Staged like the finale of The Apprentice, President Trump’s media appearance announcing the U.S. withdrawal from the deal limiting Iran’s nuclear program was intended to be a Big Deal.
The president provided all the television staples of national-security seriousness. He described the threat posed by Iran with headline-worthy hyperbole. No one thinks Iran is close to having a missile that can “threaten American cities” (that would be North Korea). He said Israel had provided new information about Iran’s nuclear intentions — all of which dated from before the agreement was signed and implemented, but never mind. And, with a flourish, he signed a national-security directive that would, he said, institute “the highest level of economic sanction.”
But wait. Insiders had told reporters an hour before that sanctions would not be reimposed for six months. Statements from the White House and other agencies provided no details on when sanctions would come, or what they would include. In the prose of the White House fact sheet, “Those doing business in Iran will be provided a period of time to allow them to wind down operations in or business involving Iran.”
There is an argument to be made that the announcement was another spectacle of Trump being Trump, designed for his supporters’ consumption and not necessarily closely related to what policy developments would follow. After all, NAFTA is still in force, and most of the steel and aluminum tariffs the president announced in similarly showy public forums are still “suspended.”
But something else is happening here. Today’s announcement represented a significant shift in the foundations of American foreign policy — even if that is not what was on display. The world will actually become less confident of whether Tehran is or is not pursuing nuclear weapons. Washington will be, ironically, both less central to the region’s affairs and less able to withdraw from it. The Iranian regime will enter a new phase of instability of its own. And the announcement will mark an enormous step toward making 21st-century international politics a no-rules free-for-all.
Though you would never have known it from Trump’s remarks, everyone from Senate Republicans to Israeli military leaders believed that the Iran deal was working to keep Tehran’s nuclear ambitions constrained — and to keep outside powers well-informed of what went on in Iran’s labs, reactors, and storage sites. The IAEA and U.S. intelligence agencies certified again and again that Iran was following the terms of the deal. The president’s speech didn’t share any allegations of violations — because none have surfaced.
Now, Washington, failing to waive our own sanctions, puts us in violation of the agreement’s terms. Will Tehran retaliate by restarting some nuclear work? Most observers think not, at least not right away — that the regime will seek to hold on to support from Europe for at least a while. But we will be less sure. Any future assessments will be even more clouded by politics.
Speaking of Europe: France, Germany, and the U.K. had swung into action before Trump’s announcement. French president Emmanuel Macron even tweeted out his disappointment immediately afterward, like someone chosen to deliver the opposition response. The New York Times reported that the Europeans and State Department had come to a proposed agreement to revise the deal, but that the White House turned them down. The Europeans will keep trying to keep Iran abiding by the deal and pull Washington back in. With American business looking over its shoulder at that “wind down” period, Europe will gain diplomatic and economic heft at Washington’s expense. Trump, who has said repeatedly that he would like to withdraw more troops from the region, may not mind.
But with the threat — perceived or real — of an Iranian nuclear breakout looming over Israel and Saudi Arabia, Trump will be hard-pressed to remove any more U.S. troops from the region or spend any less money on hardware to defend those two allies. And as Kelly Magsamen, who served on the National Security Council under both Bush and Obama, pointed out, Iran is well-positioned to retaliate against the U.S. by threatening American troops, diplomats, and citizens in the region.
Observers of Iran’s internal politics have been pointing out for some time that the country has entered a new phase of instability, with citizen disaffection and cynicism reaching new heights.
Today, Trump seemed to embrace the thinking of National Security Adviser Bolton and others who have argued for the United States to adopt a strong regime-change strategy for Iran. That approach has three problems. First, such a strategy tells the regime there is no possibility of living in peace with Washington, so it might as well not try. Second, there is simply no evidence that a different Iranian government would be friendlier, say, to Saudi Arabia, or that it would abandon Iran’s historical claims to influence and leadership across the region. And third, the force that is best positioned to take advantage of chaos, privation, public anger, and anti-Americanism is not Iranian liberals, but the hardest of hardliners in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.
But the spectacle of one American president undoing the work of another, against the wishes of allies and with no coherent alternative plan, scrambled something bigger than the politics of the Middle East. Every international actor — whether it is banks financing oil deals, Boeing scheduling jet manufacturing, nations considering their alliances — has counted for decades not always on American competence, but on American predictability. Washington would always tell you what it was going to try to do and frequently encourage its partners to do the same.
No one walked away from today’s briefing understanding what the situation with Iran will be in three, six, or nine months. As GOP Senator Jeff Flake commented, the action is “just another signal to the world that we are not a reliable partner.” That gives global business every reason to avoid American partners. It gives countries who don’t want to live in Trump’s casino world every reason to find new friends.
Trump, who went out of his way to announce at the event that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was making another trip to North Korea, seems to believe that tearing up the Iran deal will help him make a better deal with Pyongyang. Most observers, though, believe the opposite — that Pyongyang has surged forward in weapons development in the past when it perceived Washington to be breaking the terms of an agreement. What happens with North Korea — and every country that has ever considered getting a nuclear weapon but decided that an agreement with the U.S. would be a good substitute — is the underwater part of this iceberg. And it’s awfully big.