NYT, Others: Trump Nearly Pulled the Plug On the Iran Nuclear Deal

President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting with President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Junker and European Council President Donald Tusk at European Union headquarters, Thursday, May 25, 2017, in Brussels. From left, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Trump, and Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

As I reported yesterday, the administration begrudgingly certified that Iran was in compliance with the nuclear deal that an ankle-gripping Obama administration capitulated to. This deal is essentially a crap sandwich handed to the Trump administration by Obama. The deal was frontloaded so Iran got billions in cash and sanctions relief up front while the counterparties–at least those interested in restraining Iran–had to wait for nearly a decade for the agreement to be worth anything. Trump was vociferous about how bad the deal was on the campaign trail and his bad humor in re-certification was obvious. As it turned out, the re-certification nearly didn’t happen.

President Trump agreed on Monday to certify again that Iran is complying with an international nuclear agreement that he has strongly criticized, but only after hours of arguing with his top national security advisers, briefly upending a planned announcement as a legal deadline loomed.

Mr. Trump has repeatedly condemned the deal brokered by President Barack Obama as a dangerous capitulation to Iran, but six months into his presidency he has not abandoned it. The decision on Monday was the second time his administration certified Iran’s compliance, and aides said a frustrated Mr. Trump had told his security team that he would not keep doing so indefinitely.

At an hourlong meeting last Wednesday, all of the president’s major security advisers recommended he preserve the Iran deal for now. Among those who spoke out were Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson; Defense Secretary Jim Mattis; Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster, the national security adviser; and Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, according to an official who described internal discussions on the condition of anonymity. The official said Mr. Trump had spent 55 minutes of the meeting telling them he did not want to.

Mr. Trump did not want to certify Iran’s compliance the first time around either, but was talked into it on the condition that his team come back with a new strategy to confront Tehran, the official said. Last week, advisers told the president they needed more time to work with allies and Congress. Mr. Trump responded that before he would go along, they had to meet certain conditions, said the official, who would not outline what the conditions were.

If the story is correct, Trump deserves credit for backing down from a strongly held belief that the Iran deal is fundamentally one-sided and giving his national security staff a chance to do something to curb Tehran’s military expansion.

The Iran agreement made sense in the world view of Barack Obama and Susan Rice. Back in July 2015, Obama said in a video interview for the New York Times, “Iran will and should be a regional power.”

Giving Iran nukes and putting up with their nonsense made perfect sense to an administration convinced that it could woo a hardline anti-Western kleptocracy and make them a partner for regional stability. It has less appeal to an administration that appears to be focused on forging a Sunni partnership against Iranian expansionism.

As I mentioned yesterday, the Iran deal is a very unhappy marriage with both partners wanting to walk away but neither are willing to be the one to go first. As The NYT says:

In an interview on Monday with Jacob Heilbrunn, editor of The National Interest, a foreign policy journal, Mr. Zarif raised the prospect that Iran would be the one to back out. “If it comes to a major violation, or what in the terms of the nuclear deal is called significant nonperformance, then Iran has other options available, including withdrawing from the deal,” he said.

That would be an outcome welcomed by the Trump administration. Top officials like Mr. Tillerson and Mr. Mattis have expressed concern about the effect on American relations with European allies if Mr. Trump were to unilaterally pull out, especially after he already announced his intention to back out of the Paris climate change accord that Europeans strongly support.

But some advisers to the president argue that if they can provoke Iran into being the one to scrap the nuclear deal, it will leave the United States in a stronger position.

The obvious question is what strategy will the administration roll out to deal with Iran. If the NYT and Bloomberg’s Eli Lake are to be believed, the national security team can’t be under any misapprehension that a third re-certification happens without some action. We are already in a state of near conflict with Iranian backed and, in some cases, led militias in eastern Syria. Qatar is under pressure from Saudi Arabia and friends to reduce ties with Iran. Iran has just sentenced a US grad student to prison for “espionage.” The Iranians continue to maneuver about as though they had only recently discovered that power boats exist. There are lots and lots of Iranian targets for sanctions. And the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) is an international terrorist organization that we’ve managed to ignore since 1979. And, of course, there are covert things we could do that might go unnoticed.

The next mandatory certification is due in October. Right now it is less than even money that the deal survives, one way or another.