Count­down to Trump’s Iran cri­sis

He’s made it clear he wants to tear up the nu­clear deal.

Los Angeles Times - - OP-ED - DOYLE McMANUS doyle.mcmanus@la­times.com

Here’s an in­ter­na­tional cri­sis you can, un­usu­ally, put on your cal­en­dar ahead of time: In Oc­to­ber, Pres­i­dent Trump wants to de­clare Iran in vi­o­la­tion of the 2015 agree­ment to limit its nu­clear pro­gram — a de­ci­sion that would al­low the United States to reim­pose tough eco­nomic sanc­tions on any­one trad­ing with Tehran.

It’s a bad idea. The nu­clear deal isn’t per­fect — it doesn’t end Iran’s nu­clear re­search, only lim­its it for a pe­riod of years — but it’s much bet­ter than noth­ing. Be­fore the agree­ment, Tehran was be­lieved to be less than a year from mak­ing nu­clear weapons that would have threat­ened Is­rael and Saudi Ara­bia. Thanks to the ac­cord, that dooms­day prob­lem has at least been post­poned.

That hasn’t stopped Trump from call­ing the pact “the worst deal ever” and or­der­ing aides to sup­ply him with ev­i­dence that will al­low him to de­clare it in­valid. The most likely moment for his de­ci­sion will come in Oc­to­ber, the next time he is re­quired to no­tify Congress whether Iran is in com­pli­ance.

“If it was up to me, I would have had them non­com­pli­ant 180 days ago,” Trump told the Wall Street Jour­nal last month. Next time, he added, “I do not ex­pect that they will be com­pli­ant.”

The pres­i­dent didn’t of­fer any sub­stan­tive rea­son to de­clare Iran out of com­pli­ance with the deal — be­cause there isn’t one. His own aides told him last month that, while Iran has tested the edges of the agree­ment, none of its ac­tions was a “ma­te­rial breach,” the le­gal stan­dard that would al­low sanc­tions to snap back.

When Trump was warned that he couldn’t sim­ply walk away from the deal, “he had a bit of a melt­down,” an of­fi­cial told the New York Times.

He chewed out the sec­re­tary of State, Rex Tiller­son, who ap­par­ently brought him the bad news. And he or­dered his staff to be­gin work on a new study — one that will sup­ply him with the ex­cuses he needs.

That’s an Alice-in-Won­der­land ap­proach to for­eign pol­icy: Ver­dict first, ev­i­dence later. And it’s not likely to work.

No mat­ter what Trump thinks, the facts will get in the way. U.S. of­fi­cials say Iran has been care­fully up­hold­ing its main obli­ga­tions un­der the nu­clear agree­ment: re­duc­ing its ura­nium stocks and lim­it­ing its en­rich­ment pro­gram.

And none of the other six coun­tries that ne­go­ti­ated the deal agree with Trump that the ac­cord should be ab­ro­gated.

“The deal … is work­ing, and we be­lieve it rep­re­sents the best op­tion for the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity,” Bri­tish For­eign Sec­re­tary Boris John­son wrote last month (and his gov­ern­ment is friend­lier to Trump than most).

As a re­sult, if Trump de­clares in Oc­to­ber that Iran is in breach, most of the world — in­clud­ing Bri­tain, Ger­many and France — will blame him for the con­se­quences, not Tehran.

That will cre­ate a ma­jor ob­sta­cle for the next step in Trump’s course, which is to reim­pose U.S. eco­nomic sanc­tions on for­eign busi­nesses that deal with Iran. (The nu­clear deal didn’t af­fect the em­bargo be­tween the U.S. and Iran, which re­mains in ef­fect.)

If the United States is viewed as re­spon­si­ble for break­ing the deal, other coun­tries may refuse to go along with Trump’s uni­lat­eral sanc­tions, mak­ing them largely tooth­less.

“No­body else wants the deal to fail,” said El­iz­a­beth Rosen­berg of the Cen­ter for New Amer­i­can Se­cu­rity, who worked on sanc­tions in the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion. “If the U.S. is the only one that walks away, who is going to en­force new sanc­tions? You could eas­ily see Euro­pean lead­ers de­cid­ing to de­fend their own com­pa­nies in­stead.”

Last month, the French en­ergy gi­ant To­tal signed a con­tract for a $5-bil­lion nat­u­ral gas project in Iran. If Trump tries to im­pose sanc­tions on deals like that, the re­sult won’t be merely a con­fronta­tion with Iran; it will be a clash with the EU.

There is an al­ter­na­tive Trump could try. It’s called diplo­macy. He could press for stricter en­force­ment of the nu­clear agree­ment, be­gin­ning with the re­stric­tions Iran has placed on in­ter­na­tional in­spec­tors’ ac­cess to mil­i­tary bases. He could seek stronger in­ter­na­tional sanc­tions on Iran for its bal­lis­tic mis­sile tests, which aren’t cov­ered by the nu­clear deal. And he could be­gin ne­go­ti­a­tions to­ward a new agree­ment to main­tain the curbs on Iran’s nu­clear pro­gram af­ter 2026, when the cur­rent lim­its be­gin to ex­pire.

But the pres­i­dent hasn’t pur­sued those op­tions, even though they’ve been of­fered to him by his own aides. In­stead, he ap­pears hell­bent on ful­fill­ing a bad cam­paign prom­ise he should now have the wis­dom to aban­don. (That’s a prayer more than a hope.)

Tear­ing up the deal won’t bring down Iran’s regime — most of Tehran’s rul­ing cler­ics wel­come the en­mity of the United States — but it will set up a col­li­sion be­tween the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion and most of the world, in­clud­ing China, Rus­sia and U.S. al­lies in Europe.

The most likely losers would be the Western al­liance, al­ready bat­tered by Trump’s dis­dain, and what­ever re­mains of the United States’ tat­tered claim to in­ter­na­tional lead­er­ship.

And the most likely win­ner, oddly enough, would be Vladimir Putin’s Rus­sia, the ben­e­fi­ciary of yet an­other wedge be­tween United States and its NATO al­lies — this one driven by Trump alone, without Moscow’s help.

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