President Donald Trump’s attempt to blow up the Iranian nuclear deal isn’t foreign policy. It’s vandalism.
Trump is abandoning the Iran deal, with nothing to replace it, even though his own secretary of state and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff say that Iran appears to be in compliance; even though his own secretary of defense says that staying in the deal is in America’s interest; even though our allies are pleading to stick with it. The reason for Trump’s decision seems obvious: The deal was President Barack Obama’s.
This petty retreat from diplomacy is the most significant national security move Trump has made. It means that Trump is isolating the United States, not Iran, and it increases the risk of military conflict down the road. If there’s anything we should have learned, it’s to avoid unnecessary wars in the Middle East – but Trump may be laying the groundwork for yet another.
“Many regard the invasion of Iraq as the worst foreign policy move in the history of the American republic,” James Dobbins, a much respected retired diplomat, tweeted after Trump’s speech. “Now we have a competitor.”
The Iranian deal may not permanently solve the problem of Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons, but it delays any crisis for nearly 15 years or more. Trump doesn’t want to risk a possible crisis then, so he chooses to have one now –apparently, just for the satisfaction of kicking sand at Obama.
A crisis won’t necessarily result right away. It could be some months before sanctions would actually kick in, and in any case Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said this week that the nuclear deal could remain in place even if the Americans pull out.
Rather, Iran may try for moderation to peel European allies away from the United States – and Trump is playing into this Iranian strategy. Some in the international community will regard the actions of Trump and of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, and see Khamenei as more of a statesman.
Meanwhile, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seems to be itching for a joint American-Israeli strike on Iran. Netanyahu may see political advantages to a triumphant airstrike, and I fear Trump might as well. Trump may have absorbed the unfortunate lesson from his military strikes on Syria that when he fires missiles, he is hailed as presidential.
I’m told that the United States years ago secretly built a replica of the Iranian complex at Fordo, which is deep underground to protect it from bombings, and practiced striking it with new munitions to see whether it could be destroyed. Based on those tests, the United States could indeed destroy Fordo, and that will give hawks in the Trump administration, like John Bolton, more confidence as they advocate military options down the road.
Bolton is smart and knowledgeable, but his hawkish approach also has a track record. Let’s see how it did in three cases:
First, Bolton agitated for the Iraq War and still considers the invasion to have been a wise decision. The war, remember, killed 4,500 Americans, about half a million Iraqis, and cost the United States some $3 trillion, or $24,000 per American household.
Second, Bolton in 2002 helped kill the Agreed Framework that had kept North Korea from building a single nuclear warhead during the Clinton years. North Korea was secretly evading the framework, so tough negotiation was required – but instead Bolton helped blow up the deal, and since then North Korea has conducted six nuclear tests and developed intercontinental missiles that can reach the United States.
Third, Bolton in 2003 and 2004 helped end a European initiative to reach a deal with Iran on nuclear issues at that time, when the program was in much earlier stages.
In each of these cases, Bolton and the hawks were right that diplomacy was a flawed tool and might not have achieved our objectives: In international relations, there are more problems than solutions. What is clear is that the hawkish non-diplomatic paths failed catastrophically.
A basic problem with military options is that, as Prussian strategist Helmuth Von Moltke observed, no military plan survives first contact with the enemy. After a strike, Iran might try to blow up Saudi oil installations; or block oil exports through the Strait of Hormuz; or it could use its proxies in Lebanon to stir up a war with Israel.
I’ve reported in Iran (and been detained there by secret police and accused of spying), and I know full well that the regime is untrustworthy. That’s precisely the reason for the nuclear deal and the rigorous inspections that come with it. For now, the inspectors agree that Iran is essentially in compliance – while the United States arguably violated it by failing to approve licenses for commerce with Iran, and by subverting normal trade relations.
So why destroy a deal that is working, other than to dismantle some of Obama’s legacy?
“What’s the purpose of all this?” asked Jake Sullivan, a former senior State Department official involved in the outreach to Iran. “You put pressure back on, and what’s the purpose? Is it to achieve a new nuclear deal? Is it about regime change?”
Sullivan noted that there’s little chance of Trump actually negotiating a new deal, and added: “So what’s the point of this other than ‘Iranians are bad people and we’re going to hurt them.’ What’s the strategy other than a temper tantrum?”
And that’s why I see Trump’s move as less about foreign policy than about vandalism.
Nicholas D. Kristof is a columnist for The New York Times. Reach him at Facebook.com/Kristof, Twitter.com/NickKristof or c/o The New York Times, Editorial Department, 620 8th Ave., New York, NY 10018. © 2018 New York Times News Service