“The worst deal ever negotiated.”
Those words, lobbed at former President Barack Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran, have echoed since the beginning of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. And yet, since taking office, the Iran deal has become something of an itch that Trump just can’t scratch.
World leaders recently gathered in New York for the UN General Assembly (UNGA). As expected, Trump didn’t hold back on his criticism of the deal, calling it an “embarrassment to the United States” and saying that the world hadn’t “heard the last of it,” with “it,” presumably, being the alleged problems with the deal. Yet, bombastic comments aside, Trump has made no progress in dismantling the deal, and he also seems to be failing to curb Iran’s influence in the region; the growing frustration within the administration over this dilemma is apparent.
Here, it’s important to note that in this latest round of criticism, Trump didn’t specifically state that he intends to “tear up” the deal, as he had previously promised to do. Moreover, he didn’t accuse Iran of breaching any nuclear weapons constraints. He, instead, focused on Iran’s poor human rights record, its financing of terrorism, its development of ballistic missile capabilities, and its meddling in the Middle East. (True to form, he did call Iran a “murderous” regime.)
For all of that, though, Trump has seemed consistently reluctant to actually dismantle the deal. And for good reason: It’s a key safeguard against Iran’s ability to produce nuclear weapons. As such, it’d be erratic, not to mention potentially dangerous, to jettison the deal outright.
The timing of Trump’s address is crucial, given that it comes right before he’d need to certify that Iran is staying true to its obligations. (Trump has previously certified Iran on two separate occasions.) More precisely, the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act (INARA) of 2015 requires the United States to certify by Oct. 15 of this year that the country is completely carrying out the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which is the formal name for the Iran deal.
Trump has expressed annoyance with his national security team, specifically with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, for not offering what he deems a compelling case that Iran isn’t fulfilling its obligations to the JCPOA. Yet, unfortunately for the president, the International Atomic Energy Agency hasn’t found any evidence to suggest that Iran is failing to fulfill its end of the deal.
Although Trump disparages the deal with a seasonal regularity, his security officials are in agreement that it’s currently in the United States’ best interest to keep the JCPOA as it is. Most recently, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said on Tuesday that, “absent indications to the contrary, [the Iran nuclear deal] is something that the president should consider staying with.” And indeed, there’s a strong argument to be made about the negative ramifications of dismantling the deal. Abandoning it would, for one, eliminate one of America’s primary constraints on Iran and its ability to produce nuclear weapons. Its removal also may give hardliners more clout to move aggressively and provide the region a reason to lose confidence in the United States’ ability to honor future deals. Plus, if the Trump administration walked away from the deal, it’s unclear whether key allies would follow suit, as some diplomats have staunchly begun to defend it.
Likewise, gutting the Iran deal completely would run counter to Trump’s own stated foreign policy aims in the Middle East, which include preventing Iran from making gains in the region and scaling back its geopolitical involvement. Much debate on Iran centers around fears that it intends to expand its regional influence via the Iranian-influenced “Shia Crescent” that stretches from Lebanon to Saudi Arabia. This collection of states, which consists of Shia majorities or sizable Shia minorities, serves as a sort of launch pad from which Iran can project its power in the region effectively and efficiently. Its territorial gains in Syria have led to the construction of bases throughout the country, bolstering its military presence. For the United States to disrupt Iran’s operations in the region, it must, at a minimum, maintain its involvement in the Middle East.
Let’s remember, too, why the Obama administration struck the deal in the first place: to address the issue of nonproliferation. The Obama administration knew that including other items in the deal—taking aim at financing terrorism and ballistic missiles—would’ve dramatically decreased the possibility of reaching a deal. What Trump seems to want is more of a grand bargain deal that includes all aspects of Iranian threats to U.S. interests in the region. For now, the administration should explore alternative strategies to curb Iran’s influence, while keeping the deal intact.In all likelihood, there will be an incessant flow of anti-Iran rhetoric coming out of the White House for the foreseeable future. Nonetheless, Trump is able to do very little to change the current circumstances around the Iran deal. Looking ahead, it’s in his administration’s best interest to focus on one regional policy issue at a time, whether that be the Iran deal or any other array of conflicts in the Middle East. The United States has spread itself thin across the region—from soothing the Gulf Cooperation Council crisis to fighting ISIS to attempting to counter Bashar Hafez al-Assad’s regime, among many other critical issues. With less than two weeks to go before it must certify whether or not Iran is in compliance with the nuclear deal, the Trump administration must decide where the Iran deal falls on that list of regional priorities.