President Trump has certified for the second time that Iran is in compliance with the 2015 nuclear accord that limits its nuclear program. But the leaks and background briefings surrounding his statement, followed by new sanctions announced Tuesday, sent unmistakable signals: The decision was taken grudgingly, Trump is increasingly unhappy with Iran and the deal, and he may be looking for a way out.
This is potentially playing with fire. The Iranian regime is repressive, a serial human rights abuser and expanding its influence in the region. Iran without nuclear weapons is a far less dangerous adversary. Unless Iran cheats big time on the agreement, there are four very good reasons why the administration would be well advised not to abandon it or take actions designed to push Iran to do so.
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Signaling can be dangerous. Everything about the presidentís certification, which is required every 90 days, seemed like a warning to Iran that the next time might be different. The White House put out the story that Trump spent 55 minutes of an hour-long meeting arguing against certification and that heíd been talked into approving it the first time around in April. Administration officials mentioned the additional sanctions and said they intended to strengthen enforcement policies in response to Trumpís request for a more hard-line approach.
In certain circumstances signaling an adversary can be effective. In this case, given the gap between the presidentís tough words on Iran and the absence of much tougher actions, itís likely to be seen as an empty threat. Former national security adviser Michael Flynn famously put Iran on notice back in January; and yet whether itís in Syria, Iraq or the Gulf, the administration seems to want to avoid a conflict with Iran on the ground. In addition, itís unlikely that baiting the Iranians will change their behavior. In fact, that may well be grist for their propaganda mill.
No advantages of pulling out. Itís hard to see what the administration gains if it goads Iran into walking away from the agreement. The United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia, China, and the European Union are not going to rally behind more sanctions; to the contrary, they are encouraging lucrative deals with Iran. Further, maintaining unified support for the existing Iranian sanctions regime will be even more difficult if there is a perception that Americaís behavior killed the agreement. It is preposterous to believe that any of these countries will agree to renegotiate the accord to get better terms.
The Israeli government opposed the nuclear agreement and tried to torpedo it. But an Iranian nuclear program no longer shackled by the agreement would stir considerable anxiety in Tel Aviv, given the instability on its northern border and continuing concerns over the expansion of Iranian influence in Syria. Nor would our friends in the Persian Gulf, with the possible exception of Saudi Arabia, cheer a collapse of the agreement. In fact, they would all come running to the United States for reassurances. Simply put, a U.S.-engineered end to the agreement would cause a train wreck with our allies and hand Russia and China new opportunities to extend their influence in the region. It would also plunge international respect for Americaís global leadership to a new low.
Who needs another nuclear rogue state? The last thing the beleaguered and overwhelmed White House needs is to re-open the nuclear file with Iran. The U.S. strategy for ending North Koreaís nuclear (and missile) programs is bankrupt. Tightening the sanctions screw is not working because China wonít bring North Korea to heel. There are no good military options. The White House refuses to negotiate with the North Korea and continues to cling to the illusory goal that it can be denuclearized.
Meanwhile, South Korea, which has just proposed direct military talks with the North, is moving on its own to end the Northís isolation. An Iranian decision to withdraw from the nuclear agreement would not only overload the administrationís already frayed circuits. It would also deal a serious blow to the global nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Testing the White Houseís crisis management capabilities isnít an experiment any sane person would want to conduct.
Iran without a nuke is far preferable better than Iran with one. The nuclear agreement is not perfect. When its main provisions expire in 10 to15 years, Iran will have a free hand to resume the production of weapons-grade material and to develop nuclear weapons. Tehran's continued testing of ballistic missiles, which is not constrained by the agreement, will give Iran the capability to deliver these weapons across the region.
This was, however, the best agreement that could be negotiated under the circumstances and it produced two very important benefits. First, it probably headed off a military confrontation pitting Israel and the United States against Iran ó a conflict that would have endangered U.S. goals in Iraq and our position throughout the Gulf region as well as triggered Iranian terrorist attacks. Second, it averted a serious blow to the NPT.
The administration needs to come up with a sensible strategy to confront Iran where it challenges core U.S. interests. But playing around with a nuclear agreement ó however imperfect ó that is keeping Iranís finger off the nuclear trigger, is both irresponsible and dangerous. If this is the course the Trump administration follows, itís likely to find itself with the worst of both worlds: an Iran with nuclear weapons expanding its influence in the region. Perhaps in some parallel universe this could be claimed as a beautiful victory that will make America great again, but on planet Earth that just isnít going fly.
Aaron David Miller, a vice president at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and a former State Department adviser and Middle East negotiator, is the author of The End of Greatness: Why America Canít Have (and Doesnít Want) Another Great President. Richard Sokolsky, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, served in the State Department for 37 years. Follow Miller on Twitter: aarondmiller2