Trump Is No Closer to Solving America’s Iran Problem

The president declared victory today, but he still hasn’t laid out how he intends to keep Iran from gaining nuclear weapons.

Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

President Donald Trump’s first formal remarks since the targeted killing of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani underscored the strange reality of the moment’s crisis: After a chaotic and often terrifying week, it’s not clear that anything has changed.

“As long as I’m president of the United States, Iran will never be allowed to have a nuclear weapon,” Trump said today before he’d even offered a “good morning” to an audience at the White House. But he didn’t offer a plan for how he would keep that promise.

“Iran appears to be standing down, which is a good thing for all parties concerned and a very good thing for the world,” the president also said. It is a good thing, and dire predictions of a massive regional war seem (so far) to have been baseless. But Soleimani’s death leaves the same stalemate that preceded it.

Removing Soleimani didn’t address the central problem: Trump wants to rein in Iran, but he doesn’t want to fight a hot war to achieve that objective, and he also doesn’t want to negotiate a new nuclear deal that involves significant American concessions.

In a disturbing spectacle of the type that is characteristic of the Trump administration, Trump used the top generals in the Army and Marines, positioned behind him, as props for a political broadside. The president lambasted his predecessor, Barack Obama, for signing a “foolish” deal with Iran in 2015. Trump placed special emphasis on money that the U.S. released to Iran as part of the agreement, which limited Iran’s ability to enrich uranium.

Since the U.S. pulled out of the deal (known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) in 2018, despite certifying that Iran was in compliance with its terms, the United States’ European allies, China, and Russia have sought to keep the agreement on life support. Trump today called on them to pull the plug.

“The time has come for the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Russia, and China to recognize this reality,” he said. “They must now break away from the remnants of the Iran deal, or JCPOA, and we must all work together toward making a deal with Iran that makes the world a safer and more peaceful place.”

As Trump knows, a deal typically involves something for both sides; otherwise it’s merely a surrender. It isn’t clear what benefits to Iran Trump would tolerate, though he said that “we must also make a deal that allows Iran to thrive and prosper and take advantage of its enormous untapped potential.”

But the combination of American withdrawal from the Iran deal, Soleimani’s killing, and new economic sanctions that Trump announced in his speech make the prospect of good-faith negotiations less, rather than more, likely. Although Soleimani’s loss is bad for Tehran and sanctions will hurt, Iran is already reeling from existing sanctions, and returns are diminishing.

Nor, despite Soleimani’s death and the so-far-muted retaliation against the U.S., is there any indication that Iran will pull back from its regional operations in Yemen, Syria, Lebanon, and Afghanistan, which Trump demanded today that it stop.

“By removing Soleimani, we have sent a powerful message to terrorists,” Trump said. “If you value your own life, you will not threaten the lives of our people.” Perhaps this is true, but perhaps it also misunderstands the psychology of American opponents. Soleimani spoke wistfully of someday being martyred, and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei said in March that he hoped Soleimani would one day die a martyr, while adding, “Of course, not anytime soon.”

Trump has made a habit of provoking near-crises, accepting the status quo ante, and then declaring victory—a sequence that occurred in negotiations with North Korea and in trade talks with China. Now we can add tensions with Iran to that list.