By H. Javan
White House down
On September 19, when Donald Trump, a real estate tycoon-turned-US president, for the first time addressed world leaders at the United Nations General Assembly, he called Iran a “murderous regime.” Just hours later, he requested a meeting with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who was also in New York for the General Assembly. (President Rouhani — naturally — snubbed Mr. Trump.)
Later, Mr. Trump’s press secretary denied that the US president had requested a meeting with President Rouhani, before “a senior administration official” confirmed to The Washington Post that the US president had in fact requested the meeting.
On October 13, speaking to a group of people at a hotel ballroom in Washington, Mr. Trump called Iran a “terrorist nation” [emphasis added]. Hours later that same day, in a speech written for him reportedly by a hard-line advisor, Stephen Miller, and delivered at the White House, Mr. Trump called the Iranian government a “radical regime” and Iranians “a proud people.”
These are just two examples of a White House seemingly confused beyond repair. Mr. Trump has himself admitted that he is not a politician (and some credit is due there for a rare non-egocentric statement), but he is at the head of an expansive bureaucracy that has long prided itself on practicing world-class leadership. And yet, he somehow manages to move from one embarrassment on matters of policy to another.
The Iran speech
Mr. Trump’s October 13 speech is a prime example that provides insight into his governance behavior, in particular with regards to his administration’s “Iran strategy.” While the speech was written for him, Mr. Trump must have certainly approved its content (and perhaps even changed a thing or two in it) before he agreed to deliver it.
That speech was, by all accounts, one filled with slurs and misinformation made up to look like a solemn statement on Iran strategy.
And while Mr. Trump said many things, including most concretely that he was not certifying Iranian compliance with the Iran deal, he left out one thing that he was reportedly expected to say: that the deal is not in America’s interest.
Some would argue that the overall tone of the speech was geared to signal just that. But the fact stands that he did not say it outright, maybe because it was not written for him but also maybe because he did not want to.
His secretary of defense, Jim Mattis, who is hardly an Iran dove, had earlier testified at the US Senate that the deal was in fact in America’s national security interest. Mattis was pressed and had to parse it. Other members of Mr. Trump’s national security team are said to privately believe so, too. It is hard to believe that Mr. Trump, who has publicly undermined his top aides in the past, might have wanted to avoid a direct rebuttal of Mattis’ statement in his October 13 speech.
Furthermore, when Mr. Trump sought to invoke the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act (INARA) in an attempt to justify his “decertification” of Iranian compliance with the international deal, he invoked an article of the law according to which the president shall certify whether the continued waiving of sanctions by Congress is “appropriate and proportionate” to the measures Iran has taken to limit its nuclear program. This is while the law actually has another article — appearing right after the one invoked by Mr. Trump — that requires the president to certify whether continued sanctions relief is “vital to the national security interests of the United States.” Mr. Trump opted not to invoke that latter article.
So, does all of this mean that Mr. Trump believes the deal actually is in America’s national interest? Well, we can’t know for sure because he won’t say it. But can we infer his thinking and status on the deal? We should be able to try.
But first, let us also remember that the US president continues to be able to supposedly scrap the deal with “a stroke of the pen.” Mr. Trump has not done that, either — at least not yet — evidently over massive international support for the deal, but also for other, unspoken reasons.
‘Not now — Because we are still thinking’
One theory is that Mr. Trump does not want to put himself in a corner by declaring that the deal is not in the US’s national interest. Such a pronouncement would be grave, presumably requiring more serious action than simply refusing to certify Iranian compliance with the deal. According to that line of reasoning, Mr. Trump, not wanting to box himself in, passes the bucket to Congress so he has more time to explore a potential, less costly way out of a deal he despises.
There is a simple problem with that theory: there is little, if anything, he can do outside of Congress (except of course for a presidential decision to unilaterally withdraw from the deal.)
Just read his speech. He said in it that there were “many serious flaws” in the international deal with Iran, and yet his most detailed solution was to work with Congress to amend a domestic law that gives the Hill only oversight on the Iran deal. Changing that law — the INARA — would not change the Iran deal.
To change the kinds of things that Mr. Trump apparently would like to change in the international accord, all parties have to basically renegotiate. That is a non-starter with Iran and most, if not all, of the other parties to the deal.
Mr. Trump (or his speechwriter) seemed to know that. References in the speech to working with allies were few and brief. References to Congress and INARA, the domestic US law, were more, and more detailed.
“Congress has already begun the work to address these problems [with the deal]. Key House and Senate leaders are drafting legislation that would amend the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act to strengthen enforcement, prevent Iran from developing an inter- — this is so totally important — an intercontinental ballistic missile, and make all restrictions on Iran’s nuclear activity permanent under US law,” he said.
Notice his own explicit reference to “US law.”
This first scenario, of course, posits that Mr. Trump does actually want to ultimately withdraw from the deal.
Realizing the merits?
But what if he doesn’t? What if he has had a genuine change of heart? After all, international pressure on him not to even “decertify” (let alone withdraw) had been immense, and he may have come to realize the benefits — if not of the deal — of staying in it.
But the “change of heart” hypothesis is only very remotely likely. Mr. Trump has vilified the deal so often and has resisted his own aides’ advice so doggedly all along the way that it is hard to imagine that he may have changed his mind.
Of course, Congress could make it easy on him if it decided not to re-impose sanctions on Iran. That would keep the deal intact; and an amendment to the INARA dropping the presidential 90-day certification requirement would take Mr. Trump off the radars altogether. But, while nothing is certain, Congress also remains likely to act in such a way as to effectively kill the deal, not preserve it.
‘Let Congress do the killing’
So if Mr. Trump has not basically changed his mind about the deal, yet another theory can be explored. Some reports have already depicted the Trump administration’s decision to punt things to Congress as some sort of a clever plan: the president hates the deal, he wants it to sink, but he doesn’t want to take the blame for potentially unraveling an internationally popular agreement himself. So he kicks a decision to Congress, where an aggressive Iran hawk — Tom Cotton — more than happily picks up the ball and teams up with the administration. That means Congress may, by taking action that would in one way or another dent the deal, end up where Mr. Trump would have if he had actually decided to declare an outright withdrawal. In other words, Mr. Trump will be getting his way without taking direct blame.
The problem with that theory is that Mr. Trump has little control over Congress’ course of action and there is no guarantee that Congress will kill the deal. Also, there have already been signs that Cotton may have been sidelined for being too hawkish and thus a liability for any Iran legislation.
And by the way, if the deal did unravel as a result of a Congress decision to re-impose sanctions on Iran, the American president would take blame for indirect complicity in bringing down a very fine international diplomatic achievement (and any other consequences of the deal’s unraveling).
In chaos & powerless
Mr. Trump began attacking the deal long before he knew enough about it or had someone to tell him what it was about. Once he did have a national security team to tell him how the deal had to be sustained, he remained stubborn. He had, after all, based his entire (and very short) political career on personal animus toward a man named Barack Obama. And the Iran deal had the man’s mark on it.
As it transpires, though, the deal may prove too far a target to hit, especially for an administration in chaos.
The European Union’s top diplomat, Federica Mogherini, put it best when she said shortly after Mr. Trump’s October 13 speech that the American president did not have the power to “terminate” the Iran deal, as Mr. Trump threatened to do in his speech.
“The President of the United States has many powers, not this one,” Mrs. Mogherini said.
Europe — America’s main ally — already feels betrayed by Mr. Trump’s decision to ignore its pleas (and the facts) and “decertify” Iranian compliance. And European countries have begun contemplating economic regulations to shield their business with Iran if the US withdraws from the accord or Congress re-imposes the sanctions on Iran. That could translate into a real rupture with Europe, affecting America’s other interests.
A lot more will be at stake for the United States if it chooses to either scrap the Iran deal or reintroduce sanctions.
Thus, Mr. Trump can’t just kill the deal — not without fatally wounding himself in the process.
(In all fairness, Mr. Trump may actually know that. He has long been in real estate, but in his almost one year in America’s highest public office, he may have learned just enough to know that politics is a totally different business.)
And that may explain why the president of the United States has outsourced the decision-making on a deal that he loves to hate.