To keep his promise to kill an achievement of Obama’s, Trump has been willing to break his promise to get us out of wars in the Middle East.
In a november night in 2013, Barack Obama delivered a statement about an interim nuclear deal that had just been reached, freezing Iran’s program in place. When he was done, I walked with him back to the entrance of his residence, watched by the stoic portraits of former presidents. “Congratulations,” I said. “You just made sure that we won’t have a war with Iran during your presidency.”
“That’s probably true,” he said, considering the question. “But I want to make sure that the next president doesn’t have to go to war either.”
Obama was referring to the need to reach a comprehensive deal that rolled back Iran’s nuclear program. It would take almost two years of painstaking negotiations to get there, but the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) accomplished that objective. Under the terms of the JCPOA, Iran destroyed the core of a reactor that could have produced plutonium for a bomb; removed two-thirds of its centrifuges, the machines that can enrich uranium for a bomb; shipped 98 percent of its stockpile of enriched uranium (enough for 10 bombs) out of the country; and submitted to the most comprehensive international inspections regime ever put into place to monitor a nuclear program.
These achievements are worth revisiting, because any hope of saving the Iran deal likely died with the killing of Qassem Soleimani. Indeed, it’s no surprise that the Iranian government has indicated that it will no longer abide by the limits on its nuclear program imposed by the JCPOA.
How did we get here? The debate over the Iran deal was among the most acrimonious of the Obama years. Throughout 2015, congressional Republicans stridently opposed it. Israel, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia worked to marshal opposition. Think tanks churned out alarmist reports about the JCPOA. Tens of millions of dollars were spent by outside groups such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and United Against Nuclear Iran urging Congress to kill the deal. To prevent that legislation from passing, we worked frenetically to muster 41 Democratic Senate votes to uphold a filibuster. Indeed, the fact that it was far easier for George W. Bush to take the United States into an unnecessary war in Iraq than it was for Barack Obama to secure a nuclear deal to avoid one with Iran says something deeply strange and alarming about our country and its politics.
As soon as he began his run for the presidency, Donald Trump anointed himself the most strident of the JCPOA’s opponents, calling it “the worst deal ever negotiated.” It is likely, of course, that Trump couldn’t even describe the Iran deal’s terms. He failed to articulate a different set of nuclear restrictions, or to offer his views on the nature of centrifuges that Iran should be allowed to operate, or the research and development it should be permitted to perform. Trump simply wanted to destroy anything that Obama built and to satiate right-wing supporters who had their own reasons for opposing the JCPOA. What Trump could do is lie about the Iran deal, and he did so relentlessly.
Upon becoming president, Trump encountered an inconvenient truth: The Iran deal was working. Trump’s own intelligence community and military leadership confirmed that Iran was complying with the JCPOA’s terms; his own secretary of defense argued publicly that staying in the JCPOA was in America’s interest; and all the other parties to the deal—the European Union, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia, and China—opposed Trump’s instinct to pull out. After Trump refused to certify that Iran was complying with the JCPOA (even though it was), even Republicans in Congress quietly refused to reimpose sanctions. And after Trump demanded a better deal, French President Emmanuel Macron offered him the opportunity to pursue one through negotiation, provided that the JCPOA stayed in place. Despite all this evidence and all these efforts, Trump withdrew from the Iran deal in May of 2018 and started reimposing sanctions.
Few recent presidential decisions have been proved to be so spectacularly wrong in such a short period of time.
Trump said that in withdrawing from the JCPOA, he would be in a stronger position to stop Iran’s provocations across the Middle East. The opposite has proved to be the case. Iran has already resumed aspects of its nuclear program that were restricted under the JCPOA. And over the past year alone, Iran or its proxies have shot down a U.S. drone, harassed and seized oil tankers, bombed Saudi oil infrastructure, killed unarmed protesters, and resumed rocket attacks against U.S. interests in Iraq. During the implementation of the Iran deal, by contrast, there wasn’t a single such rocket attack from a Shia militia. Trump initiated the escalatory cycle that led us to this extraordinarily dangerous moment.
It is ironic that the killing of Qassem Soleimani could put the final nail in the coffin of the Iran deal. In the Obama White House, we assessed that Soleimani opposed the JCPOA, and that he led a hard-line flank that viewed the Iranian foreign minister who conducted the negotiations with suspicion. This view was often mocked by Iran-deal opponents, who declared that there was no distinction between hard-liners and more moderate Iranian officials. Indeed, U.S. hawks regularly foreclose opportunities for diplomacy by wrongly seeing the government of any adversary as a monolith. But now, in the wake of Soleimani’s assassination, that debate is largely moot: As mourners flood the streets, all of Iran’s leaders are consolidating around a harder line, vowing to chase the United States out of the region.
We have already seen the consequences of this latest escalation in Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign come into focus. Iraqi leaders are demanding that we leave their country, after Americans sacrificed thousands of lives and spent more than $1 trillion there; new restrictions are inhibiting the fight against ISIS; Iran is casting off the remaining limits on its nuclear program. In the months and years to come, we should expect renewed attacks against U.S. interests—and Americans—from Iran and its proxies. In contrast to the international unity that enabled the achievement of the JCPOA, Trump’s abandonment of it has alienated the United States from our closest allies. And in his other signature foreign-policy initiative—negotiations with North Korea—Kim Jong Un is pushing forward with his own nuclear and missile programs, perhaps having drawn the lesson that you cannot trust the United States to keep a nuclear deal.
In response, Trump and his chief lieutenant on Iran—Secretary of State Mike Pompeo—have sought to deflect blame to the JCPOA. While blaming the Iran deal for the consequences of Trump pulling out of the Iran deal is absurd, this argument should come as no surprise. Trump’s Iran policy was formulated in opposition to Obama, not with an eye toward actual governing. His is a worldview that relies on false charges, hyperbolic rhetoric, and assertions of strength as an end in itself, and not as a means to achieving something. At a Cabinet meeting last year, Trump sat at the table with a Game of Thrones–style poster that read “Sanctions are coming,” as if it were all just a movie, and not real life.
By contrast, the Iran deal was designed to address reality, and discharge the responsibilities of governing. Like any such effort, it was imperfect, and left all parties dissatisfied. For the Iranians, it was flawed because it didn’t lift all sanctions; it did, however, offer relief from certain sanctions and the prospect of further relief if Iran continued to comply. For us, it was flawed because the JCPOA’s most effective restrictions on the Iranian nuclear program expired in 10 or 15 years—but that was 10 or 15 more years of assurance than having no deal in place, and further negotiations that built upon the JCPOA were always an available option. Finally, the JCPOA didn’t stop Iran’s ballistic-missile program or its support for terror in the Middle East; however, the JCPOA did ensure that a regime that has ballistic missiles and supports terror was verifiably prohibited from obtaining a nuclear weapon. That was the whole point. You don’t make nuclear deals like that with your friends.
Indeed, imagine how the current crisis would feel if Iran already had nuclear weapons.
Governing isn’t about making demands on other countries that will never be achieved just because they sound good back in Washington. And the presidency certainly isn’t a movie. When “sanctions are coming,” real people get hurt and terrible things can happen in the real world. One legacy of the JCPOA is that it demonstrates the utility of a different approach.
As Trump confronts the consequences of a crisis of his own creation, he can thank Obama for the fact that Iran doesn’t yet have the means to produce a nuclear weapon. He can thank Obama for the fact that Iran’s nuclear program is set back from where it was in 2015. He can thank Obama for the inspections regime that has functioned effectively. By contrast, the result of Trump’s policy—designed for Fox News sets and campaign rallies—has been a more hard-line Iranian politics, an Iranian adversary that has stepped up its provocations, and a newly unconstrained Iranian nuclear program.
Barack Obama did achieve a deal good enough to prevent his successor from having to go to war with Iran. But now, despite all that work, a de facto state of war exists between the United States and Iran. To keep his promise to kill an achievement of Obama’s, Donald Trump has been willing to break his promise to get us out of wars in the Middle East. In doing so, he has tragically proved Obama right: The choice all along was between the Iran deal or an unconstrained Iranian nuclear program and some form of war.
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A few Republicans have managed—really—to work successfully with the president. Here’s what the new speaker could learn from them.
But there’s no formula for successfully negotiating with this mercurial, ad hoc chief executive. Pelosi’s first attempt to do so, an agreement in September 2017 to protect the Dreamers from deportation in exchange for border security funding, fell apart not long after it was announced.
Still, there’s no reason to think Pelosi, or anyone in the nation’s capital, can’t find a way to a win with Trump. Here’s what we’ve learned about the art of making a deal with Trump from the few successful people in Washington who have figured out how to get what they want out of the president.
Convince Him He’ll Be Loved
Trump may want nothing more than to be well-liked and appreciated. The bipartisan criminal justice reform bill seems to have been sold to him as an opportunity to do just that. Versions of the First Step Act, a major reform that liberalizes federal prison and sentencing laws, had floundered in Congress for years. The policy already had support from across the political spectrum—but it needed a Republican president who could provide political cover to bring enough members of the GOP on board.
Trump wasn’t an obvious champion for sentencing reform. He ran a campaign promising “law and order” and selected the tough-on-crime Jeff Sessions as attorney general. Sessions’ Justice Department had issued reports critical of the bill. The president has suggested that convicted drug dealers deserved the death penalty. To get his support, the criminal-justice reformers would need to conduct a conversion.
The evangelist was White House adviser Jared Kushner, who, all accounts say, worked hard to persuade his father-in-law. Kushner met with everyone from members of the Congressional Black Caucus to Koch-funded interest groups to the news media to bolster an already large coalition. It helped that Kushner was able to deliver plenty of groups and individuals on the right.
“I think the broad popularity of the policy was the gateway,” says one of the bill’s advocates, who watched the process at the White House up close. “The president was also given a booklet of dozens of conservative organizations and individuals making supportive statements on the bill to show grassroots political support. And then it took some convincing that law enforcement was on board.”
The last piece proved crucial, because there’s perhaps no interest group Trump cherishes more than law enforcement. The marquee names—the
- Fraternal Order of Police, the
- International Association of Chiefs of Police, the
- National District Attorneys Association—
were enough to get the president on board. With seemingly few people opposed (Tom Cotton, otherwise a devoted Trump ally, the most prominent) and even staunch critics in the media like Van Jones making the trek to kiss Trump’s ring at the White House, Kushner and his partners succeeded in selling Trump on the most important provision of the First Step Act: Mr. President, you will be loved for signing it.
It won’t be easy for Pelosi, but the Democratic speaker may be able to use similar tactics to goad Trump into supporting some bipartisan health-care initiatives. The administration has already begun proposing some form of federal intervention to lower prescription drug prices, while Democrats have long argued that Medicare should negotiate with Big Pharma on bringing down drug costs. Some kind of compromise bill could get the support of both Capitol Hill and the White House. Your older, Medicare-using base will love you for it, Pelosi might tell the president. That would get his attention.
Remind Him of His Campaign Promises
Earlier this month, Trump and Kentucky Senator Rand Paul were having one of their frequent conversations about the American military presence in both Syria and Afghanistan. Paul, a persistent, longtime critic of the continued deployment of troops in the Middle East, has found the strongest ally of his political career on the issue with Trump.
After their discussion, Paul sent the president some news articles supporting his view that the time was right to withdraw from Syria, says top Paul aide Doug Stafford, who says Trump sent back a note alerting him that he would “see some movement on this soon.” On December 19, Trump announced the forthcoming withdrawal of the roughly 2,000 U.S. troops fighting ISIS in Syria. The move was resisted by just about everyone around Trump, inside and outside the administration, including John Bolton, Jim Mattis and Lindsey Graham. All, except Paul.
“I think people mistake it like Rand is trying to get him to do what Rand wants. But this is what Donald Trump ran on,” says Stafford. “Rand sees his role more as keeping the president where he wants to be and where he said he would be against some people who are inside of the White House and other senators who are trying to push him off of his beliefs and his position.”
As usual, the president makes his predecessors look better.
Suppose you’re the type of smart conservative reluctantly inclined to give Donald Trump a pass for his boorish behavior and ideological heresies because you like the way the economy is going and appreciate the tough tone of his foreign policy, especially when it comes to Islamic fundamentalism.
These last few weeks haven’t exactly validated your faith in the man, have they?
.. The president has abruptly undermined Israel’s security following a phone call with an Islamist strongman in Turkey. So much for the idea, common on the right, that this is the most pro-Israel administration ever.
.. Contrary to the invidious myth that neoconservatives always put Israel first, the reasons for staying in Syria have everything to do with core U.S. interests. Among them: Keeping ISIS beaten, keeping faith with the Kurds, maintaining leverage in Syria and preventing Russia and Iran from consolidating their grip on the Levant.
.. Powers that maintain a reputation as reliable allies and formidable foes tend to enhance their power. Powers that behave as Trump’s America has squander it.
.. But leave that aside and consider the Trump presidency from a purely Israeli standpoint. Are Israelis better off now that the U.S. Embassy is in Jerusalem? Not materially. The move was mostly a matter of symbolism, albeit of an overdue and useful sort. Are Israelis safer from Iran now that the U.S. is no longer in the Iran deal and sanctions are back in force? Only marginally. Sanctions are a tool of strategy, not a strategy unto themselves.
.. What Israel most needs from the U.S. today is what it needed at its birth in 1948: an America committed to defending the liberal-international order against totalitarian enemies, as opposed to one that conducts a purely transactional foreign policy based on the needs of the moment or the whims of a president.
.. From that, everything follows. It means that the U.S. should not
- sell out small nations — whether it was Israel in 1973 or Kuwait in 1990 — for the sake of currying favor with larger ones. It means we should
- resist interloping foreign aggressors, whether it was the
- Soviets in Egypt in the 1960s, or the
- Russians and Iranians in Syria in this decade. It means we should
- oppose militant religious fundamentalism, whether it is
- Wahhabis in Riyadh or Khomeinists in Tehran or Muslim Brothers in Cairo and Ankara. It means we should
- human rights,
- civil liberties, and
- democratic institutions, in that order.
Trump has stood all of this on its head.
He shows no interest in pushing Russia out of Syria. He has neither articulated nor pursued any coherent strategy for pushing Iran out of Syria. He has all but invited Turkey to interfere in Syria. He has done nothing to prevent Iran from continuing to arm Hezbollah. He shows no regard for the Kurds. His fatuous response to Saudi Arabia’s murder of Jamal Khashoggi is that we’re getting a lot of money from the Saudis.
He speaks with no authority on subjects like press freedom or religious liberty because he assails both at home. His still-secret peace plan for Israel and the Palestinians will have the rare effect of uniting Israelis and Palestinians in their rejection of it
.. If you think the gravest immediate threat to Israel is jihadist Hezbollah backed by fundamentalist Iran backed by cynical Russia, the answer is no.
.. If you think the gravest middle-term threat is the continued Islamization of Turkey under Recep Tayyip Erdogan — gradually transforming the country into a technologically competent Sunni version of Iran — the answer is no.
.. If you think that another grave threat to Israel is the inability to preserve at least a vision of a future Palestinian state — one that pursues good governance and peace with its neighbors while rejecting kleptocracy and terrorism — the answer is no.
And if you think that the ultimate long-term threat to Israel is the resurgence of isolationism in the U.S. and a return to the geopolitics of every nation for itself, the answer is more emphatically no.