How Trump Got the Iran Deal Wrong

Election 2016 will be remembered for its slurs, lies and weirdness polluting the public debate, but one of the worst examples has been Donald Trump’s smearing of the Iran nuclear deal, says ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.

By Paul R. Pillar

Among the lingering effects of this awful election campaign season will be widespread misunderstanding of serious issues of foreign policy, beyond even the habitually low baseline public understanding of many such issues.

With Donald Trump making clear in the second presidential candidates’ debate that his approach for the remaining four weeks of the campaign will be to sustain a barrage of accusations and assertions in which the quantity of accusations is given greater emphasis than their correspondence with reality, there will be both more material for misunderstandings and less time and space for correcting them.

Iran's President Hassan Rouhani celebrates the completion of an interim deal on Iran's nuclear program on Nov. 24, 2013, by kissing the head of the daughter of an assassinated Iranian nuclear engineer. (Iranian government photo)

Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani celebrates the completion of an interim deal on Iran’s nuclear program on Nov. 24, 2013, by kissing the head of the daughter of an assassinated Iranian nuclear engineer. (Iranian government photo)

In the debate, the sheer volume of misrepresentations meant Hillary Clinton was again reduced to referring people to her website for fact-checking — and even then the proportion of the debate devoted to serious discussion of public policy, foreign or domestic, was distressingly small.

The problem is not just one of specific erroneous assertions of the type that a fact-checker can grab hold of. It is a broader problem of misrepresentation that consists of context, innuendo, and omission as much as bald-faced lies. Effects in the minds of the public will outlast the election regardless of the election result.

Many citizens — including perhaps some of those suburban women in Pennsylvania who seem to have become a fashionable political bellwether — who decide they do not want a misogynist (or worse) in the White House and vote accordingly will still have lasting misperceptions, or will have existing misperceptions reinforced, on some issues partly because of things Donald Trump has said during the campaign.

Consider, as one such important foreign policy topic, the agreement to restrict Iran’s nuclear program. This is an instance of reinforcement of earlier misrepresentation, because there has been much said over the past couple of years with the objective of killing the agreement, even before Trump started his campaign.

For the Republican Party as a whole, the nuclear agreement has a place in foreign policy that corresponds to the Affordable Care Act in domestic policy: i.e., a signature accomplishment of Barack Obama’s administration, and thus something Republicans have been determined to destroy. (This is in addition to the strong political effects in the United States of the rightist government in Israel opposing, for other reasons, any business done with Iran.)

Thus what could have been a useful election season discussion of the best ways to advance U.S. interests while following up on the nuclear agreement has not taken place.

Even the fact-checkers who presumably try to be objective have not always done a good job in handling how candidates have mishandled the subject of the nuclear agreement. This was true of some of the fact-checking of the vice-presidential candidates’ debate, in which fact-checkers sloppily conflated “nuclear program” with “nuclear weapons program.”

Perhaps the fact-checking will be somewhat better regarding what was said on the topic in the latest presidential candidates’ debate. ABC News, for example, is to be commended not only for picking up on Trump’s misstatement about the size of sanctions relief that Iran has gotten but also for assessing that Trump’s characterization of the agreement as “one-sided” was false “considering the changes Iran has made to its nuclear program, including an agreement to reduce its stockpile of enriched nuclear material and to cease further enrichment, effectively extending the time it would take Iran to build a bomb from a few months to one year.”

(Many in Iran, disappointed that the economic benefits Iran has gotten seem small in return for the concessions it made, would say the transaction was one-sided in the other direction.)

There is more that a thorough auditing of what the candidates said on this subject in the debate would have highlighted. Trump referred to $1.7 billion in cash as if that payment were part of the nuclear agreement, whereas in fact it was part of a settlement of claims dating back to the time of the shah. He also used the reference in a way that probably fed the misconception that this was money from U.S. taxpayers when instead it was Iran’s money all along.

Misunderstanding Iran/Russia

Trump also seemed to say that another consequence of the nuclear agreement was that “Iran and Russia are now against us.” That’s a strange suggestion given that the work on the nuclear agreement exhibited some of the closest and most effective U.S.-Russian cooperation in recent years, and that Russia and Iran hardly needed any stimulus to be working on the same side in the Syrian civil war.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Nov. 23, 2015 Tehran. (Photo from:

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Nov. 23, 2015 Tehran. (Photo from:

If anything, a rejection of U.S. diplomacy with Iran would leave more of an open field to the Russians to do diplomatic and commercial business in the Middle East.

For the average American voter, what needs to be said about the nuclear agreement with Iran does not need to get into details of decades-old claims settlements, but it does need to offer a bit more than Clinton’s one-sentence comment in the debate about putting “a lid on the Iranian nuclear program without firing a single shot.” The essential points that need to be made are these:

–For years before negotiations began, Iran was spinning more centrifuges and enriching more uranium and getting ever closer to the capability of making a nuclear weapon. This process continued even as the United States loaded more and more sanctions on Iran.

–The agreement stopped this process and has blocked all of Iran’s paths toward making a nuclear weapon. This has included not only the enriched uranium path but also the plutonium path, blocked with measures such as gutting a reactor.

–The agreement has established the most extensive and intrusive international nuclear inspection regime that any nation has subjected itself to.

–The inspectors report that so far, more than a year after the agreement entered into force, Iran is completely in compliance with its obligations.

–No one has presented any plausible alternative to the agreement that would block development of an Iranian nuclear weapon any more effectively. The alternative to this laboriously negotiated agreement would be no agreement: a return to the previous situation in which Iran was spinning ever more centrifuges, acquiring more of the material to build a bomb, and subject to much less inspection than it is now.

But we’re probably not going to hear such things during the rest of this election campaign. Especially not when one of the candidates sees his only strategy as throwing as much mud as he can at the other candidate during the remaining four weeks.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is author most recently of Why America Misunderstands the World. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.) 

11 comments for “How Trump Got the Iran Deal Wrong

  1. zman
    October 12, 2016 at 15:53

    I found the squabbling over Iran and the ‘nuke deal’ as nothing more than another round of distraction…one that Americans so stupidly slobber over. This is just another example of the American public having little to no intelligence or ability to distinguish reality from delusion(fact from fiction). We (the West) proclaim Iran as an Islamic dictatorship, run by Muslim extremists, that strictly adhere to Islamic dictates. If this is so, and we are sure Iran wants to develop nukes, why would Khomeini issue a fatwa against developing nukes? To ignore a fatwa issued by the supreme religious leader is Islamic treason. Somewhat of a contradiction, but apparently no problem for politicians and public alike. Something never brought up is also the very real possibility that Iran already has nukes and therefore no need or desire to develop them. I invite readers to look into the events of the mid to late 70s and the Shahs military forays in the Persian Gulf. The Ford administration was absolutely stunned. They seriously gave thought to attacking Iran (our ally) to prevent them from taking over the KSA. What stopped them? The Shahs’ claim that he had already purchased nukes from France, that’s what. He told the Ford administration that he was prepared for any retribution by Russia, for his attack on their vassal state Iraq, with a nuclear deterrent…which was a not-so-subtle warning to the US as well. There was also intel that Irans new jets (from US) had unfamiliar bomb racks on them. There were no attacks on Iran forthcoming. Is it any wonder that Khomeini was returned to Iran after internal turmoil (a CIA trait) began to undermine the Shahs regime? Or that the Shah died of cancer shortly thereafter? Why hasn’t Israel attacked Iran, as they did Iraq? Does the possibility that Iran does indeed possess French nukes have anything to do with Iran being sanctioned again after the nuke deal for developing new ICBMs (which was not a violation of any agreement) that might be able to pierce defense systems? No, the big squabble is over all the money we seemingly gave evil Iran…money that was theirs to begin with that we ‘acquired’ when they were our friends…and their supposed covert desire to make nukes…with absolutely no mention at all, by either liar-in-chief-to-be, of our friend Israels’ nukes and certainly not of any of their crimes and our complicity.

  2. Chris Chuba
    October 11, 2016 at 20:17

    I’m not defending Trump but Hillary had her own whoppers in the first debate that should have garnered 10 Pinocchios.
    1. ‘I worked with countries to institute sanctions that brought Iran back to the negotiating table’ (she shouted that of course).
    – Wrong. We walked away from the negotiating table because of our demand that Iran dismantle their entire infrastructure, then we went back and gave Iran what they originally asked for. (Not saying that was bad but HRC’s portrayal of events was a lie).

    2. She continued, ‘Iran was RACING towards a nuclear weapon when I helped put in crippling sanctions’
    – Wrong. Iran was enriching a lot of uranium to 5%, since a nuclear weapon requires enrichment to 95%, I award 10 Pinocchios. Iran was merely thumbing their nose at our unreasonable request for them to dismantle their entire nuclear program.

  3. Jay
    October 11, 2016 at 10:18


    Trump seems to understand not starting a nuclear war with Russia over Syria better than Hillary.

    So you’d have a point if you’d said both don’t understand…but BOTH have different delusions about international affairs.

    • Joe Tedesky
      October 11, 2016 at 11:37

      Jay the best part is, if America goes to nuclear war with Russia because of Aleppo, well then America would have died protecting al Queda.

      Read this…

    • anon
      October 14, 2016 at 13:26

      You are right that Trump seems to understand starting a war with Russia is a bad idea. I believe that Hillary, as delusional as she seems, knows exactly what she is saying and doing and probably wants war. Hillary is on the inside, in the inner loop, part of the establishment, however you want to put it.

  4. October 11, 2016 at 06:45

    What can I say other than the CIA has a long history of stupidity, just like the US federal government et al. Our constant meddling in everyone else’s affairs on this planet never produce good fruit. And by the way, that money the US government gave to Iran was not the money of the US government, it belonged to the sovereign people of the US.

  5. October 11, 2016 at 06:23

    trump doesn’t understand international politics

  6. Joe Tedesky
    October 10, 2016 at 23:06

    Don’t feel too alone with your frustration Mr Pillar, there are many of us like you, and in your corner. My wife who watched the debates with me didn’t need no fact checker, she heard me do my low groan every time one of those knuckleheads said something that wasn’t quite on the mark. Hillary wants a no fly zone to protect our moderate rebels in Syria…somebody please tell the American people that there are no moderate rebels in Syria, and oh that these head choppers we are supposedly fighting are Al Queda. Yes, the same Al Queda who killed almost 3000 Americans on 911. Don’t forget to tell the American public how we now do bombing runs to cover for these head chopping sob’s.When Donald Trump complains about the money Iran received I hate how he makes it sound like it is our American tax dollars when it’s not…I think that Dirty Donald really believes this claim. That all by itself is profoundly scary, and talk about Gary Johnson not knowing what Aleppo was…gee give me a break. I’m sorry, this election is scripted. I’m not saying the candidates talk to each other, but what I’m saying is that someone is producing, and possibly another someone is directing this made for tv campaign, and although I can’t prove it, I will tell you to just watch, and then stop just for a brief moment and consider what I have suggested here as being the perfect Con, and the Con’s on us voters…that’s all folks, and that’s entertainment.

    • Ol' Hippy
      October 12, 2016 at 15:53

      Scripted entertainment sold as news and debates; very astute. Most Americans don’t have a clue on the policies of the US government because if they did they’d be appalled. Syria is the biggest quagmire since The ‘Nam.

  7. Bill Bodden
    October 10, 2016 at 21:02

    .. those suburban women in Pennsylvania who seem to have become a fashionable political bellwether — who decide they do not want a misogynist (or worse) in the White House…

    Or worse, Hillary the Hawk?

    • Peter Loeb
      October 12, 2016 at 07:49


      (PS: Do not feel sorry for Hillary Clinton. The strategy I described
      could have featured any opponent. Its purpose was precisely
      to divert from any substantive discussion of HRC’s record.)

      —-Peter Loeb, Boston, MA, US

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