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Donald Trump will have his third chance this October to weigh in on Iranian compliance with the international nuclear agreement reached by Tehran in 2015 with the United States and five other world powers. The United States Congress requires the president to certify every 90 days that Iran is observing the pact’s terms, and Trump has reluctantly done so on two occasions. This time around, however, he seems intent on finding an excuse to fault Tehran’s behavior.
It’s not that he wants Iran to do a better job of complying. Instead, he’s looking for an excuse to pull out of the deal, just as North Korea claims to have tested its most powerful nuclear bomb yet. Abandoning the Iran deal could leave the US facing two major nuclear threats.
Never mind the consensus in world capitals these days that the Iran deal is working pretty well, thanks. The deal was meant to block Iran’s pursuit of nuclear arms, and while everything may not be perfect, it appears by all accounts that we are much better off with the agreement in place than we used to be.
UN Secretary-General António Guterres considers the nuclear deal to be “one of the utmost diplomatic achievements in our collective search for peace and security,” his spokesman, Stéphane Dujarric, said in mid-August as international gossip swirled about Trump’s machinations. “We need to do whatever we can to preserve it.”
Trump’s own foreign policy makers have so far twice managed to convince the president that he should certify Iranian compliance because Tehran has put its bomb-making program on hold; there is no imminent pressure for a possible US or Israeli attack on Iran; and relations are improving between Tehran and the rest of the international community.
Trump, of course, rarely sees things the way other leaders see them.
“I would be surprised if they were in compliance,” he told The Wall Street Journal in late July, referring to the decision he will be making in October. This is the man who insisted throughout the presidential campaign that the pact was “the worst deal ever” and should be abrogated, only to discover after the election that there was little support for his point of view among his own national security staff.
This man has never, to say the least, been driven by facts. To him, the most important one here may well be that the deal was negotiated by the Obama administration. Trump loves to hate pretty much anything Obama.
Trump also loves to please Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who insists the deal remains an existential threat to Israel’s survival, although he seems to have stopped demanding that Washington join him in bombing Iran back to the Stone Age.
Trump is also aware that some of his most fervent supporters see the pact’s survival, seven months into his presidency, as yet another broken campaign promise. While he no longer says he wants to rip it up, he seems at this point to have settled on a new strategy in which he finds a way to blame Iran for his abandoning the deal.
Acting unilaterally would, of course, further isolate the president; the deal’s other signers — Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia — have signaled they would keep it alive, with or without US support. But Trump, the America-firster, has never worried too much about the interests of a bunch of foreigners, even when those foreigners are close friends and allies. Witness his gleeful undermining of NATO, his embrace of Russian leader Vladimir Putin and his pulling out of the Paris climate agreement.
Which brings us to US Ambassador Nikki Haley. While she’s a foreign policy neophyte, she has boasted that her greatest asset is her ability to set her own course in a dangerous world rather than blindly follow the lead of the White House, where sound foreign policy is truly a foreign concept.
But on the Iran pact, Haley is sounding increasingly like Trump’s enabler, even if that means disagreeing with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, Defense Secretary James Mattis and Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who have all defended the deal to Trump.
“Iran, under no circumstances, can ever be allowed to have nuclear weapons. At the same time, however, we must also continue to hold Iran responsible for its missile launches, support for terrorism, disregard for human rights and violations of UN Security Council resolutions. The nuclear deal must not become ‘too big to fail,’ ” Haley said in a statement issued by the US mission to the UN, after Iran made it clear it was not interested in leaving the deal.
Haley’s statement came after Washington’s recent imposition of a wave of new sanctions on Iran, even as it insisted this was unrelated to the nuclear pact. Iranian officials complained that the penalties, the first since lifting many sanctions under the nuclear deal, appeared aimed at pressuring Tehran to reluctantly pull out of the agreement. Haley responded by accusing Iran of trying to “use the nuclear deal to hold the world hostage.”
She then traveled to the Vienna headquarters of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to hint to inspectors there that Iran might be carrying on some nuclear hanky-panky at unspecified secret nuclear sites, noting that “access to facilities in Iran would be crucial to fulfilling this [the inspectors’] mandate.”
Tehran quickly questioned the need to visit secret military sites with no evidence that anything was being concealed.
Haley was ready. “Why would they say that if they had nothing to hide?” she shot back. “Why wouldn’t they let the IAEA go there?”
In fact, IAEA inspectors have certified eight times that Iran was observing the deal, most recently on Aug. 31. The agreement specifically authorizes the inspectors to demand access to undeclared sites they feel a need to check out. If a majority of the parties to the pact are unhappy with Iran’s response to such a request, they can force it to “implement the necessary means” within three days.
Quixotically, an Iranian official dismissed Haley’s musings on access to secret Iranian military sites as “merely a dream.”
Haley’s provocative response? “If inspections of Iranian military sites are ‘merely a dream,’ as Iran says, then Iranian compliance with the [nuclear agreement] is also a dream.”
An American official, requesting anonymity, told The Washington Post on Aug. 31 that Haley, during her visit to Vienna, “did not ask the IAEA to inspect any specific sites, nor did she provide the IAEA with any new intelligence.”
So what is Haley’s game? Her timing here is particularly curious in light of other top administration officials’ moves to distance themselves from the president after Trump’s off-key defense of a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., and increasing questions about his mental health.
Trump “speaks for himself” when it comes to his values, Tillerson told Fox News in late August, a statement that sent shockwaves through the foreign policy establishment.
Better to let the president speak for himself alone on Iran as well, Ambassador Haley.
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