President Trump’s recent “help-me-before-I-do-something-really-irresponsible” statement on the Iran nuclear deal could have been worse. But it should have been better. And it will almost certainly end badly.
Contrary to what many had feared, Trump didn’t void the deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). While he imposed some new penalties on Iranian officials, they were not of the sort that put the deal in immediate danger. He nonetheless chose yet again to attack and undermine an international agreement that, by all accounts, is working, to which America’s allies and partners are committed, and whose collapse would both severely undermine U.S. credibility and allow Iran to resume the nuclear activities it recently halted. By threatening to withdraw from the deal unless Congress and Europe implausibly and unilaterally alter its terms, Trump has put it on a path to collapse without any realistic plan for what to do if that happens.
Having been closely involved in the JCPOA negotiations, we know it is not perfect; no negotiated deal ever has been or could be. Yet insisting on a “better deal” and warning that one will otherwise walk away is not a recipe for that better deal, but for no deal at all.
Trump’s latest threats are part of what is now a familiar pattern: The president vows to “dismantle” the nuclear deal, walks up to the brink, and then announces a sort of reprieve that allows the deal’s supporters to breathe a sigh of relief when he backs off. That happened last spring, when he waived sanctions for the first time, as the deal requires him to do every few months; in June when he said he was completing a policy review; in October when he “de-certified” Iranian compliance and demanded that Congress and Europe “fix” the deals alleged flaws; and again last week. This time, Trump waived the sanctions, but called into question the accord’s future by pledging—this time for real!—to withdraw within 120 days unless Congress and Europe agree to restore nuclear sanctions if Iran fails to comply with Trump’s new conditions.