The Trump administration still issues licenses for routine personal divestment transactions: for instance, people who want to sell off their property or close their bank accounts in Iran. But as far as Ferrari can tell, the Trump administration has issued few, if any, licenses for commercial transactions. That’s hard to verify: There is no public database of OFAC licenses, and the Treasury Department didn’t respond to my request for comment. But in recent months, two close observers of the Iran deal have echoed Ferrari’s observation. As the pro–nuclear deal National Iranian American Council’s Reza Marashi reported earlier this year, “To hear senior Western diplomats tell it, the Trump administration has not approved a single Iran-related OFAC (Office of Foreign Assets Control) license since taking office.” If true, this too likely violates the Iran deal.
We’ve seen a version of this movie before. In 1994, the Clinton administration signed a nuclear deal with North Korea. Pyongyang promised to freeze its nuclear program. In return, the U.S. promised to provide “heavy fuel oil” to compensate for the electricity North Korea would lose by shutting down its plutonium reactor; to help build an entirely new, “light water” reactor; and to move toward normalizing relations. But that November, Republicans—many of whom were skeptical of the deal—took control of the House and Senate. And in the following years Congress hindered both America’s promised delivery of fuel oil and its promised help in building a light-water reactor. The North Koreans warned that if the U.S. didn’t abide by the deal, they wouldn’t either.
And they didn’t. While North Korea mostly met its promises not to build a bomb using plutonium, it secretly operated an alternative nuclear program based on enriched uranium.
Whether North Korea cheated in response to U.S. cheating, or intended to cheat all along, is a subject of debate. Either way, the Bush administration in 2002 confronted Pyongyang about its uranium-enrichment program. North Korean officials conceded its existence, while falsely claiming the deal covered only the plutonium route to a bomb. And they proposed a new, more comprehensive agreement, which would also cover uranium enrichment and require the U.S. to recognize North Korea, stop threatening it militarily, and lift sanctions. But the hawks in the Bush administration, who had opposed the 1994 deal from the beginning, refused to negotiate seriously. As John Bolton explained, the uranium-enrichment program “was the hammer I had been looking for to shatter the Agreed Framework.”
Now Bolton is back, and looking for another hammer. If Trump stops him from wielding it, and the U.S. doesn’t reimpose nuclear sanctions on Iran, many in the media will celebrate America’s decision to continue complying with the nuclear deal. But that will be wrong. The Trump administration has never fully complied with the nuclear deal, and likely never will. The real question isn’t whether Trump violates it, but how.
The truth is that, at least in the post–Cold War era, the United States hasn’t always been very good about keeping the promises it makes in nuclear deals. It’s important Americans know that. It might be nice to think that the U.S., as a democracy, is more trustworthy than its authoritarian adversaries. But America’s government won’t hold itself to a higher standard unless its people do.