Trump’s Failed Iran Gamble Was Still Worth It
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- In 2015, when President Barack Obama was trying to sell the Iran nuclear deal, one of the administration’s talking points was that many officials within the Israeli national security establishment supported the bargain privately even as they publicly supported Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s opposition to it. That talking point has recently been bolstered — but that doesn’t mean the agreement was a good one.
According to Haaretz, Netanyahu’s former defense minister, army chief of staff and spy chief have all recently stated that former U.S. President Donald Trump blundered in 2018 when he withdrew the U.S. from the nuclear deal. None of them said so at the time. The nuclear deal’s advocates have greeted all these recantations as vindication.
The argument is straightforward: Trump withdrew from the deal and reimposed economic sanctions, but the Iranians held tight. At first slowly, but then brazenly, Iran’s regime began to stockpile more nuclear fuel, upgrade its centrifuges and advance its nuclear program. In retrospect, the former Israeli officials now say, it would have been better to remain in the deal.
That is one way to look at it. But context is everything. To start, President Joe Biden’s administration has conceded at least part of Trump’s argument. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said that the U.S. seeks to make the nuclear deal “longer and stronger.” That is an implicit rejection of the 2015 deal’s sunset clauses, which remove restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program through the current decade.
In this respect, Iran’s recent nuclear advances — the International Atomic Energy Agency announced this week that Iran is enriching uranium to 20% at an underground facility — would have been delayed but not prevented under the 2015 deal. The restrictions on uranium enrichment, for example, would have expired in 2031.
The Trump position was that reimposing the full secondary sanctions on Iran’s economy provided the U.S. with the most leverage to negotiate improvements to the deal. Better to confront Iran before it had rebuilt its economy, the argument went, than after. The Biden administration also wants to improve the deal, but it will seek those improvements only after restoring the 2015 deal.
Another important piece of context is that in 2017, when Trump took office, Iran was using the financial windfall from the deal — unfrozen assets and the removal of sanctions — to send cash to its meddling proxies in the Middle East, improve its missile program and intensify its regional war on U.S. allies. At the very least, Trump’s economic pressure made all those efforts more difficult.
More context: Iran’s leaders bet on the Democrats returning to power in 2021, and that’s why they made no serious effort to negotiate when Trump was president. Had Trump been re-elected in 2020, it’s possible the Iranians would have entered negotiations to avoid four more years of economic pain.
The Iranians won their bet. Nonetheless, the Biden administration has not been as amenable as they expected. Although the U.S. has largely declined to enforce sanctions against Iran’s main economic lifeline, China, Biden has not lifted all of the secondary sanctions that Trump reinstated.
All of this is to say that Trump’s decision to leave the nuclear deal is not necessarily an open-and-shut case of foreign policy malpractice. It is true that Trump’s gamble did not pay off. But that doesn’t vindicate the 2015 deal. And while Biden has a strategy to restore the agreement, he has yet to offer a plan to address its weaknesses.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Eli Lake is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering national security and foreign policy. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.
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