Stephens: A courageous Trump call on a lousy Iran deal

Stephens: A courageous Trump call on a lousy Iran deal

May 10th, 2018 by Bret Stephens/New York Times News Service in Opinion Free Press Commentary

President Donald Trump delivers a statement on the Iran nuclear deal from the Diplomatic Reception Room of the White House, Tuesday, May 8, 2018, in Washington. Trump announced the U.S. will pull out of the landmark nuclear accord with Iran, dealing a profound blow to U.S. allies and potentially deepening the president's isolation on the world stage. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Photo by Associated Press /Times Free Press.

Of all the arguments for the Trump administration to honor the nuclear deal with Iran, none was more risible than the claim that we gave our word as a country to keep it.


The Obama administration refused to submit the deal to Congress as a treaty, knowing it would never get two-thirds of the Senate to go along. Just 21 percent of Americans approved of the deal at the time it went through, against 49 percent who did not, according to a Pew poll. The agreement "passed" on the strength of a 42-vote Democratic filibuster, against bipartisan, majority opposition.

Bret Stephens

Bret Stephens

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"The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (J.C.P.O.A.) is not a treaty or an executive agreement, and it is not a signed document," Julia Frifield, then the assistant secretary of state for legislative affairs, wrote then-Rep. Mike Pompeo in November 2015, referring to the deal by its formal name.

It's questionable whether the deal has any legal force at all.

Build on political sand; get washed away by the next electoral wave. Such was the fate of the ill-judged and ill-founded JCPOA, which Donald Trump killed Tuesday by refusing to again waive sanctions on the Islamic Republic. He was absolutely right to do so — assuming, that is, serious thought has been given to what comes next.

In the weeks leading to Tuesday's announcement, some of the same people who previously claimed the deal was the best we could possibly hope for suddenly became inventive in proposing means to fix it. This involved suggesting side deals between Washington and European capitals to impose stiffer penalties on Tehran for its continued testing of ballistic missiles — more than 20 since the deal came into effect — and its increasingly aggressive regional behavior.

But the problem with this approach is that it only treats symptoms of a problem for which the JCPOA is itself a major cause. The deal weakened U.N. prohibitions on Iran's testing of ballistic missiles, which cannot be reversed without Russian and Chinese consent. That won't happen.

The easing of sanctions also gave Tehran additional financial means with which to fund its depredations in Syria and its militant proxies in Yemen, Lebanon and elsewhere.

Apologists also claim that, with Trump's decision, Tehran will simply restart its enrichment activities on an industrial scale. Maybe it will, forcing a crisis that could end with U.S. or Israeli strikes on Iran's nuclear sites. But that would be stupid, something the regime emphatically isn't. More likely, it will take symbolic steps to restart enrichment, thereby implying a threat without making good on it. What the regime wants is a renegotiation, not a reckoning.

Why? Even with the sanctions relief, the Iranian economy hangs by a thread: The Wall Street Journal on Sunday reported "hundreds of recent outbreaks of labor unrest in Iran, an indication of deepening discord over the nation's economic troubles."

The regime might calculate that a strategy of confrontation with the West could whip up useful nationalist fervors. But it would have to tread carefully: Ordinary Iranians are already furious that their government has squandered the proceeds of the nuclear deal on propping up the Assad regime.

The goal is to put Iran's rulers to a fundamental choice. They can opt to have a functioning economy, free of sanctions and open to investment, at the price of permanently, verifiably and irreversibly forgoing a nuclear option and abandoning their support for terrorists. Or they can pursue their nuclear ambitions at the cost of economic ruin and possible war. But they are no longer entitled to Barack Obama's sweetheart deal of getting sanctions lifted first, retaining their nuclear options for later, and sponsoring terrorism throughout.

Trump's courageous decision to withdraw from the nuclear deal will clarify the stakes for Tehran. Now we'll see whether the administration is capable of following through.

The New York Times

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