Don’t Miss a Story: Subscribe to PassBlue
Sign up to get the smartest news on the UN by email, joining readers across the globe.
When you’re a reality TV star running for president who likes to talk tough and you know nothing about foreign policy, maybe it makes sense to repeatedly attack the Iran nuclear agreement as “the worst deal ever” and to pledge to kill it if you ever get the chance.
If you end up getting elected, however, you would soon realize that you needed to back off a bit on some of your many whacked-out campaign promises. Don’t forget that Jack Kennedy ran against Richard Nixon by accusing Dwight Eisenhower of a “missile gap” with the Soviet Union, only to learn after winning the White House that there was no such thing. Kennedy quickly toned down his rhetoric and soon negotiated with the Soviets to limit nuclear arms. That’s how it goes with getting elected. Once you’re in, you must return to earth and deal with what’s in front of you.
But not if you’re Donald Trump. Attacking President Obama worked for him before he was elected, so as his popularity drops, he keeps hoping it will work for him again. And again.
In the case of the nuclear deal, he decides to ignore the wide praise the agreement is winning now that the presidential campaign is over. He reaches out to his base, that deeply unrepresentative slice of the American population that loves reality stars who are just as clueless — and disdainful — of foreign affairs as he is. Suddenly we’re hearing again about that “worst deal ever” and how Washington needs to destroy it.
And in this manner, Trump’s foreign policy has become domestic policy. He doesn’t even begin to get the difference.
Nor, apparently, does Nikki Haley, Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations. Coming to that job from Columbia, South Carolina, she might be forgiven for thinking it’s a good idea to back the president on Iran. As a former governor, she too is accustomed to seeing foreign policy primarily through the prism of domestic politics.
Foreign policy pros and defense experts, in the US and in other countries, argue that the Iran agreement is preventing Tehran from becoming a nuclear power and that walking away from it will encourage Iran to make bombs even as it undermines US global leadership and credibility. That seems particularly creepy as the threat of nuclear war with North Korea is also hanging over the White House. But Haley seems more focused on her future job prospects: if Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is on his way out the door, the president would have to quickly fill that vacancy in Foggy Bottom.
Just a few months ago, some of Trump’s most vocal critics fixated on Haley as a potential champion of a more rational foreign policy because she has asserted that she is independent-minded and doesn’t consider herself beholden to the White House.
But on the nuclear agreement, she has ended up — in Politico’s words — as Trump’s “Iran whisperer.” She chose to use this privileged access to undermine an important source of international stability while increasing the risk of nuclear annihilation.
Haley’s most important job in New York is as the top US envoy in the Security Council, the UN’s most potent force in the pursuit of international peace and security. But she chose to look past the fact that the Iran deal is a product of the Council and that four of Washington’s fellow signers — Britain, China, France and Russia — are permanent Council members with veto power. These are the nations the US must work with on every world crisis, and there is nothing to be said for needlessly angering and alienating them.
Of the total signers — the above five plus Germany, Iran and the European Union — seven of them have insisted that Iran was complying in full with the letter of the agreement. They have vowed to stick with the accord and pleaded with Trump to do the same. Defense Secretary James Mattis, a retired Marine Corps general, and Joseph Dunford, an active Marine Corps general and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, also publicly declared that Iran was in compliance and that the deal was in Washington’s national security interests. Tillerson opposed walking away from the pact, too. But Haley, with more knowledge of South Carolina than of the Mideast, won the day.
Haley’s lonely voyage began in late July at a meeting in the Oval Office, where she asked the president to let her publicly make the case for weaseling out of the Iran agreement, Politico reported in mid-October.
Trump agreed. She was soon arguing that the concept of violating the deal should extend well beyond the agreement’s actual requirements to a broad range of undesirable behavior.
“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,” she said in a mid-August statement. “The nuclear deal must not become ‘too big to fail.’ ”
These are all admirable goals. But in negotiating the deal, all parties agreed to put such matters aside to achieve a rigorous, focused framework that would prevent Iran from working toward nuclear arms.
Haley then visited the International Atomic Energy Association in Vienna and implied that UN nuclear inspectors, who had certified Tehran’s compliance with the agreement eight times in a row, had gone soft on Tehran. Soon after, in a speech at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C., she again aired her “doubts and concerns” about the deal.
“Haley never explicitly called for withdrawal. But she was alone among top Trump officials to publicly call for Trump to declare Iran in violation of the deal,” Politico reported. “Even as most Cabinet officials — with the exception of CIA Director Mike Pompeo and [Vice President Mike] Pence — privately cautioned Trump against upending it, Haley hammered the deal in multiple public remarks.”
When the October deadline for recertifying compliance came, Trump actually ended up softening his earlier insistence that he needed to walk away from the agreement. Rather than fully withdraw from it, as had been feared a few weeks earlier, he said he was instead only declining to certify that the deal was in the national interest and that Iran was in compliance with its terms. While no actual violations had been determined, Iran was in violation of “the spirit” of the agreement, he announced, following Haley’s lead. This strategy enabled Washington to remain a party to the agreement while kicking its ultimate fate to the US Congress.
Haley insisted afterward that the administration’s intent was to encourage Congress to strengthen the agreement by imposing broader controls on Iran’s behavior.
“I think right now, you’re going to see us stay in the deal,” she said on NBC’s Meet the Press. “We’re in the deal to see how we can make it better.”
But this may end up as her most shameful statement, as it has been widely assumed all along that Iran and the other parties to the deal would simply refuse to reopen the agreement to accept such changes, freeing Washington to fully walk away.
“In the event we are not able to reach a solution working with Congress and our allies, then the agreement will be terminated,” Trump said in announcing his decision. “It is under continuous review and our participation can be canceled by me as president at any time.”
Let us know what you think of this op-ed, part of our regular series called Nikki Haley Watch: email@example.com.