President Trump’s decision to pull out of the Iran nuclear agreement has thrilled many foreign policy hawks, who are highly confident it will produce a better outcome. There is just one wee, small asterisk. “Trump killed [the deal] on Tuesday by refusing to again waive sanctions on the Islamic Republic,” exults New York Times columnist Bret Stephens. “He was absolutely right to do so — assuming, that is, serious thought has been given to what comes next.”
Well, yes, assuming that. The remainder of Stephens’s column assumes this rather crucial fact into existence and proceeds from there. A briefing with State Department officials yesterday made it very clear that serious thought has not been given as to what happens next. The official explained that the administration had focused its attention so far on trying to strengthen the deal, and has made no effort to formulate a plan of action after pulling out of it.
A reporter asked whether they had gotten Europeans to agree to maintain sanctions on Iran if the deal collapsed. The official admitted that they had not:
QUESTION: But again, I just want to understand: You do not know at this point what the Europeans are going to do in terms of the entire ancillary agreement you’ve negotiated? You do not know at this point what the Europeans are going to do, whether they’re going to fight you and – and, like they do with Cuba, protect their companies against your secondary sanctions or what – you do not know what the Europeans, your closest allies, are going to do vis-a-vis any of the ancillary effects of getting out of this deal. Is that right?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: We’re in constant conversations with the Europeans on this.
QUESTION: But you don’t know at this point? You don’t know? You didn’t get to that in your discussions, what’s going to happen?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: We did not talk about a Plan B in our discussions because we were focused on negotiating a supplemental agreement, so we did not – we did not talk about Plan B.
There is absolutely no reason to believe Europe, Russia, China, India, and other countries will go along with the economic sanctions Trump would need in order to have leverage over Iran. Indeed, many of those countries sound pretty upset with us and not in the mood to cooperate with our plan to undermine the policy they want to pursue. And without that pressure, Iran could resume the work toward attaining nuclear capability.
Matthew Continetti’s even more triumphal column adopts similar reasoning. Trump’s announcement is a master stroke, “Because the president said not only that America will be leaving the accord. He declared that the period of waxing Iranian influence in the Middle East is at an end.” Well! He declared it! Why didn’t anybody think to do that before? Continetti characteristically attributes the supposed awfulness of the Iran deal to Obama’s fondness for “therapy and dialogue over realism and hard decisions.” He does not explain why Iran was racing toward a nuclear bomb under George W. Bush.
It is true that the Iran deal had trade-offs, as most deals with adversaries tend to do. In return for giving up its nuclear program, the terms of which Trump’s national security advisers conceded the country was fulfilling, Iran was able to gain economic concessions, which it could leverage into all kinds of non-nuclear efforts to advance its nefarious influence. If you assume away the work of coming up with a plan, alternatives that don’t grapple with trade-offs can look pretty attractive. Stephens and Continetti assume both that our allies will support tough sanctions and that Iran will be too scared to resume its nuclear program.
And if they’re not? Either the hawks will admit they made a mistake hinging a policy on a dubious assumption that Trump could conceive and implement a complicated fallback strategy. Or else they will hold up Iran’s emboldened position as evidence that Iran is too evil to make deals with. I don’t think it’s very hard to guess which option they’ll take.