EDITOR'S NOTES: The final word on Iran

What happens next with Iran’s nuclear program remains unclear.

US President Donald Trump (photo credit: REUTERS/LEAH MILLIS)
US President Donald Trump
(photo credit: REUTERS/LEAH MILLIS)
First there was the Trans-Pacific Partnership: just days after assuming the presidency in January 2016, Donald Trump pulled the United States out of the TPP, a trade deal he had referred to on the campaign as a “rape of our country.”
Next was the Paris Climate Accord, which Trump pulled the US out of in June, six months after moving into the White House.
Now, a year later, he is pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal.
A month ago, Trump announced that he was reconsidering returning to the TPP after saying just a few months earlier that his administration is also considering reentering the Paris Climate Accord.
Then on Wednesday, a day after announcing that the US was leaving the Iran nuclear deal – also known as the JCPOA – Trump seemed to indicate what his ultimate plan was for stopping the ayatollahs’ nuclear ambitions: either they sit down and negotiate a new deal, or “something will happen.” What that “something” is, he did not say.
There seems to be a pattern here. Trump pulls out of deals that he campaigned against – likely because they were made by his predecessor Barack Obama – and then announces that he is ready to negotiate a new deal, one that will be better for America, simply because he – the ultimate dealmaker – will be making them.
In other words, it’s not ideology that is pushing this, but rather a simpler equation. Trump ran a campaign based on a populist premise: Obama ruined America, and he was going to fix it by nixing all of the previous president’s deals and making ones that are better. His decisions to pull out of the TPP, the Paris Accord and the Iran deal might be controversial and not fully supported by even his own staff, but he had no choice. He made promises to do so on the campaign trail.
That was also largely how the US media covered his announcement on Tuesday. Fox News, for example, ran a headline: “Trump fulfills campaign promise, withdraws from Iran deal.” NBC News ran a similar headline: “Trump kept his promise on Iran. But was it the right promise?”
In other words, it wasn’t about the substance of the decision but rather that the president was doing what he said he would back when he was a candidate.
To know whether this was the right decision will require time, but it is interesting to note the striking overlap between those who oppose the Iran nuclear deal and those who are against the establishment of a Palestinian state.
The stances run basically along the same line of thinking: oppose conventional wisdom without offering an alternative. Many on the Right, for example, oppose the establishment of a Palestinian state. But when asked if that means they support a single state – for Israelis and Palestinians – they say no. So, what do they support? Unclear. Seemingly, just more of the status quo.
The same seems to be the case with many of the opponents of the JCPOA. They can speak for hours about the problems of the deal, but they offer no alternative. When asked whether they prefer that Israel attack Iran, they say of course not. They, too, seem to prefer more of the status quo.
Don’t get me wrong. I, too, think that the Iran deal was highly problematic, primarily because it rewarded Iran while ignoring its ballistic missile program, the dangerous role it is playing in the region (Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and beyond), as well as the JCPOA’s sunset clauses that will allow the Islamic Republic to obtain nuclear weapons with unprecedented ease once they kicks in.
Nevertheless, it also gave Israel and the Middle East some quiet and, in this region, even a day of quiet cannot be taken for granted.
Just look at the past week in Israel: Residents of the North were ordered into bomb shelters for the first time in years, 20 Iranian rockets were fired at the country, and the air force retaliated in one of the largest aerial operations in recent time. All in a span of two days.
It was this thinking, for example, that was behind Secretary of Defense James Mattis’s support of the deal and IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Gadi Eisenkot’s recent declaration that from his perspective, the deal was working.
Both men recognized its many flaws, but also the deal’s advantages of having a mechanism in place – even if flawed – that is stopping Iran (for now) from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
The problem is that whether they like it or not, Iran needed to be confronted, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was right that it is better now than later.
What happened late Wednesday night with the volley of 20 rockets fired at the Golan Heights is just a small taste of what Israel can expect if Iran is allowed to continue building up forces in Syria. It is further proof of why the government’s approach to Syria might lead on the one hand to a larger conflict, but also of how it is preferable, from Israel’s point of view, to fight Iran now rather than after it has built up more formidable forces in Syria.
What happens next with Iran’s nuclear program remains unclear. There are a number of variables: When will sanctions go back into effect? What will Europe do? Will the US sanction European companies that do business with Iran? What will Iran do? Will it exit the deal or stay in it?
The bigger question is, what did Trump promise Israel? While Netanyahu was the deal’s fiercest opponent, he would have wanted to receive some sort of assurance from Trump about the “day after” the accord fell apart. Will the US support Israeli action to stop Iran, including a unilateral military strike? Has the president promised Netanyahu that America will attack if Iran refuses to enter into a new – and better – deal that will forever stop its nuclear program?
If, for example, Trump’s strategy is to threaten the use of military force if a new deal is not reached, then that actually has the chance of working. In the past, Iran showed a willingness to make the greatest concessions on its nuclear program when it feared military intervention. That was the case in 2003, when it temporarily suspended its weapons program after the US invaded Iraq. Iran feared it was next in line and did not want to provoke George W. Bush.
This was one of the main weaknesses of the Obama administration. No one – particularly in Iran – ever believed that Obama would use military force. As a result, Tehran was able to gain the upper hand in the negotiations that culminated in the flawed 2015 deal. Trump is different. He has used military force twice in Syria and is unpredictable. What he says today might be meaningless by the time tomorrow’s tweets roll along. Iran knows and fears this.
If nothing else, when it comes to Israel, Trump has proven himself to be a man who keeps his word. He might be working on a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians, but at least for the last 18 months, he has not tried to force it down Israel’s throat. He has now exited the Iran deal – realizing a Netanyahu fantasy – and will be moving the US Embassy to Jerusalem on Monday. Every US president for the last 30 years promised to do that, but Trump is the only one to keep his word.
That is notable. Now the question is: what will his final word be on Iran and its nuclear program?