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Sunday, January 23, 2022

As Biden tries to undo one of Trump’s most damaging acts, restoring the Iran deal will be difficult

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During his campaign, Trump frequently used the Iran agreement as an example of the kind of “terrible deal” made under Obama. Though the plan had garnered international praise and demonstrably resulted in a removal of enriched nuclear material from Iran as well as a halt to Iran’s nuclear weapons program, Trump insisted that it was “a disaster” and that it would result in “a nuclear holocaust.” For this he provided no evidence, which would become a trend.

Despite certifying that Iran was in compliance with the agreement in both April and July 2017, Trump refused to issue a notice that Iran was still in compliance in October of that year. Despite making multiple claims that Iran was somehow in violation of the agreement, neither Trump nor anyone in the White House ever presented any evidence as proof. Instead, the State Department under Mike Pompeo argued that the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action was somehow in violation of U.S. law—something that everyone had simply failed to notice until then. 

In response to shocked warnings that the U.S was simply breaking a treaty, and that this would have long-term international consequences, Pompeo had the State Department issue a statement that the agreement wasn’t an agreement, or a treaty, it simply “reflected political commitments” between the “Iran and the P5+1”—where the P5+1 includes the United States along with the U.K., France, Russia, Germany, and China. The fact that everyone involved in the deal certainly considered it an international treaty, that there were no provisions in that treaty for withdrawing unless provisions of that treaty were violated, and leaders of every nation involved warned the United States that withdrawing would both increase the international risk and irrevocably damage the United States’ reputation did not stop Trump from simply walking away.

Following the dissolution of the treaty, Iran repeatedly ramped up its production of enriched nuclear material, making it clear it was doing so in response to the U.S. breaking the treaty and imposing sanctions. The increased tensions between the U.S. and Iran came to a head in January 2020 when, during a response to the U.S. assassination of a Iranian general and suspected terrorist, a back and forth confrontation broke out that didn’t end until after Iran mistakenly shot down a civilian airliner.

Exactly why Trump seized on the Iran deal as something that had to be destroyed—other than it simply representing another sign of President Obama’s successful terms in office—was never quite clear. Certainly Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made numerous not only unproven, but disproven claims about Iran violating the treaty, and John Bolton (and his moustache) hated the agreement. But the biggest reason that Trump was out to ice the Iran agreement may be because his friend Saudi dictator Mohammed bin Salman hated how the deal allowed Iran to operate within the world. For Saudi Arabia, ending the Iran deal was a part of keeping Iran isolated, and tipping their balance in the Middle Eastern power game. To that end, Saudi lobbyists pushed Trump to dismiss Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who had been reluctant to end the deal, and replace him with Pompeo.

As NBC News reports, indirect talks are now underway in Vienna as the U.S. feels its way back toward the possibility of renewing the deal. Putting things back in place would presumably require a return of international inspectors, a surrender of the nuclear material that Iran has acknowledged producing since Trump’s withdrawal, and a dropping of U.S. sanctions imposed since the treaty was broken.

On the one hand, that’s not quite square one, because the shape of a final agreement is now well understood. All the evidence of past inspections, and the statements from other nations involved, indicate that the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action was working. There’s no reason to do anything a whole lot differently than it was done the first time.

On the other hand, getting everyone back to the table is likely to require that the U.S. recommit to the process, make it clear that this is in fact a full commitment to an international treaty, and perhaps agree to penalties for any party who withdraws from the deal absent evidence of a breech.

That would likely mean getting a treaty not just past Iran, Russia, and China, but past Republicans in the Senate who still want to use Iran as a means of table-pounding about terrorism and as a touchstone to bolster supposed “pro-Israel” positions. It’s not going to be easy.

But, after the accomplishments of the first 100 days, it doesn’t seem wise to bet against Biden.


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