An Extraordinarily Dangerous Moment

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.

Trump’s Attacks on Spy Agencies Are Called a National Security Risk

WASHINGTON—President Trump questioned the competence of U.S. intelligence agencies whose assessments of Iran, North Korea and other threats differ from his own, sparking warnings from national security experts and lawmakers that such public comments expose the U.S. to greater risks.

In a series of tweets Wednesday morning, Mr. Trump suggested that Iran is close to developing nuclear weapons, and that intelligence agencies that don’t recognize the threat are misinformed. “The Intelligence people seem to be extremely passive and naive when it comes to the dangers of Iran. They are wrong!” Mr. Trump said in one morning tweet. In another, he wrote, “Perhaps Intelligence should go back to school!”

.. Mr. Trump is hoping his personal chemistry with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un will help smooth the path toward a nuclear deal. At a rally in West Virginia last year, he noted that he has gotten “beautiful letters” from Mr. Kim and the two “fell in love.” Mr. Trump is planning a summit meeting with Mr. Kim next month, hoping to lock down commitments to roll back the country’s nuclear program.
.. John Brennan, a veteran CIA officer, the agency’s director under President Obama, and an outspoken critic of Mr. Trump, wrote in a tweet of his own: “All Americans, especially members of Congress, need to understand the danger you pose to our national security.”Mr. Trump has long said he is wary of the conclusions coming from the U.S. network of spies and intelligence officials whose job is to keep him informed about foreign threats.

He has used the Iraq war to justify his skepticism, noting faulty intelligence estimates that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. As president-elect, his transition team said of U.S. intelligence agencies, “These are the same people who said Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction.”

That statement came in response to reports that U.S. intelligence officials had concluded that Russia interfered in the presidential raceto aid Mr. Trump.

What if the FBI Had Probed Obama?

By the bureau’s Trump standard, he looked like an agent of Iran.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation reportedly opened a counterintelligence investigation in 2017 to find out if President Trump was a Russian agent. What if the FBI had similarly looked into whether President Obama was an agent of Iran?

Counterintelligence agents would have examined the target’s personal and professional networks. The FBI investigated at least four Trump campaign figures for supposed ties to Russia. Only one, Mike Flynn, worked in the administration, and for less than a month. The Obama administration had a few senior officials with personal ties to Iran.

Obama confidant Valerie Jarrett was born in the Iranian city of Shiraz and reportedly led back-channel talks with the Iranians in 2012. Secretary of State John Kerry’s daughter quashed right-wing rumors that her Iranian-American husband’s best man was the son of Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif. But under the FBI’s Trump procedures, that denial might have made her suspect. A month after Trump adviser Carter Page publicly asked then-Director James Comey for an interview to clear his name, the FBI obtained a warrant to wiretap him.

As Mr. Trump’s desire for improved relations with Russia raised eyebrows at the bureau, a 2008 article written by John Brennan—who went on to serve as White House counterterrorism adviser and Central Intelligence Agency director—advocated a grand bargain with Iran. In 2009 the Obama White House conducted secret negotiations with Tehran.

Mr. Obama later sidelined Project Cassandra, an investigation of illicit trafficking networks employed by Hezbollah, Iran’s Lebanese franchise. Launched in 2008, the investigation was run by a multiagency task force, including the FBI itself. Then for 18 months in 2014-15, the Obama White House gave the Iranians $700 million a month in sanctions relief. In January 2016, Mr. Obama sent Iran another $1.7 billion in cash. The administration also had a habit of leaking news of Israeli strikes on Iranian arms convoys and depots in Syria.

All these Obama actions are easily explained: Inducing Iran to sign a nuclear agreement was the former president’s top foreign-policy priority. I believe this pro-Iran policy was disastrous. But it wasn’t collusion or treason or any of the other crimes of which Democrats and their media allies have accused Mr. Trump.

The FBI’s suspicions about Mr. Trump’s relationship with the Kremlin were reportedly piqued by, among other things, a May 2017 television interview in which he said he fired Mr. Comey for the “Russia thing.” He’s also staged a series of brazenly public events where he professed his hopes of warmer ties with Vladimir Putin. Like Mr. Obama’s pro-Iran policies, Mr. Trump’s hope for better relations with Russia was anything but clandestine.

Yet critics of the Russia investigations are wrong to suggest the attacks on the president and his associates reflect the increasing tendency to criminalize policy differences . It has nothing to do with policy, for Mr. Trump’s Russia policy has been as hard-line as that of any post-Cold War administration, including Mr. Obama’s. The FBI’s motive for investigating Mr. Trump looks more like pure politics.

After Trump’s Threat to Iran, White House Convenes a Policy Meeting

High-level gathering is just the third called by Bolton, a key adviser, since assuming post

Four days after President Trump’s stern warning via Twitter to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, national security adviser John Bolton is scheduled to hold a meeting Thursday of Pentagon and other top officials on the administration’s emerging strategy on Iran.

The meeting, which follows Mr. Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear accord and reimpose tough economic sanctions on Tehran, comes as key elements of the administration’s Iran policy remain unclear.

Among them: what the U.S. might give in return for a new agreement with Tehran, and whether Washington is prepared to use military force along with economic pressure to roll back Iran’s assertive posture in the Middle East.

The discussions are to take place among members of the administration’s Principals Committee, a Cabinet-level panel on national security issues that Mr. Bolton chairs and whose members include Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, among other senior officials.

.. The Pentagon, however, isn’t eager to get into a war with Iran at a time when its strategy emphasizes building up capabilities to deter Russia and China, and the outcome of talks with North Korea is still uncertain.

.. To isolate Tehran economically and politically, the administration also threatened sanctions on nations that don’t end imports of oil from Iran by Nov. 4.

.. Mr. Trump said that he was “ready to make a real deal” with Iran. But some former officials believe the goal of others in the administration is to weaken and perhaps even destabilize the Iranian regime.

“What we see from Trump himself is the notion that he can negotiate a bigger and better deal by using pressure to bring the Iranians back to the table with more American leverage,” said Suzanne Maloney, a former State Department official who is at the Brookings Institution. “That view isn’t shared by others in the administration like the national security adviser and secretary of state who see sanctions as an end in itself.”

.. Before the Helsinki summit, Mr. Bolton voiced hope that Mr. Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin might work together to scale back Iran’s role in Syria. But U.S. intelligence experts say that Russia may not have the interest or ability to get Iranian forces out of Syria, and no agreement toward this end was announced in Helsinki.

Trump’s Reckoning Arrives

The president’s unpredictability once worked to his advantage—but now, it is producing a mounting list of foreign-policy failures.

.. Trump’s election jolted almost every government into a frantic effort to understand what to expect. Other countries’ uncertainty enhanced Trump’s relative power—and so, perversely, did Trump’s policy ignorance and obnoxious behavior.

.. presidents are surrounded by elaborate staff systems to help them—and oblige them—to think through their words and actions.

If we impose tariffs on Chinese products, how might they retaliate? What’s our next move after that?

If we want to pressure Iran more tightly than our predecessors, what buy-in will we need from other countries? What will they want in return?

What do we want from North Korea that we can realistically get?

Team Trump does not engage in exercises like this.

.. Team Trump does not do it because the president does not do it. His idea of foreign policy is to bark orders like an emperor, without thinking very hard about how to enforce compliance or what to do if compliance is not forthcoming.

The administration canceled the Iran deal without first gaining European, Chinese, Japanese, or Indian cooperation for new sanctions.

Trump started a trade war with China without any plan for response to the inevitable Chinese counter-moves.

.. The U.S. has abjured its right to inspect Iranian nuclear facilities without any workable plan to impose global sanctions instead. India and China each trade more with Iran than with the entirety of the European Union—and neither is very vulnerable to U.S. pressure.
.. First, because he talked so much and tweeted so much, he revealed much more of himself much earlier than other presidents. His ego, his neediness, his impulsiveness, and the strange irregular cycles of his working day—those were all noted and analyzed before any formal action of his presidency.
.. for example, Australia, his offensive words had limited the ability of Australia’s democratically accountable leaders to cooperate with him.
.. Second, foreign leaders have concluded that the shortest path to Trump’s heart runs through his wallet. Oil states such as the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia have rushed to be helpful to the business interests of Donald Trump and his son-in-law Jared Kushner, seeking an advantage over regional rivals like Qatar. Authoritarian leaders who could hamper Trump-licensed businesses—like Turkey’s Recep Erdogan and Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines—have exploited their perceived leverage, acting with apparent impunity.
.. Third, Trump’s highly suspicious dealings with Russia before the election potentially put him at the mercy of countries in a position to embarrass him.
.. Only 17 percent of South Koreans trust Trump to do the right thing
.. At a time of relatively low military casualties and strong job growth, the president’s popularity at home roughly matches that of George W. Bush’s during the worst months of the Iraq war, 2005–2006, and Barack Obama’sduring the most disappointing months of the weak recovery from the recession of 2009.