Trump’s Deceptive Drive to Kill Iran-Nuke Accord

President Trump rarely lets facts get in the way of a political agenda as he has demonstrated in his drive to destroy the Iran-nuclear accord — despite grave risks to U.S. interests, reports ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.

By Paul R. Pillar

The biggest current threat to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the agreement that limits Iran’s nuclear program, comes from Donald Trump’s obsession with killing the accord. That obsession is driven by his impulse to undo whatever Barack Obama did and to fulfill campaign rhetoric based on such contrarianism.

President Donald Trump poses for photos with ceremonial swordsmen on his arrival to Murabba Palace, as the guest of Saudi King Salman, May 20, 2017, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)

The power of that impulse should not be underestimated, no matter how much it collides with truth, reason, and the best interests of the United States. Trump has demonstrated parallel obsessions in pulling out of the Paris climate change agreement in the face of an overwhelming scientific and global political consensus, and in his current posture on health care, in which he evidently is willing to harm the health of the American people in an effort to make his rhetoric about Obamacare appear to come true.

Perhaps the best hope for slowing Trump’s pursuit of his obsession about the JCPOA is the transparently ham-handed way he is going about it. His own statements have corroborated the gist of other reporting that Trump has made up his mind to kill the agreement and will bend whatever facts he needs to bend, and try whatever stratagems he needs to try, to achieve that result. Those stratagems include asserting Iranian compliance even though international inspectors say Iran is complying with the agreement, or demanding inspections of non-nuclear sites in Iran even without reason to believe that any prohibited activity is occurring there. The game being played is so obviously concocted to get a predetermined result that anyone, either foreign or domestic, with a sense of integrity ought to have a hard time going along with it while keeping a straight face.

Yet another technique is to make the United States so noncompliant with its obligations under the agreement that the Iranians will get sufficiently fed up to abandon the JCPOA. With Iran filing a formal complaint about the newest U.S. sanctions against it, the Trump White House probably has its hopes up that this path toward killing the agreement may work.

Oppose Obama

Trump’s pursuit exploits a much larger opposition to the JCPOA that goes back more than two years to when the agreement was still under negotiation. As with Trump, little of this opposition has to do with nuclear weapons or with the terms and purpose of the JCPOA.

President Barack Obama addresses the United Nations General Assembly on Sept. 20, 2016 (UN Photo)

Also as with Trump, some of the opposition, including in much of the Republican Party in Congress, is based on an oppose-anything-Obama-did posture. Much of the opposition has to do with a desire to keep Iran in the status of a perpetually isolated and castigated adversary that is blamed for all or almost all of the ills in the Middle East. That desire characterizes certain other regimes in the Middle East (especially Israel and Saudi Arabia) that are rivals of Iran, want outside powers to take their side, and want international scrutiny diverted from their own contributions to regional instability.

The opposition to the JCPOA became a major, well-funded movement that came close to killing the JCPOA in its infancy. Well-rehearsed talking points, including misleading or false ones, had ample opportunity to gain air time and column space. The opposition offensive slackened once the JCPOA took effect and was no longer a front-page item. Then the election of Trump, with his campaign rhetoric including excoriation of the agreement, re-energized the opposition to the JCPOA. Many of the same old themes, notwithstanding the agreement’s success in the meantime in being implemented and maintaining its tight restrictions on, and scrutiny of, Iran’s nuclear program, are being repeated.

And like Trump, who keeps repeating falsehoods about crowd sizes, voter fraud, and much else regardless of how many times his assertions are disproved and debunked, the anti-JCPOA themes that are misleading or false keep getting repeated despite having been refuted long ago. The sheer repetition gets many people believing what is repeated.

Trump’s Rallies

Trump himself is one of the offenders in using such themes about the JCPOA. Last week at a campaign-style rally in Ohio, for example, he repeated one of the hoariest of the anti-JCPOA assertions: that the United States “gave” Iran between $100 and $150 billion in assets under the agreement and separately “gave” Iran $1.7 billion in cash. In fact, the United States has not given Iran a penny.

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)

All of the money was Iran’s in the first place. Most of the assets in question had been frozen in foreign financial accounts. The separate cash payment was resolution of a very old claim dating back to the time of the shah, in which Iran paid for some airplanes that the United States did not deliver. Pallets of cash were used because sanctions continued to shut Iran out of the international banking system.

Trump ought to be familiar with such situations from his business career, given the number of times he reportedly stiffed suppliers and sub-contractors. The only difference is that with Trump’s business, goods were delivered but never paid for. In the aircraft deal with Iran, the Iranians paid but the United States never delivered the goods.

Much faith has been placed in the “adults” in the administration to rein in Trump’s worst tendencies. Reportedly the adults, including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, last month urged a resistant Trump to recognize reality and certify that Iran was complying with the JCPOA. One’s faith ought to be weakened by how Tillerson, at a press briefing this week, voiced some of the same old, familiar, and thoroughly refuted falsehoods and misleading themes.

More Whoppers

The biggest outright whopper was Tillerson’s assertion that “they [Iran] got the immediate lifting of the sanctions before they ever had to deliver on anything.” Any look at the history of implementation of the JCPOA, according to the carefully negotiated schedule, shows how drastically false that statement is.

An Iranian child holding a photo of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei at one of his public appearances. (Iranian government photo)

In fact, the asymmetry in the implementation of the agreement worked in the opposite direction. Iran had to do nearly all it was going to do to curtail its nuclear program and significantly extend the “breakout” time to a possible nuclear weapon before it got an ounce of new sanctions relief under the JCPOA.

This Iranian work included gutting its heavy water research reactor, disposing of excess heavy water, cutting back its uranium enrichment cascades, taking all excess centrifuges off line, ceasing uranium enrichment at the underground Fordow facility, providing international inspectors a comprehensive inventory of centrifuge equipment, and many other measures.

It was only after the International Atomic Energy Agency certified that Iran had completed all these required steps that the parties moved to “Implementation Day,” which was when the United States and the Europeans began sanctions relief.

Not specifically a lie, but highly misleading about the nature and purpose of the JCPOA, was Tillerson’s comment that “there’s another part of that agreement that talks about the fact that with this agreement, Iran will become a good neighbor – now, I’m paraphrasing a lot of language – they’ll become a good neighbor, that Iran is called upon to no longer develop its ballistic missiles.” Tillerson accused Iran of violating “the spirit of the agreement” because of these issues.

Tillerson’s remark wasn’t a paraphrase; it was a fantasy expansion of the agreement that has been another favorite of the agreement’s opponents, who criticize the JCPOA for not causing peace to break out in the Middle East. Neither has it led to a cure for cancer.

It was clear to all parties from the beginning of the negotiation that no agreement, and no limitation of the expanding Iranian nuclear program, would be possible unless the agreement focused specifically on the nuclear issue and on sanctions that supposedly are about the nuclear issue.

If the United States or other Western governments brought into the negotiation other things they did not like about what Iran was doing, then Iran would raise all the other things it doesn’t like about what the United States is doing. And then nothing, including nothing about curtailing the nuclear program, would ever be agreed to.

Nothing in the JCPOA obligates Iran not to continue to develop, test, and possess ballistic missiles. Sanctions that involved materiel relevant to missiles were part of the sanctions that were supposed to be in place because of Iran’s nuclear activities. And from the standpoint of U.S. national interests, Iranian missiles are nearly irrelevant as long as nuclear weapons are not part of the picture, which is part of why preservation of an agreement preventing any Iranian development of a nuke is so important.

The implementing resolution of the United Nations Security Council makes a nod to the desirability of restraint in developing missiles, but this clause was by design a vague exhortation with no binding power. Iran — facing threats from neighbors with missiles and superior air power — would never have agreed to anything firmer than that.

When Tillerson says “while this agreement was being developed, it was kind of like we put blinders on and just ignored all those other things,” this not only misrepresents what was in the field of vision and consciousness of the policy-makers and diplomats who negotiated the JCPOA. The comment also ignores how the very people who are leading the renewed charge against the JCPOA were, pre-JCPOA, singling out the Iranian nuclear program as the pre-eminent security issue towering above everything else.

Politicized Dispute

It wasn’t Barack Obama who had elevated that specific issue. Mitt Romney, running for president against Obama in 2012, said an Iranian nuclear weapon was the greatest security threat the United States faced anywhere in the world.

The nuclear issue was the issue about which Bibi Netanyahu put on the first-ever cartoon show at the United Nations General Assembly. Then, when negotiations successfully resolved that issue, those whose true agenda was centered on other objectives, such as isolating Iran in perpetuity or bashing Obama, began talking about blinders and allegedly ignoring other things.

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.

As for good neighborliness and observing the spirit of the JCPOA, there was not a hint of anything in Tillerson’s remarks, just as there usually isn’t in any of the comments of opponents of the agreement, about any obligations along those lines on the part of the United States. But one can get an idea of the symmetry involved by noting how the Iranian parliament, in response to action by the U.S. Congress on a “Countering Iran’s Destabilizing Activities Act” (which included the sanctions later folded into another bill and leading to Iran’s formal complaint), initiated action on its own “Bill Against U.S. Adventurist and Terrorist Activities in the Region”. Although “destabilizing” would have been a more appropriate term than “terrorist” in this bill too, the Iranians have plenty to point to, such as the U.S. support for the highly destructive Saudi-led war in Yemen.

All this is happening in Iran’s neighborhood, not America’s. And it is accompanied by unrelentingly hostile rhetoric against Iran from the current U.S. administration, which also has been emboldening Iran’s regional rivals to promote even more confrontation. If not being a good neighbor constitutes a violation of the spirit of the JCPOA, then the Trump administration would need to look in a mirror to see who is most in violation.

Donald Trump’s serial lying, and his penchant for repeating lies long after they have been disproven, is in a class by itself regarding dishonesty by a top American leader. But the zombie-like continuation of some familiar but already disproven assertions about the JCPOA is very Trump-like. The drumbeat of even vague or discredited criticisms of the agreement may be enough to persuade many people, including those who see through Trump’s clumsy manipulations to kill the agreement, to accept that death.

If the adults in the administration want to keep that from happening, they will need to try harder and not say the sorts of things Tillerson is saying.

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.)

18 comments for “Trump’s Deceptive Drive to Kill Iran-Nuke Accord

  1. USTaxpayer
    August 19, 2017 at 22:42

    Are you nuts: IRAN has US Tax dollars in the BILLIONS covered up by the former Kenayn god king(Ivisited his birthplace…try it you may learn something))) BESIDES…we are to let IRANIAN AYATOLLAH…whom has hated the West aka USA since he ousted the Shah…in l979 DEATH to AMERICAN…daily 5 times …called to prayer! AND THEY can report their own..status…WHO is paying YOU?

  2. Virginia
    August 9, 2017 at 13:19

    Highly recommend this excellent article:
    Three American lies destroying the US-Russia relationship

  3. mark
    August 8, 2017 at 22:34

    America is just dumb muscle for Israel. The great American Jooocracy, rule of the Jews, by the Jews, for the Jews. The UK/ France/ Canada/ Germany are little different. Israel killed and wounded 200 US sailors on the Liberty and Johnson just covered it up. Israeli intelligence officers were taped conspiring to smear UK politicians and absolutely nothing happened. 9/11 was a very murky business but Israel was clearly heavily involved in it. Unfortunately the whore politicians we have in the west shilling for Israel are bought and paid for with Jew money and blackmailed when their paedophile antics are taped on their all expenses paid trips to Israel.

  4. John P
    August 8, 2017 at 20:57

    Could it all be Trump business interests?

    Perhaps he sees he can make more money from Trump Tower in Tel Aviv or west Jerusalem than in Tehran. Sadly, he certainly knows he loses if he offends the Zionist forces. The rotten power of money, self interest and little empathy.

  5. elmerfudzie
    August 8, 2017 at 18:41

    The veiled threat posed by policy makers here in the US against the EU can be summed up in a few sentences: keep the new Russian sanctions in place. In short, dismiss the Nord Stream II project and those attendant financial inter-dependencies!.(no doubt punctuated with a doglike growl). A similar message was discretely passed to the Iranian government but it has a twist; you’ll get those seized bank accounts back but the pallets will be stacked with USD’s and not Euros and further, send your (Iranian) diplomats to Merkel, remind her that if the sanctions against the Russian Federation go unenforced, the Bushehr reactor will be bombed (by Israel and the USAF) In retaliation, our Navy will then close the Strait of Hormuz. The Iranian diplomat continues….(just a scenario folks) he reminds Merkel that the economies of Germany, France ET Al will collapse in short order due to our deliberate blocking of the Straight, either with sunken vessels and or sea mine(s) …the “choice?” is yours Chancellor Merkel. ASIDE: I hope this opine is wrong because this sort of theorizing makes me nauseated and disgusted, the beltway has turned to methods that resemble gangster-ism…

  6. bobzz
    August 8, 2017 at 16:41

    On the aspect of Trump’s visceral reaction to all things Obama: I recall that Obama zinged him pretty good at some public meeting in front of a lot of ‘dignitaries.’ I forgot the meeting, maybe the press club, don’t know, but I do remember the set jaw of Trump when everyone laughed at him. He may remember every personal insult he ever received.

    • Joe Tedesky
      August 8, 2017 at 21:50

      I found this video of Obama’s long history of his roasting Trump. The first time was the 2011 White House Correspondents Dinner. Obama roasted Trump over the dinner, and this was after a long time campaign where Trump questioned Obama’s citizenship.

      In my estimation, this type of political ridicule, done by both sides of our two party system, is what divides America to the point of obstruction, as to the kind we are watching unfold everyday on our tv screens. If you have a hard time reconciling this, just go back and view this past 2016 presidential debates. Gone is the substantive arguments made over the many pressing issues of our day, as this is replaced with school yard bully chants, and gotcha debate tricks to deliver the red meat to the hungry anxious for blood mob, that so awaits it. This is the American political stage, which has devolved ever further to become the nightmare that we all are longing to wake up from.

  7. LJ
    August 8, 2017 at 14:30

    Not really deceptive. It’s something he has been consistent about unfortunately. I think this and the Global Warning denial are the warts that are most glaring and offensive . It makes it harder to understand why many of us preferred him to the Devil We Knew-Hillary…. Immigration reform?, no that’s a Beauty Mark. I do not think that Hillary was at all interested in adhering to the Deal either. She may already have acted even more aggressively than Trump. After all she promised her biggest donors, no not them, the Saudis that she would hurt them. President Obama wasn’t all in to the deal either or he wouldn’t have immediately imposed more sanctions on Iran within 2 days of signing the deal. . Iran is going to get hit sooner or later I think. The Israelis view their missile program as a threat. . I do not believe this will accomplish anything other than further radicalization of all Shia but the Dems and Reps are already on board.

  8. Skip Scott
    August 8, 2017 at 12:04

    I agree with the gist of this article except the following:

    “…and in his current posture on health care, in which he evidently is willing to harm the health of the American people in an effort to make his rhetoric about Obamacare appear to come true.”

    There is plenty of harm being done to the American people with the current ACA. First and foremost, there is nothing affordable about the “Affordable Care Act”. And the deductibles are so unaffordable for millions, that they forego care anyway. Trump is correct that the ACA is a travesty. Single payer is the only rational option.

  9. Tom Welsh
    August 8, 2017 at 11:11

    Unless and until rigorous, fully-documented proofs of truth are published, it must be assumed that any statement of any employee of the US government is a lie.

    That is no more than common prudence. Perhaps foreign codes of law should enshrine it as a principle, part of standard due diligence.

  10. Adrian Engler
    August 8, 2017 at 10:42

    A lot depends on the details of the US sanctions. If US sanctions just prevent US companies from doing business in Iran, this violates the agreement, but it is hardly a big problem for Iran – Western European, Japanese, South Korean, and Russian companies can easily use this opportunity when US companies are not allowed to participate. It would be a bigger problem if the US threatens all companies that do business with Iran with sanctions (as this seems to be the case with participation in Russian pipeline projects), but that would then lead to a conflict of the US with these other countries (e.g. France, Germany, South Korea, and Japan).

  11. exiled off mainstreet
    August 8, 2017 at 10:09

    Trump’s views on Iran are a definite blind spot. The Iranians are an old civilization while the Saudis, whom Trump all too often (though not his secretary of state) seems intent on courting represent a corrupt regressive barbarism. No doubt the 1979 embassy siege still colors Trump’s views. He will have to face reality, though, since Russia and China are allies of Iran, so his options are limited and disastrous.

  12. Joe Tedesky
    August 8, 2017 at 10:02

    I don’t hold out much hope that the U.S. will ever respect Iran’s sovereignty, because when I see a bunch of jack in the boxes raise in applauds, as much as our congress did for Bibi Netanyahu’s awful speech that he gave where he criticized Obama, and tore into Iran’s integrity to no end, leaves me with little to no hope that a peaceful solution will ever come to the Iranian issues at hand.

    I don’t think that any issue closure with Iran is to be determined by the U.S. as much as the final solution will be made from the government authorities in Tel Aviv. Let’s face it, our U.S. legislator branch of government is bought and paid for ‘yes’ men and woman, and with this greedy band of money takers, or black mailed fall guys and gals, are Israel’s for the taking. Ladies, and gentlemen, it’s time we all just admit it, Israel owns the U.S. and all it’s mighty military glory, and there is nothing left to us doing anything more about it. This Israeli take over, has taken the red out of America’s red, white, and blue, and with that our nation succumbs to it’s Israeli masters on command.

    • exiled off mainstreet
      August 8, 2017 at 10:10

      This is a fair statement, unfortunately, of how things are. The memory of the embassy siege helps Israel sustain mastery on this issue.

      • Joe Tedesky
        August 8, 2017 at 11:29

        Yes the hostage incident hangs large in the American mental image of the Iranians.

        • August 9, 2017 at 18:42

          If the history of Iran/U.S. relations are to be addressed then next to the embassy hostages we should look at the U.S.-UK overthrow of the democratic, non-sectarian government of Mossadegh to install the tyranny of the Shah. (I do not guarantee my spelling, but the history is correct.)

          Also the author should not shrink from the use of the word “terrorism” when describing U.S. actions. The dictionary definition is that it is the use of violence against civilians to achieve a political goal. The massive killing of civilians is standard operating procedure for the U.S. military and has been for many years. Native Americans killed under flag of truce was common. California appropriated funds to pay a bounty for the killing of Native Californians. U.S. flattened North Korea with carpet bombing. Deaths numbered in the millions. Deaths of Vietnamese also numbered at least 3 million, some say 5 million. The attack on Iraq in 2003 led to at least 3 million civilians. This is a start on the history.

  13. Sally Snyder
    August 8, 2017 at 09:17

    Here is an article that looks at who is being punished by the United States anti-Iran sanctions:

    This is yet another unintended consequence of a poorly thought out foreign policy.

  14. August 8, 2017 at 09:14

    Makes a mockery out of Tillerson’s attempt to bring North Korea to the negotiating table.

Comments are closed.