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America Gets It Wrong on Iran—Again

Donald Trump’s decision to leave the Iranian nuclear deal continues a rich tradition of U.S. fecklessness.

Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty

Something in the U.S. psyche keeps getting it wrong about Iran, causing us to do a series of short-sighted and even self-damaging things. There was the cataclysmic decision in 1953 during the Eisenhower administration to join Great Britain (then headed by Winston Churchill), on behalf of a major British oil company, to overthrow the democratically elected leftist Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh, who was threatening to nationalize Iran’s oil facilities, and to restore the royal family to power by putting Mohammed Reza Pahlavi on the throne. Under Nixon and Kissinger the U.S. armed the Shah to the teeth, instruments the repressive leader used for brutally suppressing dissent among his people.

Meanwhile the U.S. was failing to pick up on the strength of the Iranian Islamic movement, led by the Ayatollah Khomeini, based in Paris, who was smuggling tapes into Iran calling for revolution. On New Year’s Eve in Tehran in 1977, Jimmy Carter toasted the Shah, calling Iran “an island of stability in one of the most troubled areas of the world.” The revolution began that January and a year later the Shah and the Pahlavi dynasty were swept aside. (Various prominent Washingtonians had to adjust to the cessation of Christmas gifts of fine caviar from the Shah’s swinging ambassador to Washington Ardeshir Zahedi.)

After considerable internal debate and pressure from powerful Americans such as David Rockefeller and Henry Kissinger, a hitherto reluctant Carter allowed the Shah, ailing from cancer, to enter the U.S. for treatment—that this would lead a group of student militants to raid the U.S. embassy in Tehran and take American citizens hostage (66 of them, as it turned out) wasn’t unanticipated. But the Carter people failed to get adequate protection for the embassy. The resulting “hostage crisis” lasted 444 days, while Carter and the American media played right into the captors’ hands, the media by giving the hostage situation major coverage and the president by deciding to spend a good amount of his reelection effort in a “Rose Garden strategy,” until he took on the aspect of a hostage himself. 

And then, as dramatically relayed by Carter aide Stuart Eizenstat in his new and definitive book on Carter, President Carter: The White House Years, the U.S. government undertook an ill-considered plan to helicopter U.S. troops over a huge stretch of desert and into Tehran to snatch the hostages and get away—a plan doomed to failure, which is what ensued. With the Carter-Reagan presidential contest in 1980 quite close going into the final weekend, there came the news that Iran wouldn’t release the hostages before the election, and the bottom fell out of the Carter campaign, taking a large number of Democrats with him. (That the hostages were released just after Reagan was sworn in raised suspicions that were never resolved.)

During Reagan’s second term came the loopy, off-the-books (i.e., unconstitutional) operation to sell arms to the “moderate” elements in Iran, in exchange for which they’d make a strong effort to win the return of seven American hostages being held in Lebanon by Hezbollah. The U.S. would then use the proceeds from the sales to help the Nicaraguan right-wing Contras dislodge the left-wing Sandinistas in control of the government. We later learned that in order to further this plot, Reagan’s national security advisor took as a peace offering to the ayatollahs a Bible and a chocolate cake baked in the shape of a key—a symbol of the hoped-for new opening to Iran.

But nothing since the overthrow of Iran’s elected leader in 1953 rivaled in fecklessness and self-damage the decision taken this past week by Donald Trump to withdraw from the deal reached in 2015 between Iran and a group of nations including China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States—the P5 +1 (the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany). The agreement, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), reached after nearly ten years of negotiations (begun during the W. Bush administration and continued through much of Barack Obama’s presidency), was designed to ensure that Iran’s nuclear program would be used for peaceful purposes only. 

Senate Republicans unanimously opposed the deal when it came before their chamber in September 2015, but it survived because Obama had deemed it an executive agreement rather than a treaty, so that it wouldn’t need the highly unlikely support of two-thirds of the Senate, or 67 votes. (Normally, an executive agreement doesn’t come before the Congress at all, but Republicans and a few Democrats insisted that it be subjected to a vote.) The more conservative of the pro-Israel lobbies, AIPAC, was defeated after spending millions on the fight. The deal was vehemently opposed by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who astonishingly addressed the Congress to attack a plan backed by the administration (Republicans invited him), though some retired Israeli military and intelligence officials supported it as in their country’s security interest. Like Netanyahu, some U.S. opponents of the deal, particularly on the far right, hinted that Iran’s nuclear facilities should be destroyed militarily, a feat that several military officials deemed too hard, since some facilities were buried deep underground.

A major criticism of the Iran nuclear deal has revolved around what it doesn’t cover: Iran’s development of missiles; its support of terrorism in the Middle East; its poor record on human rights; and its sale of arms to allies in the area. But it was never in the cards that all these matters could be covered in one agreement. In an interview, Wendy Sherman, former under secretary of state for political affairs, who led the negotiating team working with then–Secretary of State John Kerry, said that the agreement was limited to nuclear weapons for various reasons: the U.N. Security Council resolution mandating negotiations with Iran by the P5+1 was focused solely on Iran’s nuclear program, since that was of the greatest international concern; to have included other issues, such as the development of missiles, would involve trade-offs with the provisions to keep Iran from building nuclear weapons, thereby weakening them; Iran wasn’t willing to include the other issues in the negotiations; and the final deal is 110 pages of heavily technical language. To include provisions on the other subjects as well would have been far too unwieldy and required years more of negotiations.

Iran’s nuclear program presented a real threat: It had secretly developed enrichment capabilities before the turn of the century, and by around 2010 it had a significant nuclear program underway. European countries, more vulnerable to a nuclear-armed Iran, began negotiations with Iran in 2003, before the U.N. resolution and before the U.S. was very interested.

Another argument that U.S. opponents of the deal have thrown at it is that it doesn’t permit inspections of Iran’s military facilities—a charge that’s untrue. A process was established to allow such inspections within 24 days, though of course opponents then argued that gives Iran time to hide traces of its nuclear activities. However, the International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA) has said that Iran wouldn’t be able to remove traces of fissile material in 24 days; that it hangs around for years. Finally, a major issue was how long various restrictions contained in the agreement would last. Some are due to start expiring 10 years from the treaty’s signing. The deal included a stiff monitoring capability and thus far Iran has been assessed to be observing the terms of the agreement. 

Throughout the 2016 presidential campaign and his first year in office, Trump railed against the Iran deal, which may have something to do with the fact that it was widely considered Obama’s crowning foreign policy achievement. (Passing Obamacare was of course his prime domestic accomplishment, and Trump failed to get it repealed.) Trump’s rhetoric about the nuclear deal was extreme; he called it an “embarrassment” and “one of the worst and most one-sided transactions the United States has ever entered into.” The president didn’t offer specific complaints.

He didn’t seem to know much about it. Senator Tim Kaine, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and an expert on the deal, has his own explanation for Trump’s point-blank opposition to it: “It’s very difficult for others to understand that he has a deep insecurity for anything achieved by Barack Obama,” Kaine told me. Trump has done this kind of thing before, pulling the U.S. out of the Obama-supported Paris climate accord, the U.N. compact on global migration, and the Trans-Pacific Partnership. As for Trump and the Iran agreement, Kaine said, “I don’t think he understands it; I think he pulled out because he’s insecure about Obama’s legacy.” Shortly after Trump fired Rex Tillerson from his job as secretary of state, Trump commented, “When you look at the Iran deal, I thought it was terrible. He thought it was okay.” Defense Secretary James Mattis openly favored the U.S. remaining in the deal, and Mattis is one of the few people working for Trump who hasn’t earned his scorn, but other forces were pulling at Trump harder. 

In Kaine’s opinion, but not his alone, the U.S.’s pulling out of the Iran deal is “dangerous.” For one thing, he said, “We’ve shifted the focus from the question of Iran’s behavior to America’s good faith.” For Russia, for the U.S. to show bad faith is “a positive,” Kaine said. We can look for more economic as well as military cooperation between Russia and Iran, and more Iranian cooperation with China. “We’re weakening our alliances and giving our adversaries more reasons to band together, and this will lead to more instability in the Middle East,” he said. He pointed to the recent rocket exchanges between Israeli and Iranian forces. Finally, with Iran being “a complicated political environment”– a country with constant tensions between its moderates and radicals –if there was a belief that the U.S. was going to play a more even-handed role in the Middle East, rather than coming down firmly on the side of Israel and Saudi Arabia, Kaine suggested, “some elements in the Iranian government would say, ‘Good, we can work with that,’ and they might wage fewer proxy wars.” He was referring to the Sunni (plus Israel)–Shia (Iran) wars in Yemen, Syria, and Lebanon. But if we throw in our hand with the Saudi-Israel factor, “there will continue to be Iran/Saudi proxy wars.”

Kaine also finds it deeply regrettable that Trump’s pulling out of the deal could be seen as releasing Iran from the pledge contained in its first paragraph: “Iran reaffirms that under no circumstances will Iran ever seek, develop or acquire any nuclear weapons,” a pledge that Kaine maintains is legally enforceable. “He’s relieved them of that obligation,” Kaine says. 

One of the striking facts about this momentous decision was that it was made with no process. There wasn’t a single meeting of the National Security Council on the issue. It’s clear by now that Trump doesn’t listen to what he doesn’t want to hear. The president hated the deal for his own reasons but in selecting John Bolton as his new national security advisor, he had someone who was, if anything, more strongly against it. Bolton’s predecessor, H.R. McMaster, was believed to view the Iran deal more favorably than his successor, just as Tillerson was more in favor of it than current Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

The explanation of Trump allies that he was obliged to renege on the deal because of a campaign promise is bogus: Trump has broken several such pledges already. His vows to “make health insurance available to everyone,” to “expand choice, increase access, lower costs, and at the same time provide better health care,” and to avoid cuts in Medicaid and Medicare weren’t honored; how the Wall will turn out is anyone’s guess. But when it came to killing international agreements Obama had negotiated—as well as policies he’d backed, such as cleaning up the environment—it was a different matter. 

The leaders of France and Germany and the foreign secretary of Great Britain came to Washington in the days leading up to Tuesday, May 8, the date Trump had selected, for no particular reason, to announce his decision on the Iran deal, to try to head off a U.S. withdrawal. They had a scheme they’d been discussing with U.S. officials for three months, in the hope it would give Trump a face-saving solution. The idea was for a larger agreement that would meet some of the complaints about the existing deal: that it didn’t cover Iran’s development of ballistic missiles; that it skirted some regional issues; and that it wasn’t properly “sunsetted.” A leading Western diplomat told me, “We thought we were 95 percent of the way there over the weekend.” 

Then, on Monday the U.S.’s European allies received word from the State Department that the deal to salvage the deal was off. The president would announce that the U.S. would depart the Iran nuclear deal. (In his bombastic announcement Trump flung the charge that Iran was already building a nuclear capacity, for which he offered no evidence.) The European leaders may have been engaging in hope over reality: While they found some sympathizers in the State Department, if there was any chance at all that Trump wouldn’t tear up the agreement, that ended when he selected Bolton as his national security advisor—as Trump, having watched Bolton on Fox News, had to know. There’s reason to wonder if the Iran deal ever had a chance with Trump. (On the night before Trump’s announcement, we were treated to the spectacle on television of a grinning Rudy Giuliani spitting on a piece of paper meant to represent the deal.)

One problem stirred up by Trump’s decision was that it involved a re-imposition of U.S. sanctions on Iran, which could bite our European allies. But the senior Western diplomat said that he didn’t expect Russia and the Europeans to go along with the U.S. sanctions regime, which might render them less than effective. Meanwhile, the Europeans plan to stick with the Iran deal. Said the diplomat, “We Europeans thought our national security was better with this deal.” He added that he expected Russia to exploit the situation, not only telling the world that the U.S. can’t be trusted, but also seeking, as it had at the outset of the Trump presidency, with Trump’s cooperation, to sow divisions within the NATO alliance.

If Kaine is right that there’s a strong emotional component in Trump’s position on the Iran deal, what explains the intense anti-deal sentiment on the far right (this would include Bolton)? A check on Capitol Hill informs one that this faction is mainly motivated by a desire to impose “regime change” on Iran. That is, to overthrow the current Iranian government. (There’s a certain circular phenomenon in effect here: moderate forces within Iran, on which the deal’s backers were counting to push their country in a more peaceful direction, have been disarmed by Trump’s rejection of it.) This suggests the chilling thought that U.S. policy toward Iran is being guided by people who have learned nothing from history.