Trump’s Destructive Priority on Iran

President Trump’s threatened “decertification” of the 2015 agreement to constrain Iran’s nuclear program fits with his desire to negate all of President Obama’s achievements but won’t serve U.S. interests, says ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.

By Paul R. Pillar

Press reports indicate that later this week President Trump will “decertify” the nuclear agreement known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), relying on a clause in the relevant review legislation that permits the President to make such a declaration even if Iran is fully complying with the accord.

U.S. President Barack Obama addresses the United Nations General Assembly on Sept. 28, 2015. (Photo credit: United Nations.)

That Trump has decided on this course has nothing to do with the terms of the JCPOA, with Iran, or with Iranian actions; he has not advanced a convincing case, or even a coherent argument, as to how those considerations provide a reason to cashier an agreement that is working. His decision has nothing to do with any careful analysis of what would be the most prudent policy toward Iran or toward nuclear proliferation; the reporting indicates that he has resisted or ignored any such analysis of this issue that his advisers have tried to undertake. In fact, Trump’s decision has nothing to do with U.S. interests.

Trump’s action regarding the JCPOA conforms instead with a personal decision-making rule that has guided his actions on a variety of issues, foreign and domestic. It is a guideline that has provided a consistent streak in a presidency that otherwise has been filled with inconsistencies. That personal rule is to attack, and preferably to destroy, any significant accomplishments of the previous administration.

This is the operational code that explains, better than any other explanation, the pattern of Trump’s decisions on major issues. It is a pattern that in domestic affairs has most conspicuously included Trump’s determination to destroy the health care system under the Affordable Care Act (ACA) as well as his undoing of salient measures of the previous administration involving, for example, environmental protection or the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.

Undoing Obama’s Foreign Policy 

In foreign policy the pattern has included precipitate withdrawals from the Paris climate change agreement and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), despite overwhelming support by other nations for continuing those agreements. It has included punishment-like downgrading of U.S. relations with Cuba despite the absence of evidence that the Cuban regime was responsible for whatever caused the mysterious health problems of U.S. diplomats in Cuba. Trump’s posture toward the JCPOA is part of the same pattern.

President Trump meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in New York on Sept. 18, 2017. (Screenshot from

When some of Trump’s policies have appeared substantively inconsistent with the rest of his policies, explanatory consistency is restored if we think in terms of what was or was not considered a significant achievement of the Obama administration. There has been some head-scratching, for example, over the Trump administration’s lifting of numerous economic sanctions on Sudan despite the lack of progress on problems such as the conflict in the Darfur region.

The lifting was a sensible acknowledgment by the administration that continued punishment for the sake of punishment was not likely to bring any better results — an acknowledgment quite at odds with Trump’s postures toward Iran and Cuba. The difference is that, although détente with Sudan had begun under Obama, few people outside of government noticed. This was much unlike the opening of diplomatic relations with Cuba or the negotiation of the nuclear agreement with Iran, both of which were widely regarded as major features of Obama’s foreign policy.

Trump’s determination to destroy what his predecessor had wrought follows naturally from his demagogic campaign, which, as is generally the case with demagoguery, strove to portray every part of the status quo as horrible regardless of what may have been the actual state of affairs. Trump’s inaugural address, in which he talked of “carnage” wracking the United States, formed a seamless transition from campaign to presidency.

Much of his subsequent effort has been aimed at making his campaign rhetoric appear true. This he has done mainly by lying, but also by using the powers of the presidency to destroy, impair, and impede. Reifying the rhetoric may appear to Trump to be almost all he has going for him in forming his own foreign policy legacy, given that his knowledge of foreign affairs does not appear to extend much beyond what he hears on Fox and Friends. If Trump has ever had a genuinely strategic thought about America’s place in the world, it is hard to identify what that thought is.

Single-minded dedication to destroying whatever one’s predecessor did is an awful way to make foreign policy. Regardless of legitimate criticisms one may have of what the predecessor did, a presumption that everything done was wrong is itself almost certainly wrong.

Even if one can think of a better way to have advanced the national interest, an advance is still an advance. Abrupt reversal of anything significant done during the previous presidency has the added cost of damaging U.S. credibility in the eyes of foreign governments, who are left to wonder whether the United States can be trusted to stick to any of its undertakings and commitments.

We should not underestimate Trump’s willingness to harm American interests as he pursues his self-assigned mission of destruction. The Trump administration’s management of the Affordable Care Act is a glaring demonstration of that. That management is largely sabotage, through cuts in benefits and especially changes aimed at discouraging enrollment in the system.

Ignoring Harm

The sabotage has even included refusal to approve steps by Republican-controlled state governments to stabilize insurance markets and lower premiums. There is no possible explanation for the administration’s posture other than as an attempt to make the health care system fail and thereby to make believable the rhetoric about the ACA being horrible, even if this means harming the coverage and ultimately the health of American citizens.

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

Similarly, we should not expect Trump to be bothered much about the harm caused by his approach toward the JCPOA, which will at a minimum isolate the United States as well as start a process that may reopen paths to an Iranian nuclear weapon that the JCPOA has closed.

Trump has been able to go on his destructive path not only because of his considerable demagogic talents but also because he has had enablers. These have included persons in his own party who seem willing to overlook just about anything in the way of presidential excesses as long as they get upper bracket tax cuts and conservative judicial appointments. There also are many in Congress, also in the President’s party, who have followed the oppose-anything-Obama-did line, and particularly have done so with the ACA and JCPOA.

Recently there has been a bit more willingness even in that party to call out the excesses for what they are. This is exemplified not so much by the Secretary of State’s colorful description of his President as a “f—— moron” but rather the more thoughtful observations of Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee about Trump’s international recklessness.

Corker, as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, will be a key figure in what comes next for the JCPOA after Trump withholds certification. A subsidiary part of Trump’s operational code is not to do dirty work himself but instead to goad others into doing it. Throwing things into the lap of Congress is part of that technique, as Trump wanted it to be with DACA. The review legislation regarding JCPOA — although it was written more with a Democratic president in mind — turns out to be well-suited to Trump’s use of this technique. He can use withholding of certification as his personal statement of disapproval of the JCPOA while saying that his declaration does not constitute a violation of the agreement. By itself, it doesn’t.

But non-certification is an invitation to Congress — where Iran-bashing is always one of the easiest things on which to muster a majority — to enact sanctions that either would blatantly violate the JCPOA directly or would go so far down a road of negating the economic portions of the agreement that the Iranians would throw up their hands in disgust and pronounce the accord void.

The choice facing members of Congress regarding Iran is defined by the President’s driving, overwhelming obsession to destroy his predecessor’s accomplishments. Members need to decide whether they wish to be accessories to that obsession even though being so would mean dealing a major blow against nuclear nonproliferation, against hopes for reducing tensions in the Persian Gulf, against the full use of U.S. diplomacy to promote U.S. interests in the Middle East, against good relations with U.S. allies, and against U.S. credibility.

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.)

24 comments for “Trump’s Destructive Priority on Iran

  1. John Sinclair
    October 14, 2017 at 21:39

    Waiting for the day when Tillerson, Mattis, Perry and McMaster jointly make a statement “we’ve lost confidence in Trump’s ability to lead the nation and not sink our economy, security, and our stature in the eyes of the international community. It is time the American people get the kind of leader they deserve and desperately need.”

  2. October 12, 2017 at 01:44

    On Tuesday, Iran dismissed a U.S. request to have U.N. inspectors look at its military sites. According to local media reports, Ali Akbar Velayati, Head of Iran’s Center for Strategic Research of the Expediency Council, said the United States needs to abandon this “wish.” He added that such inspections — to be carried out by the International Atomic Agency (IAEA) at the request of U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley — would “not be allowed under any circumstance.”
    Buffoons & Company” at the UN is such a farce that even our friends in EU and beyond can’t believe that Trump/Haley duo’s ignorance and arrogance is so short sighted that America is willing to turn her friends further away from her at a time when we sure need more friends!
    Doesn’t so-green and wet behind her ears prune faced Niki Haley know that It’s not up to the Trump administration where to inspect in Iran. It’s up to the professional inspectors at the International Atomic Energy Agency and not in the hands of any American agency including any and all the Israeli agencies! The 2015 Iranian nuclear agreement monitors and limits Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief. The agreement does not say anything about surveillance of Iran’s military sites. France, Russia, China, United Kingdom, and Germany — as well as the European Union could stick with the agreement, despite what Trump administration says. “Driven by emotion, distorted historical memory, and Israeli lobbying pressure in Washington, we are unable to see that the deal is good for all parties,” Stephen Kinzer said. In contrast, the paid shill and a certified whore of Israel John Bolton says In a Sunday op-ed in the National Review that he has a five-page guide to breaking the deal. Calling his guide simple, yet expandable, “like instant coffee,” Bolton also lamented that Trump declined to take a meeting with him. These Five Page Guide comes directly from the “Office of the Deception Ministry of Israel”!
    Trump has allowed fiery rhetoric, like ‘fire and fury’ to take the place of careful diplomacy.Things are about to get worse on the diplomatic front. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Monday told Congress that 36 of the 66 diplomatic envoys — including the position of coordinator for the Iran nuclear deal — will be cut. It is very clear that ending the deal would only free Iran to pursue a more advanced nuclear weapon sooner that would include buying the accelerated components from others to shorten the time for arming its missiles with nuclear warheads. It is a far gone conclusion among the nuclear scientists that if other signatories do not stand against the illegal, immoral and unethical Trump, Iran will have free hand to do whatever it takes for the sake of Iran’s national security including acquisition of any and all the components to assemble nuclear warheads within a matter of a year of shorter! U.S. security interests would be best served by preserving the deal. But selling that idea inside the Washington cesspool is difficult as the samp is filled with the AIPAC owned whores of US Congress, the Senate, the Pentagon, and the rest of the war profiteers!

  3. Mild-ly - Facetious
    October 11, 2017 at 21:32

    diabolical proximities vs. political dyslexia
    Public obedience, enforced through
    ever-expanding economic inequality/

    “How can there
    be peace
    when the devil
    never cease
    to cause Mischief?”
    ( line from the poem “Trapped” c.1996)

    Look ahead for
    1-The Golden Rectangle
    2- Galileo’s Dark Labyrinth
    3- pythagorean and the pentagon.

    eminem “speaks” poetically- politics, to President Trump

    • RnM
      October 13, 2017 at 18:13


  4. Mild-ly - Facetious
    October 11, 2017 at 21:16

    diabolical proximities vs. political dyslexia
    Public obedience, enforced through
    ever-expanding economic inequality/

    “How can there
    be peace
    when the devil
    never cease
    to cause Mischief?”
    ( line from the poem “Trapped” c.1996)

    Look ahead for
    1-The Golden Rectangle
    2- Galileo’s Dark Labyrinth
    3- pythagorean and the pentagon.

    eminem “speaks” poetically- politics, to President Trump

  5. October 11, 2017 at 20:15

    Trump told a biographer that he has essentially not changed since he was in first grade! That says it all…a 6-year-old in charge?

  6. Mild-ly - Facetious
    October 11, 2017 at 19:22
  7. mrtmbrnmn
    October 11, 2017 at 18:51

    Much of Obama’s “legacy” was his essentially gutless acquiescence to the money grubbing desires of the Wall Street and Big Pharma fraudsters and criminal enterprises. If The Trump were a serious and sensible person rather than a retarded adolescent and malignant narcissist running amuck, he would rescind the get-out-of-jail-free cards Obama gifted to Wall Street along with $17 Trillion of tax payers’ money (the gift that keeps on giving!) and come out bellowing loud and clear for Single Payer Health Care. He could also stop being a ventriloquist dummy for Netanyahu and the Saudis regarding the Iran agreement (which actually was a genuine plus for Obama).

  8. Herman
    October 11, 2017 at 14:52

    Looking back at the Congress of Vienna:

    “The Congress has often been criticized for causing the subsequent suppression of the emerging national and liberal movements,and it has been seen as a reactionary movement for the benefit of traditional monarchs. However, others praise it for having created relatively long-term stability and peaceful conditions in most of Europe.”

    If ordinary people had to choose between long term stability and peaceful conditions or a late model of democracy, I think they would choose the former hands down.

    Ask the Iraqis, Syrians, Libyans, what their choice would be as they look upon the wreckage of their societies? But it doesn’t matter to those who destroyed those societies, and there is no one to stop them in our essentially unipolar world.

    There is a desperate need for another Congress of Vienna in the Middle East. It’s not in the wind, but perhaps things will change.

    • evropa
      October 11, 2017 at 17:18

      I think you are wrong. After suffering many years, decades of war and terror, many would rather chose peace and stability before what you term “modern democracy”. Those are exactly the times when there is a demand for a strong leader who can bring order to chaos. In Cicily old people still mourn for Mussolini, not that they are fascista, but they remember a time when there was law and order. And sadly enough “modern democracy” has miscredited itself by turning into a capital investment opportunity in some parts of the word.

    • evropa
      October 11, 2017 at 17:20

      Oh, sorry, I was hasty and missred your comment. We do agree…

  9. Mild-ly - Facetious
    October 11, 2017 at 13:41

    The Iranian People don’t matter to Trump; neither Mexicans, South or Central Americans, Afghans, Yemeni’s Asians,Africans or any & all Non-Caucasians in the world.

    Donald Trump is a textbook racist

    Jay A. Pearson

    As far back as Colonial days, northwestern European immigrants placed themselves at the pinnacle of the pecking order while relegating populations of color and other ethnic groups to inferior positions.

    Scholars break racism into multiple categories:

    Structural racism: Assigning social value to human populations contingent on misperceptions of inherent differences.

    Symbolic racism: Rhetoric that delegitimizes others.
    Institutional racism: Incorporating and formalizing misperceptions of differences into society through public policy.

    Interpersonal racism: Acting on such misperceptions in direct or face-to-face interactions.

    Insidious racism: Unconscious belief in and perpetuation of these phenomena.

    Internalized racism: Among victimized populations, accepting and manifesting negative portrayals.

    Systemic racism: The influence of these phenomena at multiple levels and across multiple dimensions of society.

    Trump’s insensitive, disrespectful and mean-spirited statements and actions partake of all these variations.

    Perhaps House Speaker Paul D. Ryan said it best when he responded to Trump’s statement about [Judge Gonzalo] Curiel. “Isn’t that the textbook definition of racism?” Ryan asked.

    The answer is simple: Yes, it is.

    Jay A. Pearson is an assistant professor in the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University.

  10. Charles Misfeldt
    October 11, 2017 at 13:20

    Israel owns Trump. How much more American treasure and blood to satisfy conservative Jews.

  11. Ian
    October 11, 2017 at 13:15

    This Obama explanation does not sound nearly as plausible as the alternative explanation which is regularly featured here at CS. To paraphrase, Israeli Firsters have their hands down Trumps pants and are saying “you can get him to do anything when you grab him by the testicles”. Israeli is likely seething by the fact that it was unable to impose regime change on Syria because Iran and Russia temporarily thwarted Israels march towards the Yinon plan.

    • SteveK9
      October 11, 2017 at 17:52

      You said it for me. I don’t think this has anything to do with Obama.

    • evropa
      October 11, 2017 at 17:56

      It may be even more simple – an external enemy, the oldest trick in the book for an unpopular ruler. Every “true american” knows that Iran is the enemy and so stands united behind their leader. Even the fake media will cheer. It’s traditional.

      • SteveK9
        October 12, 2017 at 10:47

        He was saying this before the election (and his unpopularity) … it’s Israel.

    • Sam F
      October 11, 2017 at 20:40

      Agreed; the Obama-reversal theme was little supported by the article. No very coherent plan underlies an incoherent policy, and the zigzag bellicosity can be attributed to almost anything that needs demagoguery. We all know that the MIC and Israel are being variously appeased, but the outcome is unclear despite seeming extremely ominous.

    • October 14, 2017 at 04:39
  12. Sally Snyder
    October 11, 2017 at 13:12

    Here is an article that looks at Iran’s obligations under JCPOA and what the IAEA has to say about its compliance:

    Washington seems to be spending its energy trying to decide how best to create the next “Spring” event in the Middle East whether it be through actual hostilities or an underhanded way of removing Iran’s current democratically elected President.

    • Mild-ly - Facetious
      October 11, 2017 at 14:06


      August 3, 2017 at 7:12 pm

      I’m Russia and I’m a lot afraid of USA I live in Crimea and the life is so good since we are in Russia more money more liberty no crimes from Ukrainian government. We don’t want our country being a satellite of USA like our French friends . The American is the agressor provoc ISIS WITH Bush jr and now wants a war against Russia since 10 years your country is against us with your NATO BIG MACHINE OF AMERICAN WAR AND PROPAGANDA Nazi . During Obama era they created Ukrainian crisis and supported Ukrainian nazi like Hitler . During tchétchènia war you support Islamic like ISIS sell weapons and take Islamic in different places with trucks .

      During GEORGIAN WAR WHEN their president attacked South Ossetia in their country where live some Russian they countinur in North Ossetia where ITS RUSSIA SO THEY ATTACKED US THEIR president said in all western media that Russia attacked that was false . So please accept that your domination is finished we don’t want to be Americans like our European foreigners . Thanks you very much NO WAR DONT ATACK US PLEASE USA PLEASE DONT BECAME HITLER ( sry about my English)

      • evropa
        October 11, 2017 at 15:40

        Dear Russia, we europeans do not want to be americans either, it is just their fantasy. That is why we had to create the European Union, wether we liked it or not. You think the french bow to America, nix! Nowhere in Europe is the disdain for the americans as strong as in France. Even in my country, Sweden, there is a lot more sympathy for the US… Well not right now. We cannot stand the f*** moron.

      • jo6pac
        October 11, 2017 at 16:00

        As an Amerikan what you say is the truth and sadly us in Amerika that would like to leave the world alone are not in control and the chance of that happening anytime soon is 0.

        Please come by more often and comment. I know I would like to hear more about Crimea and I do see that the bridge is almost done.

        Oh unlike Russia who has an adult running the country we have in the New Amerika deep state and a madman on twitter running the country down hill faster than demodog were doing.

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