Iran Deal Tests Trump’s Independence

An early test of whether President Trump will bow to Israel’s political clout may come over the Iran nuclear agreement which Prime Minister Netanyahu wants killed, as ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar describes.

By Paul R. Pillar

Among the foreign policy issues on which Donald Trump took a simple anti-Obama, or anti-Clinton, stance during the campaign but about which he had not seemed to have devoted much thought, one of the most prominent and important is the agreement that restricts Iran’s nuclear program, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA.

When the new president does get a chance to give the subject more attention, he will see that opposition to the agreement is primarily a matter of old political baggage.  If he does not want to be burdened with such baggage and desires instead to set his own course, he will build on the agreement rather than succumb to the pressures of those who would like to kill it.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the United Nations in 2012, drawing his own "red line" on how far he will let Iran go in refining nuclear fuel.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the United Nations in 2012, drawing his own “red line” on how far he will let Iran go in refining nuclear fuel.

The baggage has had two parts. One has been the effort by President Obama’s political opposition to deny him any major achievements — applicable to the JCPOA in that it has been one of the President’s most significant foreign policy achievements. Even viewed through a crass partisan political lens, this motivation will get more out of date with each day that goes by after Mr. Obama leaves office.

The other part has been opposition of the Netanyahu government in Israel, with all the usual implications of how that government’s postures affect U.S. politics and how the Iran issue has thus been treated as if it were an Israel issue. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s opposition has been motivated by the objectives of keeping a regional rival to Israel isolated forever, portraying Iran as the root of all problems in the Middle East, distracting attention from problems that involve Israel and its policies, and keeping U.S. diplomacy and cooperative measures in the Middle East confined to Israel or channels approved by Israel.

This opposition was maintained even though the agreement that has precluded an Iranian nuclear weapon is very much in the interests of Israel’s security, as testified to by the large majority of senior Israeli security officials and former officials who have been free to discuss the topic.

A Success

The JCPOA is a success. It has been fully working for well over a year. It has blocked all possible avenues to an Iranian nuclear weapon. Iran has been complying with its extensive obligations under the agreement, as certified by the International Atomic Energy Agency. Those opponents who have stretched to accuse Iran of violations have been doing exactly that: stretching.

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)

Regarding recent accusations regarding Iranian production of heavy water, for example, the agreement does not prohibit Iran from ever exceeding a specified limit of 130 metric tons. Instead, the JCPOA requires Iran to make any excess available for export — which is exactly what Iran has done.

For the new U.S. administration to withdraw from the JCPOA — either explicitly by declaring so, or through sanctions policies that would violate the agreement — would clearly be a big mistake. To begin with, any such unilateral move by the United States would run up against the fact that this agreement involves not only Iran and the United States but also five other parties, including major Western allies as well as Russia and China.

The European allies have made quite clear that they are committed to the agreement. U.S. abrogation would not only involve problems with them but also would upset any early efforts by President Trump to develop more cooperative relations with Russia.

A U.S. withdrawal could lead Iran to react in either of two ways, each of which would be disadvantageous to U.S. interests. If the Iranians judged the U.S. part of the economic and sanctions provisions of the JCPOA to be too large to overlook, they would declare — as they would be entitled to — that the entire agreement was null and void. This would mean Iran would be freed from all the nuclear limitations in the agreement.

The Iranians could spin as many centrifuges, stockpile as much highly enriched uranium, and build as many plutonium-producing reactors as they want. (And forget the notion of negotiating a “better deal” — that was never a possibility with an agreement that was laboriously negotiated and that was barely politically acceptable in Iran.)

A Boon for U.S. Rivals

Alternatively, the Iranians might say that it considered the agreement still to be in force with all the parties other than the United States. This would mean the Europeans getting business deals such as large sales of commercial airliners rather than American companies like Boeing getting the business, and it would mean Russia and China getting both commercial deals and diplomatic influence that the United States would not be getting. This would be a situation that Donald Trump himself said during the campaign was unacceptable.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaking to the AIPAC conference in Washington D.C. on March 21, 2016. (Photo credit: AIPAC)

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaking to the AIPAC conference in Washington D.C. on March 21, 2016. (Photo credit: AIPAC)

Withdrawal from the JCPOA would have additional, farther-reaching negative implications for President Trump. It would re-open an old issue that had been resolved through diplomacy, create a new crisis, and consume much high-level time and attention that otherwise could be devoted to countless other foreign policy problems, including ones centered in the Middle East.

Withdrawal also would weaken the credibility of anything else the new U.S. president wants to do that involves, like the JCPOA, executive action rather than a treaty. Much of what Mr. Trump has talked about regarding trade and other matters falls into this category.

Not least important, backing away from the JCPOA would kill opportunities to build on the agreement by doing diplomatic business with Iran on many important issues where Iran is unavoidably a major player. An excellent guide to those opportunities is a just-released report titled Maximizing the Opening with Iran: How President Trump Can Secure American Interests in the Middle East, prepared by the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) and signed by 76 national security experts and scholars (including myself). The report states, “If diplomacy could be successful in resolving the most volatile and complex point of tension between the U.S. and Iran – the nuclear dispute – President Trump should also employ diplomacy to peacefully resolve or manage the remaining differences between Washington and Tehran.”

It’s not just bilateral issues and remaining differences in the U.S.-Iranian relationship that are at stake. It is the ability of the United States to address effectively many other problems important to it. In the words of the NIAC report, “Iran has substantial latent power – population size and potential for wealth generation – and thus it is bound to be a leading power in the greater Middle East. Washington cannot change this. Nor can Washington stabilize the Middle East without Iran’s involvement. Iran will be part of the regional solution – or there won’t be a solution.”

The report includes many specific recommendations regarding problems ranging from warfare in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan to energy and security in the Persian Gulf.

The JCPOA is important not just because of the technical details of what goes on inside Iranian nuclear facilities, although the nuclear nonproliferation objectives that the accord has advanced are indeed very important. It is important also as a step away from the self-hamstringing American habit of not fully using available diplomatic tools to pursue U.S. interests, because of a distaste for dealing with regimes we don’t happen to like.  Making America great on the world stage requires getting rid of that habit.

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.) 

21 comments for “Iran Deal Tests Trump’s Independence

  1. MKhattib
    November 19, 2016 at 22:30

    With Trump’s election victory, Iran can see the writing on the wall. Trump has promised to strictly enforce the deal or scrap it. Under Obama, Iran has been used to getting its way with interpreting some of the finer points of the nuclear deal in Iran’s favor. It is this consistent practice of exempting Iran from the provisions of the deal, as well as agreeing to not tie other aspects of the Iranian regime’s conduct such as support for terrorism and human rights abuses, that have rendered the deal ineffective at best and enabling at worst. It’s time to call the mullahs bluff and reset and get a deal with real teeth that curtails Iran’s extremism on multiple fronts.

  2. Bill Cash
    November 19, 2016 at 20:55

    Doesn’t anyone remember that Sheldon Adelson bought the middle east policy for a 100 million dollars? The government under Trump is literally for sale.

  3. Andrew Nichols
    November 18, 2016 at 23:29

    Alternatively, the Iranians might say that it considered the agreement still to be in force with all the parties other than the United States. This would mean the Europeans getting business deals such as large sales of commercial airliners rather than American companies like Boeing getting the business, and it would mean Russia and China getting both commercial deals and diplomatic influence that the United States would not be getting. This would be a situation that Donald Trump himself said during the campaign was unacceptable.

    Well it would certainly demonstrate once and for all if the Euros are independent nations or no more than US vassals which is the strong indication at present esp wrt the stupidity over Russia which hurts the Euros heaps and the USA not at all.

  4. SteveK9
    November 18, 2016 at 19:09

    People are still imaging that the US runs everything. If Trump tried to ‘cancel’ the deal, and reimpose sanctions, the rest of the World will not go along, certainly not Russia or China and probably not the Europeans either, which would make it all nonsense.

  5. Bart in Virginia
    November 18, 2016 at 15:28

    The United States has various agreements to defend far off countries; from S. Korea and Japan all the way across to Poland and Estonia. Does the Russia Federation have any such agreements, for example, would they react to our proxy state bombing Iran?

  6. elmerfudzie
    November 18, 2016 at 14:08

    Netanyahu fails to see the writing on the wall. The Iranians have refused the USD for oil transactions and demand Euro’s instead-basket (IOB). The projected oil exchange(s) are quite sizable, 500,000 b/d in H1 and by 1 million b/d by the end of the year. The JCPOA agreement accomplished-exactly nothing, in strict terms of regional peace and stability. President Rouhani continues to order the construction of Shahab 3 missiles and EU businesses are rushing into Iran for new opportunities. Israel had better begin fostering better relations with all of it’s contiguous neighbors now. The Russians are indeed coming, and Netanyahu refuses to notice that their aircraft carrier with the usual entourage of associated vessels (on the surface and below) are in the Mediterranean sea, stepping on IS- but good. The Likud clique had better stop dreaming about Israel’s regional hegemony and re-start the now rusty, diplomatic processes-in earnest. Trump won’t save you! and the valueless fiat Euro is as false a pretense as the The fiat USD, a fact that will only stir the boiling cauldron of instabilities in the wider middle east. When the bubble pops for these currencies, basket(s) or not, all hell will break loose.This view point only increases my desire to education Americans a bit more as to why we need the Canadian oil sands and shale. Soon there won’t be any international currency exchanges.The USA will be on it’s own, getting people to work on gasoline from domestic resources. So long world, it was a fabulous and fun ride, but it’s all over now-every country for itself!!

    • John P
      November 18, 2016 at 21:07

      I like your comments elmerfudzie, but don’t you think perhaps all the threats against Iran make it important, at least in their mind, they have defences like the Shahab 3 missile. They won’t have nuclear weapons but don’t they have the right to protect themselves from Israel and Saudi Arabia vocalized aggression, both supported by the US. Israel attacked the USS Liberty for self interest, and Saudi Wahhabis did 911 and they are friends? Democracy in Iran was busted by the US in the 50s because the US refused to let Iran control the oil business on its land. They people then had the wicked Shah dumped on them and it’s been a long climb back, a bit like how American politics is going these last few years as more people are sinking lower and lower in shrinking middle class as an elite grows. It can be scary. Talk is better than warfare.

      • elmerfudzie
        November 19, 2016 at 16:17

        From Elmerfudzie to: John P. John, Allow me to apologize for those broken sentence structures and other errors (three consecutive nights of sleepless worry can do that to a person) Your bringing a lot to the table here so, let’s take them one at a time…First, be they Iranian missiles or any other middle east state defense systems/program(s), what of it? There’s an old expression in military circles; “use it or lose it”. This phrase is particularly relevant where Shahab 3’s (S-3) are concerned, let us recall that fully successful operation by the Mossad to simultaneously blow up a whole battery of them. During a serious military confrontation with Israel, the S-3’s will be the first weapons aloft..before they become a “lose”.Such advanced weaponry force the Mullahs to be an aggressor (in a manner of speaking) Secondly; a superior “weapon” would follow along the lines of what Muammar al-Qaddafi had in mind, a gold Dinar or a USD silver certificate equivalent to it. By printing and or coining such a currency (in a small quantity) Iran could conceivably threaten the Euro and the USD by merely advertising that a small quantity is now ready for distribution (under heavy guard) deep in a mountain somewhere. My contention is this, the fiat system of currency and governance is all washed up. At the moment, the Western Occident nations (USA and EU) are buying oil with worthless paper, the Saudi’s and Mullahs know this. The real and unannounced deal is, Iran and the GCC will continue the commodity for fiat-paper fantasy provided that no nation in the middle east becomes demonstrably stronger than anyone else. World Zionism was the last to agree to this arrangement, dragging, kicking and screaming all the way to Washington DC (Israel cannot really use the nukes they have). At bottom, JCPOA was all for show (nuclear power issues were always on the back burner) and no-one on the political stage was allowed to point out the man in the dark corner, adjusting the curtains and props. That man is comprised of the World Bank, IMF and Federal Reserve banks of this world. Third point; The USS Liberty was completely LBJ’s fault-he gave a specific order (Naval commander in the near vicinity) NOT to interfere with Israeli bombardments and let the boat sink; a new casus belli, to start another damn war, which somehow managed to foil itself. Forth point; The Saudi Wahhabis, had nothing to do with 911. I reference a video presentation, ZERO: An Investigation Into 9/11, you can view at Lastly, I completely agree with you that talk IS better than warfare. If the Saudi’s and Iranians ever decide stop feuding and bind each other by formal treaty, that creates a “regional” Gold Dinar, you’ll witness the fastest “pivot” as O’Bomber calls it, not to Asia, but to Africa…Just think, not the Eurasia theory as previously thought, but a middle east joined at the hip with the far east. Frankly, I envision Russia coming west! India, China and The Four Asian Tigers breaking new ground with OPEC and yes, even Japan…the new diplomatic logic will be, If the Saudi’s and Iranians can hammer out a deal, why can’t we?

        • John P
          November 19, 2016 at 21:42

          The Liberty was already badly damaged when the call went in for help. The Israelis had hoped to sink it quickly but proved not to be the case. Israeli pilots notified their base it was American and call it off but were told to go on and follow orders. The reason was they didn’t want the Americans to know that they were going to move their forces towards Syria after their blistering attack on Egypt. The Americans had only given the Israelis permission to go after Egypt (fear of nationalism). From my understanding, the Israeli attack stopped right after the Liberty sent out it’s SOS call via a small antenna that was put together as the usual antenna had been destroyed earlier in the raid.
          The Israelis admit they knew that Nasser didn’t want war and that the forces he had in the Sinai were small and defensive. I can’t remember but either he or a senior army officer was going out to see the troops, and the Israelis knew the Egyptian radars for antiaircraft missiles had been switched off in order for the visit to take place, and in that period they destroyed the Egyptian air-force on the ground.
          As for nukes, Alan Hart in his series of books, ‘Zionism: the real Enemy of the Jew’ states emphatically that Golda Meir, a friend, told him that Israel would never hesitate to use them if they felt threatened. In the 1973 war, the threat was given and I heard all these American planes from across the border flying through the night delivering arms to the Israelis. I gather an American senior officer was told to shut up about only having 4 tanks left to defend the US. I also gather Israel had actively armed two nuclear missiles. I don’t think one should underestimate the warped psychology of political Zionism. They used phosphorous bombs on the West Bank causing severe chemical burns on people, a weapon the Nazis used in WWII because you can’t put a phosphorous fire out with water, it only makes it worse as my father in Liverpool found out.
          It will take time for me to digest some of the other material.
          As for 9/11 I’m not into Facebook but I do believe that Israel knew about it and the agents of 9/11 were being followed by Mossad agents who’s covered was a small moving van business, the head of which was a Mossad agent but escaped to Israel and won’t be returned to the US. 2 others were definitely Mossad. They were all released. Also several of the people named as the perpetrators of 9/11 are alive and had their passports stolen a months before, as reported in Britain and the US and elsewhere.

  7. Zachary Smith
    November 18, 2016 at 12:59

    At the outset allow me to acknowledge that I’ve never understood the Obama agreement with Iran except as possibly a holding action while waiting for President Hillary. Given everything else BHO has done in the last 8 years, being sensible on one specific issue didn’t make sense unless the neocons had ulterior motives.

    Pressuring Trump to smash Iran for Israel may be something those neocons can do, and then again it may not. Trump probably has bad memories of the Iran Hostage crisis. If he’s as uninformed about the “why” of that event as he is with climate change, he’ll be an easy prey for the neocons. A quick review of US-Iranian history with an unbiased expert is definitely in order for our incoming President.

    Israel is getting a big bunch of free US-taxpayer-supplied F-35 attack jets which it can use to attack Iran itself should the wag-the-big-US-dog scheme fail. It’s my own opinion it would be a mistake of historic dimensions to do this, for in return they have the potential of being hurt very badly themselves when the inevitable retaliation happens.

    • Dr. Ibrahim Soudy
      November 18, 2016 at 15:48

      The issue is NOT Iran’s Nuclear facilities. The more the Israel Lobby demonizes Iran, the more money they siphon from the Cash Cow called America. The more they scare Americans from those weird looking Mullahs who also held Americans hostage for 444 days, the more Americans will hate ISLAM and be ready to go for a long term war against it. WAR does not have to be by FORCE. The Lobby would rather have very long term economic sanctions imposed on Iran to cripple its infrastructure and economy than have some bombs dropped on them!! Look at the scenario of IRAQ since the Iranian Revolution and see how they are repeating it with some modifications. In fact, the LOBBY, wanted IRAN to be done BEFORE Iraq but things did not go that way because Cheney and Dubbya thought that Iraq would be a walk in the park ….The cost of the Iraq war is between 4 and 6 TRILLIONS and 22 American Veterans are taking their own life every day NOW. Obama could not afford to attack Iran and instead, America is fighting Iran and Russia by proxy in Syria!! Attacking Iran will be the OFFICIAL DECLARATION of WWIII. America is way too weak to do that……

  8. November 18, 2016 at 12:52

    As former Israeli leader Sharon said. We do not worry about what the US thinks. “We own the USA.” Money talks, bullshit walks. The Jews have the money and in the USA in particular, thats all that counts. Israel will get what it wants.

  9. Joe Tedesky
    November 18, 2016 at 12:04

    Possibly as President Donald Trump he will finally admit too, and tell the American public that this money we are giving to Iran is really Iran’s money in the first place, which was sanctioned and locked up away from the Iranians for years. This whole campaign season Trump referenced this money as sounding like it were American tax dollars being forked over to the Iranians, at least that was how it sounded. I bring this up, because it always bugged me to how the Donald would make this money thing with Iran sound like it was our American dollars which Obama was turning over out of our treasury for Iran.

    One thing we should all have learned, is that taking Donald Trump literally is a mistake. On the stump Trump is liable to say anything, that gets headlines. A good salesperson gets the customers attention, a fantastic salesperson goes beyond getting the customers attention to making a lasting impression.

    My guess is that Trump will make friends with Putin, and that Putin will give Trump the proper cover or reason for Trump to reevaluate America’s Iran policy further. Trump supposedly has a ‘No First Nuclear Strike’ policy inside the Republican platform, if this is true, well then all sorts of diplomatic possibilities are possible. I’m hoping China who also recently came up with their own version of first strike capabilities, and this is troubling to say the least, will resend this policy as a honorable gesture to compliment Trump’s no first strike cancellation. Lately Netanyahu has developed a great relationship, with Putin, and Trump should exploit this growing friendship. Also, Trump should sign America up to cooperate with the newly formed BRIC nations, and put an end to this NWO project immediately…sorry Poppy, your idea sucked from the very beginning, time for America to join the rest of the world, and build the new 21sy century infrastructures the world so badly needs.

  10. Sally Snyder
    November 18, 2016 at 11:53

    While the media focuses on Donald Trump, they seem to be forgetting about his Vice President. Here is a look at how Mike Pence voted on key issues while he was in Congress:

    His past views and Congressional voting record on many key issues put him further into the far right side of the political spectrum than Donald Trump.

    • Joe Tedesky
      November 18, 2016 at 12:28

      Sally, Pence is the reason I feel that Donald Trump should hire a trusted and loyal security detail to watch guard over his self.

    • Zachary Smith
      November 18, 2016 at 13:05

      Joe, I understand the current Pope has never moved into the Vatican. Mr. Trump ought to seriously consider whether or not he wants to go to live full-time in the White House. If the man does show any signs of independence, there are going to be an awful lot of reasons for him to be extra careful.

      • Joe Tedesk
        November 18, 2016 at 13:38

        If I were Trump I’d stay away from motorcades and large crowds. The Deep State isn’t going to like Trump, if Trump follows through on his campaign pledges. Wow, I would have never though I would worry about Donald Trump’s safety, ever.

        • Zachary Smith
          November 18, 2016 at 14:23

          With Mike Pence lurking in the shadows, everybody better be worried about Donald Trump’s safety. And continued good health in medical terms.

          • J'hon Doe II
            November 19, 2016 at 20:01

            You guys backing Trump are far underneath the wrong side of things, though you may appear to be on top as of now.

            Find, if you will, “The Law of Love and the Law of Violence; Leo Tolstoy and/or Letter to a Hindu, also Tolstoy.


          • Zachary Smith
            November 20, 2016 at 01:40

            “You guys backing Trump…”

            I must conclude that you prefer President Pence to President Trump.

            Pence as the VP choice was the third and final straw leading to my write-in vote for Jill Stein.

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