The Art of the Iran Deal: Trump's Lackluster Leadership

 /  Nov. 19, 2017, 3:01 p.m.


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During his presidential campaign Donald Trump promised to revoke the Iran nuclear deal, calling it “the worst deal ever negotiated” and warning that it risked starting a “nuclear holocaust.” Trump’s ascent to the presidency thus cast doubt on the future of the deal, and that doubt has been realized. On October 13, Trump declared that he would disavow the Iran deal by decertifying it, which does not immediately obliterate the deal but allows Congress to reevaluate it. Trump’s decision appears ill-advised and destabilizing; it will likely undermine other countries’ faith in US leadership on international issues. Trump’s decision to disavow the Iran deal demonstrates his lack of leadership on a foreign policy initiative critical to the United States and the world, as his decision is unlikely to help contain Iran’s nuclear program. Instead, he appears to have intended simply to evoke praise from his base.

The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, known as the Iran deal, was negotiated in 2015 by six major world powers (the United States, United Kingdom, Germany, France, Russia, and China) with Iran. In the simplest terms, the deal established that economic sanctions placed on Iran would be lifted in exchange for Iran placing restrictions on its nuclear program, which, along with that of North Korea’s, is one of the most controversial of its kind worldwide. The Obama administration’s ability to coax Russia and China to lend their support has led to the Iran deal being anointed the crowning foreign policy achievement of President Obama’s tenure. But, as with many of Obama’s accomplishments, Trump seems to have begun the process of deconstructing the Iran deal—beginning with his speech last October, when he explained that he believes the agreement was no longer in America’s interests.

In his speech disavowing the Iran deal, Trump decried Iran’s supposed violations of the agreement. From there, the president called upon Congress to develop legislation that would automatically impose harsher sanctions on Iran if the country approached certain “trigger points” contained in the agreement. But Trump’s position on the Iran deal have little to no rational basis. Iran has been found to be generally compliant with the Iran deal, and though the agreement is worthy of criticism, it has worked overall in the two years since its inception to curb any potential Iranian nuclear threat. The deal has not changed Iran’s entire foreign policy agenda in the past two years, but that expectation would be unrealistic. The deal has, fortunately, set limits on Iranian nuclear weaponry and demonstrated the benefits of international cooperation to all of the parties involved. Even if the Trump administration is sincere about further fixing rather than simply scrapping the Iran deal, the president’s decertification of the agreement is puzzling at best from a strategic standpoint.

Significant figures in Trump’s own cabinet have pushed back against his desire to scrap the Iran deal. Defense Secretary James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson have publicly affirmed the importance of keeping the Iran deal in place; Trump reportedly “threw a fit” when his top advisers argued and pleaded with him to recertify it. Trump’s administration officials are balancing their need to publicly justify the President’s irrationality on the Iran deal with their desire to keep the agreement stable because they ultimately view it as being in America’s best security interests. In disavowing the Iran deal, therefore, Trump has gone against the wishes of his own appointed government officials just so that he can appease his supporters by attacking the agreement. We should be thankful that Mattis, Tillerson, and others have been able to prevent Trump from totally destroying the Iran deal (so far).

Clearly, Trump does not like the Iran deal and is aware that his supporters do not like it either—that was why he promised during his campaign to scrap the agreement. About 85 percent of Republican voters say they support renegotiating the terms of the Iran deal in a recent poll. Trump, aware of Republican voters’ disposition toward the Iran deal, has called the agreement a “total embarrassment” for the US, citing Iran’s supposed violations as evidence of his position when no such concrete evidence seems to exist. Trump repeatedly emphasizes his anti-Iran deal narrative to maintain the support of his base and legitimize his administration’s foreign policy strategy, as if he can speak legitimacy into existence. Given Trump’s track record as a political figure, it is possible he could succeed at conjuring up that legitimacy.

Why do Trump and his base hate the Iran deal so much? No doubt, a significant part of the blind hatred for the Iran deal he and his supporters harbor is the result of its association with the Obama presidency, whose achievements Trump is meticulously endeavoring to undo. Trump’s rhetoric against the Iran deal, coupled with his base’s opposition to it, falls directly in line with the broader anti-Obama trend that his campaign and presidency have embodied (not to mention the Republican Party overall). As a result, Trump has likely approached the Iran deal with preconceived biases about the agreement that have next to nothing to do with its actual success or failure and everything to do with its origins and perception among his fans. Trump’s intention, whether to undo Obama’s legacy, to “look tough” on Iran, or to fulfill whatever other unfounded desire he and his supporters might have, exhibits a distressing lack of credible leadership on a hugely important foreign policy matter.

On top of this, Trump has transferred much of the responsibility for the Iran deal’s future from his own administration and presidency to Congress. By decertifying the Iran deal, Trump has put the onus on Congress to either improve the agreement as Trump sees fit or re-impose sanctions on Iran and forget about the deal entirely. In doing so, Trump has essentially conjured up a potential excuse: if the Iran deal collapses, whether by Trump’s volition or otherwise, the Trump administration can more easily distance itself from the agreement’s failure and place the blame for the resulting consequences on Congress or elsewhere. Though that might be shrewd political maneuvering, it is not national leadership. Trump has seemingly used the Iran deal to generate applause from his preferred audience rather than aim to ensure national security and international stability. In fact, Trump may have already provoked greater anti-US sentiment in Iran with his demeanor.

Unfortunately, it appears that we cannot expect Trump to lead his administration as previous presidents have done, especially where foreign policy is concerned. His decision-making is primarily driven by appearances and public reception of his words and actions from his base support, not by what might actually be in the best interest of the United States and its position in the world. Hopefully, some of the more rationally-minded officials in his administration, like Tillerson and Mattis, can hold his senseless and dangerous verdicts in check. Otherwise, US foreign policy could stand to lose much more than the Iran deal in the months and years to come.

The image on this article is used under the Creative Commons license. The original can be found here.


Aman Tiku

Aman Tiku is a second year majoring in history and political science. Last summer, Aman interned at the FDA working on social science research projects. He writes a column on political developments in the Asia-Pacific at the Gate, having lived abroad for much of his life as an American citizen. On campus, he also serves as a Staff Editor on The University of Chicago Journal of Human Rights.


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