir al-Assad in Syria, buy weapons, and sponsor terrorism and conflict throughout the Middle East.
It was one promise they should have kept. Iran’s economy is in a tailspin. The regime was rocked by demonstrations over the new year and is being hit now with widespread labor strikes and a rapidly inflating currency. More and more Iranians are manifestly fed up and are no longer buying the farce that they can change the system through elections in which the candidates are all approved by the regime, and in which the winner has little power anyway. The radical clerics run Iran, not the government, and, increasingly, Iranians know it.
I’m not saying the regime is about to fall, but it is overextended, and that makes it peculiarly vulnerable now to the re-imposition of American sanctions. One of the few good national-security developments in the last 15 years is that the United States has figured out how to make sanctions particularly effective. You target the banks. The world trades in dollars, which means that every transaction — including the sale of oil — has to surface eventually in a bank which cannot operate if it must disconnect from the American financial system.
Yes, the rogues can and do launder cash and pursue other illicit activities, such as the drug trade, to get some resources. But you can’t run a country on that, not for long anyway, and especially not when you want your country to be the hegemon of the Middle East. That was why the Iranians were so desperate for a deal three years ago; the tough sanctions which Congress passed over the opposition of the Obama administration had brought them to their knees.
Let’s see what happens now as the sanctions go back into force. The Europeans will complain, but Trump can mollify them by cutting them a little more slack in his tariff policy. The Iranians may promote a conflict between Hezbollah and Israel, but that was coming anyway, and the Israelis wouldn’t still be around if they weren’t a very tough nut to crack. Besides, Hezbollah has a lot on its hands already in Syria.
There’s one other big point that should be considered. The nuclear agreement was part of the Obama administration’s broader policy to build a Middle Eastern equilibrium around the proposition that Iran would evolve into a responsible regional actor. That was never going to work, not as long as the current regime is in power in Tehran. By pulling out of the deal, Trump is laying the basis for a renewed partnership with other regional players who fear the threat from Iran, who never liked the deal, and whose interests and objectives are much more in alignment with those of the United States.
The Europeans may not like this decision, but in Egypt, Jordan, Israel, the Gulf States — and maybe even Iraq — they are cheering it on.
All in all, I’m inclined to agree with Andy McCarthy that this was very much the right move. It’s not without risk, of course, but nothing in the Middle East is, and President Trump judged rightly that it’s better to err on the side of pressuring our adversaries than gambling on their good will. The challenge going forward is for the Trump administration to implement this decision effectively and weave it into a broader strategy for restoring an acceptable balance of power in the Middle East. If that happens, Mr. Trump will really deserve, and might even get, the Nobel peace prize.