Middle East

Has Trump Fixed the 'Worst Deal Ever'? Kinda, Sorta

Decertifying the Iran pact isn't the same thing as ripping it up. But Iran hawk Mark Dubowitz thinks it could be a start to a tougher agreement.

Not gonna give it up.

Photographer: Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images

As a presidential candidate, Donald Trump made a lot of promises: repealing Obamacare, tax cuts for all, and of course this big, beautiful pledge:

 

So far, as even his staunchest supporters would admit in their most honest moments, he’s failed to make good on most of it. Until Friday, that is.

That was when the president gave a speech on another longtime promise: ripping up the nuclear deal Iran reached in 2015 with the U.S. and five other major powers –- a.k.a. the Worst Deal Ever. By refusing to certify that Tehran was in compliance, Trump finally took a major step toward making America great again.

Or did he?

In the same speech, Trump made clear that he only kinda, sorta meant it. He doesn’t want the U.S. to walk away from the deal, he explained, and he doesn’t want Congress to blow it up, an authority lawmakers hold because the man responsible for the deal, Barack Obama, never pushed the case to make it an official treaty.

This raises a question: Have we reached a pivotal moment that means nothing? For an explanation, I talked to somebody who been not just a keen observer of the debate but also a player in it: Mark Dubowitz, the chief executive of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington. Dubowitz is a former venture capitalist with a masters from Johns Hopkins’s School of Advanced International Studies. He also heads the Center on Sanctions and Illicit Finance at the FDD, a nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank established in 2001 with the self-described mission to “promote pluralism, defend democratic values and fight the ideologies that drive terrorism.”  

Equally important, Dubowitz has advised the Trump, Obama and Bush administrations and lawmakers from both parties on Iran policy, and has testified before congressional committees and foreign legislatures more than 20 times.

Here is an edited transcript of our discussion:

Tobin Harshaw: Mark, at long last, Trump has taken your advice and officially refused to certify Iranian compliance with the 2015 nuclear pact. Let’s start with one immediate criticism of the president: that this was uncalled for because the International Atomic Energy Agency hasn’t found evidence of Tehran’s cheating. But you think the case goes beyond just what the UN inspectors have done, correct?

Mark Dubowitz: The Trump administration’s national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, and his team led an interagency process working with other senior national security officials to develop a broad Iran strategy of which decertification of the nuclear pact is just one component. They deserve all of the credit for this work. As it has done for 15 years over three administrations, my organization, FDD, provided nonpartisan research and technical analysis to them and to lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.

The president refused to certify not on compliance issues but on the basis that too much was given to the Iranian regime for too little. That is actually a condition for decertification in the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act of 2015 (Inara) that passed 98-1 in the Senate and 400-25 in the House: The “suspension of sanctions is appropriate and proportionate to the specific and verifiable measures taken by Iran with respect to terminating its illicit nuclear program.”

The decertification recognizes the fatally flawed architecture of the nuclear deal: that it gives Tehran patient pathways to nuclear weapons and intercontinental weapons simply by waiting for key restrictions on its nuclear and missile programs to expire or sunset. As the deal currently stands, Iran gets all of this simply by complying. That is why the deal, as currently constructed, is detrimental to the vital national security interests of the U.S. (a related condition of Inara).

TH: While the president’s decision made a major statement, it didn’t really change anything, and he doesn’t even want Congress to rip it up right away. Did that disappoint you?

MD: No. I don’t support ripping up the deal. I support strengthening the deal to make permanent the expiring restrictions on Iran’s nuclear and missile programs and guaranteed access to Iran’s military sites, which is where the regime has conducted secret-weapons and enrichment work in the past. Iran’s leaders repeatedly thunder that the U.N. weapons inspectors will never get into their military sites, which severely undermines the verification and inspection parts of the deal. I support tougher limitations on Iran’s ability to develop advanced centrifuges, which are unnecessary if Iran truly wants a civilian nuclear program, but which make sense if they want to build an industrial-size nuclear-weapons capability, especially one where the regime might quickly breakout or clandestinely sneak out to a bomb. I also support stronger restrictions on Iran’s missile program to prevent the regime from developing longer-range ballistic missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads targeting our allies and intercontinental ballistic missiles targeting the homeland.

The president’s decision puts the Europeans, the Iranians and Congress on notice that he won’t accept a fatally flawed deal that paves the way to nuclear-tipped ICBMs.  

TH: Rather than re-imposing sanctions right away, Trump would like Congress to establish certain “trigger points” that would independently bring new U.S. punishments. Do you think that the right compromise approach?

MD: It’s the correct approach. It challenges Congress to put real teeth into the 2015 congressional opposition of the Iran deal when 61 percent of lawmakers in both houses and from both parties went on record opposing the deal. These trigger points would only reinstate sanctions in the future if Iran takes its nuclear-weapons capability to below a one-year breakout and blocks access to military sites. It also should trigger sanctions if Iran continues its march to ICBMs and deploys advanced centrifuges. And since these are sanctions triggered by future events, they are not today a violation of the nuclear deal. This move should be backed by Congress to provide enhanced leverage for this administration or a future one to negotiate follow-on agreements that address the fatal flaws of the nuclear deal.

Surprisingly, before Trump’s decertification decision, Senator Christopher Coons, the Democrat from Delaware, who supported the Iran deal in 2015, proposed another certification with a threat to “exit the JCPOA” -- the abbreviation by which the nuclear deal is known -- if a “focused period of negotiation” with Congress and “our partners in this deal” failed. This suggests that at least some leading Democrats are contemplating ways to enhance leverage to fix the deal.

TH: Given the myriad other grounds the U.S. can use to sanction the Tehran regime -- human-rights abuses, sponsoring terrorism, etc. -- why do we need to get into punishments that might cause Iran to back out of its nuclear promises? After all, the U.S. has already given up most of its concessions under the pact, while Iran's lay ahead of it.

MD: The U.S. and Europe will be giving up many more concessions over the life of the deal as Iran receives hundreds of billions of dollars in additional sanctions relief in the form of trade and investment. The regime needs this money to emerge over the next decade with an industrial-size enrichment program, a near-zero breakout time, an easier clandestine path to a nuclear warhead, long-range ballistic missiles, access to advanced conventional weaponry, greater regional dominance threatening our Gulf allies, Israel and U.S. interests, and a more powerful economy that will be increasingly immunized against Western sanctions. This is what I call the “lethal Iranian end-state.”

Tehran knows it can count on the Europeans and Asians to push back on new sanctions in the future once they have hundreds of billions of dollars in trade and investment with the regime. They can also count on those supporting the JCPOA to argue  that Iran will never accept this concession or that concession. That’s a poor negotiating tactic, self-defeating and what contributed to the currently flawed deal.

Now is the time to try and fix the nuclear deal -- not when American leverage is significantly weaker and the Iranian regime is significantly stronger.

TH: The idea seems to be that this new approach will give the U.S. more leverage to bring Iran and the other parties to the deal back to the table and improve it. Do you think that's likely, or even possible? I know French President Emmanuel Macron has voiced displeasure with the deal, but how much impetus is there for actually changing?

MD:I hope there is a willingness on the part of the Europeans to reach a transatlantic consensus to fix the deal. I think President Trump is serious when he says is prepared to walk away from the deal if there is no progress. I was surprised by how tough he was in his speech in issuing that very clear warning. President Macron has publicly spoken about French willingness “to discuss possible sanctions over Iran’s ballistic missile program, open negotiations immediately on what happens after the limitations to the accord begin to be lifted in 2025 and hold a discussion on the role of Iran in the region.” If he is sincere, and the British and Germans are prepared to join that effort, that may provide the impetus for actually fixing the deal. Then the West will have stronger leverage, regardless of what the Iranian regime threatens to do.

TH: Let's say we get a do-over -- what aspects of the deal would you like to see changed? Should the behaviors it bars be limited only to Iran's nuclear ambitions or should its efforts to destabilize the Middle East be brought into play?

MD: I have outlined earlier the main aspects of the deal that need to be changed. I am sure the administration, as well as the “E3,” will have other concerns with the deal that will need to be addressed. I would only add that the U.S. and the Europeans should also reach agreement on how to address the Iranian regime’s other destructive behaviors that continue to threaten the Middle East and international security.

TH: Trump also decided not to have the entire Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps designated as a terrorist group, in part it seems because of the shared enemy of the Islamic State. Was that a mistake?

MD: The administration actually did designate the entire IRGC as a terrorist organization. It was done under Treasury Department authorities using an anti-terrorism executive order that has been used by George W. Bush and Barack Obama for countless other sanctions. The administration decided to do it this way instead of using a State Department designation of the IRGC as a Foreign Terrorist Organization. There are some differences between the two approaches but the overall impact is very similar. For the first time, the U.S. government has designated the entire IRGC, not just its overseas wing (the Quds Force), as a terrorist organization. That’s completely appropriate since the IRGC is the revolutionary wing of the regime and chiefly responsible, at the direction of the Supreme Leader, for most of Iran’s destructive activities.

TH: OK, let's say we try all that and even get the Europeans on board, but Iran refuses to budge. Do we blow the deal up?

MD: President Trump must maintain a credible threat at all times that he is prepared to walk away from the deal if it doesn’t advance the vital national security interests of the United States. I hope it doesn’t come to that, though.

TH: Last, let's talk the bigger picture. Many supporters of the deal feel that Trump's action represents the U.S. going back on its word, and that neither our allies nor our enemies -- i.e. North Korea -- will trust us going forward. What's your response?  

MD: There is ample precedent to amend the Iran nuclear deal. Congress has required amendments to more than 200 treaties before receiving Senate consent, including significant bilateral Cold War arms control agreements with the Soviets like the Threshold Test Ban Treaty and the Peaceful Nuclear Explosions Treaty, as well as multilateral agreements like the Chemical Weapons Convention negotiated with 87 participating countries, including Iran, by President Bill Clinton. And it’s not just Republicans putting up obstacles. During the Cold War, Democratic senators like Henry Jackson withstood pressure from Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger who insisted that the deals they negotiated go unchanged. This all happened at a time when Moscow had thousands of nuclear-tipped missiles aimed at America. The Iran nuclear deal is not even a treaty; it’s a “joint comprehensive plan of action” which requires a new plan of action. The Obama administration refused to submit what they called a “landmark” nuclear deal to the Senate for ratification. The deal should not be granted a unique status in the annals of U.S. arms control or nonproliferation history.

The message then, and the message now, should be that the U.S. will not live with deeply flawed agreements that are not in its vital national security interests. There’s an opportunity to fix this agreement. I hope those committed to permanently cutting off Iran’s pathways to nuclear weapons and ICBMs take that opportunity.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Philip Gray at philipgray@bloomberg.net

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