The Iran Deal May Live After All

Back in more diplomatic times. Photo: Rick Wilking/AFP/Getty Images

As President Trump waffled on his most central campaign promise this week (“The wall will come later!”), he also, more quietly, sent out signals that he’s backpedaling on another piece of hot campaign rhetoric.

The New York Times reports that Trump is leaning toward an approach that would retain the Iran nuclear deal, the landmark agreement negotiated by the Obama administration, which Trump repeatedly bashed on the campaign trail and seemed on the verge of upending:

Thursday’s congressionally imposed deadline, to renew an exemption to sanctions on Iran suspended under the 2015 deal, was significant because had the president reimposed economic punishments on Iran, he would have effectively violated the accord, allowing Tehran to walk away and ending the agreement. But Mr. Trump was convinced by top Cabinet members and aides that he would also blow up alliances and free Iran to produce nuclear weapons material.

The move was more consequential than the decision the president faces in October about whether to recertify to Congress that Iran is in compliance with the deal, which has no effect on the nuclear agreement itself.

Although Trump may still ditch the agreement, it now seems more likely that he’ll seek a less radical approach in pressuring Iran, a country he and many in his administration distrust deeply. The administration will try to curb Iran’s influence throughout the Middle East via sanctions, promote pro-democracy groups in the country, and possibly renegotiate key tenets of the nuclear deal — though it would need substantial support from European allies to do so.

On Thursday, the administration imposed new sanctions on Iran, while Trump repeated some of his dismal assessments of the nuclear agreement that were a staple of campaign speeches, calling it “one of the worst deals I have ever seen” and accusing Iran of violating “the spirit” of the agreement. (In Trump’s fevered vision of the world, just about every international agreement is fundamentally flawed, since the only reasonable deal is one in which America gets everything and other countries get very little and like it.)

After the president grudgingly recertified the agreement in July, he commissioned a team whose sole purpose consisted of unearthing Iranian violations so that Trump could justify reversing himself the deal in October — even though doing so would not, in and of itself, kill the deal. International monitors have concluded that no such violations are taking place.

As with with so many other matters, Trump’s bellicosity has clashed with his cabinet’s pragmatism. Secretary of Defense James Mattis, National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson all favor maintaining the deal. European governments have also urged Trump to stay in. Outside of the hawkiest factions, the prospect of blowing up the deal is not popular in many GOP circles. On the Iranian side, the dynamic is familiar: a faction of hard-liners is unenthusiastic about the agreement, but the moderate wing of the government, led by the reformer president Hassan Rouhani, has carried the day thus far.

Iran has grown more assertive in the Middle East in recent years, establishing itself as a dominant player in Iraq as the U.S. presence fades, and aligning itself with Syrian president Bashar al-Assad as part of a larger proxy war with Saudi Arabia, the repressive theocracy that Trump favors.

The Iran Deal May Live After All