President Donald J. Trump has made it official: the United States is pulling out of the Iran deal. Tuesday’s announcement fulfills the president’s oft-stated campaign promise to end “the worst deal ever” and, ideally, to negotiate a better one ensuring Iran does not obtain nuclear weapons.
Terminating the deal also undercuts one of President Barack Obama’s main accomplishments. (Obama released a statement calling Trump’s decision “a serious mistake.”) The Obama Administration’s stated goal with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (as the deal was known formally) was to mitigate the threat of Iranian nuclear weapons through a series of incentives and checks. Behind that goal was Obama’s intention to calm the Middle East and draw down U.S. forces without having to contend with increasing hostilities from Iranian-backed groups.
In reality, the deal had the opposite effect. The mullahs drastically increased their support for terror groups like Hezbollah; expanded their destabilizing presence in Syria and throughout the Levant (in order to threaten Israel); and, as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu revealed last week, allowed the regime to continue developing nuclear weapons in secret, in preparation for 2025 when the deal actually allowed for the mullahs to build a nuclear arsenal openly.
“The fact is this was a horrible one-sided deal that should have never ever been made,” Trump said in his remarks Tuesday. “We cannot prevent an Iranian nuclear bomb under the decaying and rotten structure of the current agreement. The Iran deal is defective at its core.”
Trump came into office promising to end what he viewed correctly as a giveaway to the Iranians while reinvigorating traditional American alliances in Israel and in the Sunni Arab states. But the president has also stated his willingness to renegotiate with Tehran, so long as the new deal is fair and actually prevents Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. As with North Korea, the goal is denuclearization. This is an obtainable goal, so long as the United States applies maximum pressure—not only on Iran, but also on the Europeans (who favor the deal more than anyone because of the windfall profits that would accrue to their corporations).
For its part, Iran needs the deal for two reasons: it needs to be reintegrated fully into the global economy and, for the survival of the regime in Tehran, it desires to possess a nuclear weapons capability (to say nothing of the Islamic Republic’s ideological belief that nuclear arms would allow them to enact the most violent aspects of their worldview: destroying Israel, “Little Satan,” and the United States, “Great Satan”).
For the theocratic regime to survive, it needs a healthy and stable economy—something that it has not had in decades, thanks to the onerous American-backed sanctions regime that existed before 2015. If left to their own devices under the previous sanctions regime, it is likely that the Iranian people naturally would have overthrown their backward-looking government, as economic life in Iran simply became untenable.
The Obama nuclear deal gave the regime a new lease on life. The mullahs desperately want to retain that lease. The mere act of pulling out of the Iran deal will force the Iranians either to return to the table or simply to collapse over time due to a loss of economic opportunity.
It would also bring the Europeans around to Washington’s view that a re-negotiated treaty might actually prevent Iranian nuclear weapons from becoming a reality. Maintaining the agreement would have given all of the initiative to Iran (and all of the benefits of any deal to Europe, Russia, and China).
Squeezing Iran’s economy and isolating the regime diplomatically until the mullahs negotiate a better, fairer deal, would serve American interests in the long-term. Under the terms of the agreement, it will take up to six months before sanctions are fully reinstituted against Iran. That gives all sides an opportunity to reach a new deal, or at least the beginnings of one. Under Obama, the United States squandered its leverage. Under Trump, the United States has the initiative—and time—on its side.
Of course, there are significant downsides to the United States withdrawing from the deal. While abandoning the JCPOA undoubtedly will signal to Israel and the Sunni Arab states that Washington stands united against the aggression of Iran, it will also mean an almost immediate increase in Iranian hostilities throughout the region. That could include Iranian attacks against Israel from neighboring Syria to Hezbollah-backed terror attacks directed against Western targets elsewhere in the world. If not managed properly, the uptick in aggression could result in the need for the United States to use military force against Iran directly—at precisely the time the United States has been trying to draw down in the region.
Also, the instability in relations between the United States and Iran will lead to a spike in the global price of oil. While our allies in Saudi Arabia would benefit from this, the American consumer would not. Meanwhile, the Russian Federation would be economically empowered, just as it was before 2014, suggesting that a new round of Russian military aggression is likely on the way.
In all, the president has done what very few American leaders before him have been able to do: he has weighed the costs and benefits of the deal and determined that, whatever consequences may befall the world in the short term, the longer-term prospects are almost all in America’s favor. What happens next will be difficult, but ultimately, the difficult choice will have proven to be the correct one.
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