Is President Donald Trump’s decision to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal more evidence that the United States is a rogue actor among its traditional allies? Or is it a move that could potentially lead to an improvement of the terms of an agreement that many reasonable people saw as flawed from the beginning?
The answer to both questions is yes. This is not as simple as a spiteful and disruptive president undoing the work of his more reliable and traditional predecessor. It’s not Trump bad, Obama good.
The truth is, the Iran deal was never perfect, and its impact has been less than what was hoped for.
While it brought together the U.S., the United Kingdom, Russia, France, China and the EU in an effort to curb Iran’s nuclear program, it also legitimized an oppressive regime and angered Israel and Saudi Arabia, two important allies.
And while it lifted painful economic sanctions on Iran in exchange for verifiable assurances that Tehran would not be able to produce a working nuclear weapon in short order, it never stopped Iran from making trouble in Syria and Iraq, from supporting terror groups, or from carrying out cyberattacks against Canada and other countries.
Above all, it did not end Tehran’s ability to build a bomb in the long term. It was a better-than-nothing deal that bought time in the hopes that the lifting of sanctions would benefit the people of Iran and make them more amenable to the West. Perhaps it would even lead to more co-operation between the U.S. and Iran.
But the fact is that, three years later, the Iranian people are barely better off economically and still live under the thumb of an oppressive theocratic dictatorship that routinely brutalizes its own people and continues to demonize the U.S. and its Western allies.
It is, of course, disturbing to see Mr. Trump act so unpredictably and be so indifferent to the consequences. Under him, America’s signature on an international agreement of any kind – trade, climate change, you name it – is hardly worth the ink it was written with.
That capriciousness could have consequences for Mr. Trump’s efforts to make a deal with North Korea on denuclearization. Pyongyang will understandably now have doubts about the wisdom of negotiating with the U.S. and won’t hesitate to bring them up.
There will be other consequences, too, at least in the short term. Barack Obama, the president who oversaw the Iran deal in 2015, called Mr. Trump’s decision “misguided” and a “serious mistake” – sentiments that will be shared by many.
After all, Iran will be free to develop nuclear weapons, and its people might well be even more open to the anti-American rhetoric of their leaders than before. Some worry an unchecked and isolated Iran could lead to a military confrontation in the region, if not an outright war.
But it’s also true that the Iranians, like the North Koreans, can’t challenge American nuclear supremacy without risking suicide, and that they likely don’t have the finances for a sustained military confrontation. As well, the country’s leaders are facing mounting anger from citizens who just want to be able to feed their families and are tired of being jailed and tortured for voicing their unhappiness.
There is no question Iran could turn further inward following Mr. Trump’s announcement. And for a while, that may be the result.
But Iran is far better off at the negotiating table, and the deal it reached in 2015 is evidence that it is predisposed to the idea, this setback notwithstanding.
Furthermore, the bottom line is that the current deal is not dead and buried. There is still time to talk, as the U.S. sanctions will only be reimposed over a period of months.
During that time, countries like France, the U.K. and Germany will be working hard to salvage the agreement. There are also supporters in the U.S. who will be making the case that their country and the world are better off when Iran is subject to close nuclear inspection on a regular basis.
That’s what the world must focus on. We all know by now that it is typical of Mr. Trump to make a dramatic show of ending an agreement only to bring it back under altered terms that he can sell to his voters as an improvement. He tried it with the Trans-Pacific Partnership and appears to be doing so with the North American Free Trade deal. There is still an Iran deal to be had.
The Globe and Mail