WASHINGTON – In a major speech this month, President Donald Trump indulged in one of his favorite pastimes: distinguishing himself from Barack Obama. In this instance, Trump’s core policy disagreement with Obama was on Iran and the distinction he drew was dramatic.
Throughout much of his second term in office, Obama argued that Iran’s nuclear work had to be separated from its regional ambitions in order for the US to have any real chance at resolving the growing international crisis. On a basic level, Trump’s policy on Iran rejects the premise of former president Obama’s argument.
He in fact believes the reverse is true: that an international crisis will soon be upon us if the world does not address Iran’s nuclear program in the context of its greater ambitions.
US President Donald Trump says Iran has not lived up to spirit of nuclear deal, October 5, 2017. (Reuters)
This is the critical difference between the approaches of their administrations, and the consequences of a shift from one to the other are enormous. The success or failure of the Iran nuclear deal, and the fate of Iran’s future nuclear work, ultimately rests upon which of them is right.
Throughout two years of nuclear talks, the Obama team sought to decouple Iran’s nuclear work from the rest of its foreign policy. It believed that Iran would be emboldened in its efforts to influence regional capitals should it become a nuclear power.
A mix of sanctions pressure and incentives might convince Iran
to negotiate its nuclear program into irrelevancy, Obama’s team argued, if Iran’s domestic economic conditions reached a crisis point.
Republicans and Democrats agreed that sanctions pressure ultimately forced Iran to the negotiating table, but consensus ended there. Upon unveiling the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action in 2015, Obama said the benefits Iran would receive from the nuclear deal in furtherance of its regional power projection – sanctions relief and a degree of international credibility – would be dwarfed in comparison by the alternative: an Iran without a nuclear deal, pursuing a full-fledged nuclear weapons program unchecked by international powers.
“Contrary to the alarmists who claim that Iran is on the brink of taking over the Middle East, or even the world, Iran will remain a regional power with its own set of challenges,” Obama said in a speech that August at American University, after the deal had been formally announced.
“The ruling regime is dangerous and it is repressive. We will continue to have sanctions in place on Iran’s support for terrorism and violation of human rights. We will continue to insist upon the release of Americans detained unjustly. We will have a lot of differences with the Iranian regime,” he declared.
President Obama at American University | The Iran Deal, August 5, 2017. (YouTube/The American University)
“But if we’re serious about confronting Iran’s destabilizing activities, it is hard to imagine a worse approach than blocking this deal,” he continued, adding that advocates of a deal resulting in Iran’s total diplomatic capitulation were untethered from reality: “Neither the Iranian government, or the Iranian opposition, or the Iranian people would agree to what they would view as a total surrender of their sovereignty.”
Obama sought a deal that would allow the US to continue sanctioning Iran over its ballistic missile activities, its human rights violations and its support for terrorist organizations such as Hezbollah, al-Qaida and Hamas. But he believed these items could indeed be separated from the technical process of Iran’s nuclear work. Take care of the nuclear file on its own, and then confront Iran in other spheres, he said.
The Trump administration now argues that Obama’s decoupling strategy is impossible to achieve in practice – that Iran has used the JCPOA to hold the international community hostage in these other spheres. It is not a delegitimized, nuclear-ambitious Iran bucking international law that is emboldened in the region they argue, but rather a nuclear- threshold Iran legitimized by a flawed and temporary nuclear deal.
“The Iranian nuclear deal was designed to be too big to fail,” said Nikki Haley, Trump’s ambassador to the UN, in a speech to the American Enterprise Institute this September. “The deal drew an artificial line between the Iranian regime’s nuclear development and the rest of its lawless behavior. It said, ‘We’ve made this deal on the nuclear side, so none of the regime’s other bad behavior is important enough to threaten the nuclear agreement.’
Haley slams Iran nuclear deal ahead of Trump review, September 5, 2017. (Reuters)
“The result,” Haley added, “is that for advocates of the deal, everything in our relationship with the Iranian regime must now be subordinated to the preservation of the agreement.”
European allies say the Iran deal is working toward its intended purpose, to minimize Iran’s nuclear fuel cycle under watchful eyes. But regional allies – Israel and Arab powers in the Gulf – see things differently.
They argue that the reason Iran pursued a nuclear program in the first place was to deter outside powers from interfering in its strategic designs on the region.
They now believe this nuclear deal, brokered without their consultation, achieves for Iran precisely the strategic cover they were seeking when pursuing the bomb.
“The regime remains the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism, and provides assistance to al-Qaida, the Taliban, Hezbollah, Hamas, and other terrorist networks,” Trump said in his October speech, announcing new sanctions on Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps and his decision not to certify Iran’s actions as “proportional” to US sanctions relief under US law.
“It develops, deploys, and proliferates missiles that threaten American troops and our allies.
It harasses American ships and threatens freedom of navigation in the Arabian Gulf and in the Red Sea. It imprisons Americans on false charges. And it launches cyberattacks against our critical infrastructure, financial system, and military,” Trump enumerated.
“By its own terms, the Iran deal was supposed to contribute to ‘regional and international peace and security,’” he added. “And yet, while the United States adheres to our commitment under the deal, the Iranian regime continues to fuel conflict, terror, and turmoil throughout the Middle East and beyond.”
The worth of the Iran deal is measured not by whether it prevents Iran from obtaining a specific amount of fissile material in a set period of time, but whether it prevents Iran from using nuclear power as a strategic tool for its wider ambitions. This is the broad policy argument made on the Right.
Thought leaders on the Left cast this as a foolish, academic armchair exercise, arguing to the contrary that Iran has acquired all the technological knowledge and capacity to build nuclear weapons and that realpolitik demands we expect less than their total capitulation.
In making their arguments, both sides seem to agree that Iran’s nuclear program was and remains about more than national pride in technological advancement.
Iran sees this program as integral to the security of the Islamic Republic itself. The question before policy-makers now is whether the nuclear deal, as it stands, mitigates Iran’s regional activity or aggravates it – and what can be done about it without making matters worse.