Editor’s Note: David A. Andelman, a contributor to CNN and columnist for USA Today, is the author of “A Shattered Peace: Versailles 1919 and the Price We Pay Today.” He formerly was a foreign correspondent for The New York Times and Paris correspondent for CBS News. Follow him on Twitter @DavidAndelman. The views expressed in this commentary are his.
David Andelman: Trump certified Iran nuclear deal again, but it came with a price
He says new sanctions could drive mullahs to pull out of treaty, which would be catastrophic
Every 90 days, the White House must certify to Congress that Iran is upholding the agreement designed to keep nuclear weapons out of its hands for a decade or longer. Monday night marked the deadline for the latest certification. But this time, Donald Trump had a brilliant idea: Don’t do it.
Instead, why not pull the United States out of the treaty, slap the mullahs with North Korean-level sanctions and try to negotiate a better deal? Then, in two years, we’d have two desperate, starving, nuclear-armed countries, each in tinderbox areas of the world.
We can all breathe a sigh of relief because Trump didn’t pull out of the deal. At least not this time. But by all accounts it was a close call. National security adviser Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster and Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, talked the President down off that perch, with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson weighing in with a last-minute tete-a-tete with Trump, according to The New York Times.
But apparently Trump’s decision did not come without a price: a new sanctions regime, less stringent for the moment, targeting other aspects of Iran’s activities in the Middle East and beyond, including its development of long-range ballistic missiles and support for terrorism.
This temporary compromise could be viewed as quite shrewd on Trump’s part. While it continues to respect the letter of the nuclear treaty, those extracurricular sanctions could do what so many of Trump’s friends – at home and abroad – are begging him not to do: Destroy it. His hands would be clean. The mullahs would simply pull their country out of the treaty.
After all, these new sanctions could eventually inflict levels of pain on the Iranian people as intense as the pre-nuclear sanctions. The more radical elements in the Iranian hierarchy might be inclined simply to throw up their hands, scrap the treaty and make a bomb, thinking that maybe then they would get some of the respect that Trump’s America seems so ill-prepared to give them. Indeed, during his re-election campaign this spring, President Hassan Rouhani accused the extremist Revolutionary Guards of doing precisely that – trying to sabotage the treaty in their own way.
The last time Trump pulled America out of an international agreement, the result was potentially catastrophic. Withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement could accelerate the warming of our planet and help create an environment unfit for human survival. An end to the Iranian nuclear agreement could have even more immediate and catastrophic consequences. It could place nuclear weapons in the hands of a nation with few restraints on their use, threatening large swaths of the world’s population.
But there is another issue that complicates things – the ceasefire in Syria on July 9 that Trump apparently so deftly negotiated with Russia and, by extension, President Bashar al-Assad. The real aim of this ceasefire from the Russian perspective was to keep Assad in power as long as possible. Of course, that would keep Iran in the mix as well. The mullahs have a single-minded interest in Syria, which is to engage it as their own client state.
On Sunday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu blew into Paris and delivered a message of his own: The last thing the Israelis want is for the Iranians to start quietly salting military facilities in Syria, Lebanon, even Iraq until suddenly Israel finds itself surrounded by Iran and its surrogates.
Israel has no interest in the ceasefire as it was constructed, and Netanyahu has no interest in scrapping the nuclear accord. For the moment, Israel is quite happy with the status quo. While Netanyahu hates the Iran treaty in the long run, he and his generals recognize that for the time being it is all that stands between Iran and a nuclear arsenal targeting Jerusalem.
Some of the more rational presidential advisers – particularly Tillerson and McMaster – also recognize the potentially irreversible damage of a unilateral withdrawal from the nuclear agreement. Especially while America’s relationships with key European allies, particularly France, are already deeply wounded by the withdrawal from the environmental pact. But others, such as former UN Ambassador John Bolton, in an op-ed in The Hill, have suggested that “withdrawing from the (nuclear agreement) as soon as possible should be the highest priority. The administration should stop reviewing and start deciding.”
Get our free weekly newsletter
None of the posturing, threats and apparent disarray at the highest levels in Washington is moving Iran in the direction of any sort of accommodation, or even toward acknowledging any of its other activities in the Middle East or beyond. As Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif told CNN’s Fareed Zakaria on Sunday, Trump’s actions discouraging businesses from engaging with Iran were themselves a “violation of not the spirit but of the letter of the nuclear deal.”
Trump must show considerable restraint while developing a clear and direct policy that does not revolve around a succession of 90-day cliffhangers and a brinkmanship whose every turn brings the world closer to Armageddon.