Trump’s recent threat to decertify the Iran nuclear deal is the latest and most dangerous Trumpian gambit yet, and it has emerged that the US is working to designate the Revolutionary Guards a terrorist group. Just about the only person in his administration who believes abrogating the agreement isn’t dangerously foolish is Trump himself. But he promised his loyal base, Fox News and Steve Bannon, he would dump the accord. How can Trump keep his base happy, assuage his fragile ego and not blow up the world?
Until yesterday, Trump seemed to be hemmed in and contained by the unofficial “Committee to Save America”. As the Senate foreign relations chairman, Bob Corker, said: “Secretary [Rex] Tillerson, Secretary [James] Mattis and Chief of Staff [John] Kelly are those people who help separate our country from chaos.”
In congressional testimony last month, Mattis and General Joseph Dunford Jr, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, reaffirmed their qualified support for the Iran deal. Our entire national security apparatus, including Kelly, agree Iran is in basic compliance and the deal is working.
The actual scientific, objective monitoring of the Iran deal is done by the United Nations International Atomic Energy Agency. Their inspectors constantly examine information transmitted around the clock by surveillance cameras, online monitors and fiber-optic seals on nuclear equipment. It’s the most intensive and technologically advanced inspection regime in history. Seven times, IAEA has certified that Iran is meeting its obligations. All the signatories to the pact, including China and Russia, are relatively satisfied with the progress that has been made.
While the deal only slows Iran’s progress to becoming a nuclear power, none of our allies or any of the signatories are willing to re-open the agreement. The Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, said last month he would not renegotiate. Failure by the United States to keep our word would play directly into the hands of Iranian hardliners who have always hated any cooperation with the west, and would love to be able to brandish a nuclear bomb. Almost everyone agrees that Trump’s radical thinking is simply unthinkable.
Trump has loudly and repeatedly condemned the deal as an embarrassment to America and has sworn to kill it. “Believe me.” He has Bannon and Breitbart howling on his heels, along with most of the rabid rightwing noise machine. To make matters worse, he’s still facing a backlash from his base on “repeal and replace”, the Daca (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) deal with Democrats, and his “wealthfare” tax plan.
Just as important to Trump, the Iran deal was one of Obama’s crowning achievements, and Trump just despises Obama. Because the former president made sport of him in public, Trump’s narcissism demands he take every opportunity to revenge himself by obliterating every possible Obama accomplishment. What to do?
A peculiar pattern of Trumpian behavior is emerging. First, his fragile ego forbids him to ever take responsibility for anything. Ever. Second, because he craves the adulation of his base, he will to shift blame or throw any and all supporters and allies under the bus.
So, just like the Obamacare “repeal and replace” fiasco, or the DACA deal, or his tax reform plan, Trump dodges the ball. He throws the hot potato to Congress, throws up his hands, walks away and points fingers.
When he decertifies the deal, Congress will have 90 days to consider his action and decide whether to re-impose sanctions. They must introduce, debate and pass legislation on the sanctions or his decertification means exactly nothing.
Right now, there seems to be no appetite in Congress to touch the Iran deal. Still, there will be pressure on Congress to make a few cosmetic changes, just to save face. Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas has proposed new stipulations for US participation, including eliminating “sunset clauses”, which allow some Iranian nuclear activities to resume after several years, as well as tougher inspections and additional restrictions on Iran’s missile programs. None of which are acceptable to Iran, and would probably destroy whatever limited diplomatic and economic re-engagement has been achieved.
But neither Corker nor majority leader Mitch McConnell say they are ready to move any sanctions bills, and neither are Democratic leaders in either body. Facing a legislative calendar already crowded with must-pass bills, and mid-term elections on the horizon, it’s hard to see how Congress could act on sanctions even if they wanted to.
So for Trump, it’s like having your cake and eating it too. He gets to tell his base he’s trying to kill the plan, but the “deep state” and Congress are standing in the way. It’s brilliant.
Voila! The Iran deal holds.
The world avoids armageddon and Trump can blame Congress. His base stays happy with him and angry at the “deep state”. Dissatisfaction with the institutions of government continues to fester. And Trump skips merrily along.
This feels a lot more like dodgeball than leadership.
- Joe McLean is president of the Crockett Policy Institute, a non-partisan thinktank