October 12, 2017 | By Ivo H. Daalder

This Week's Reads - The Real Divide Over the Iran Nuclear Deal


Washington is divided over the Iran nuclear deal, and the most immediate split is among those who agree that President Trump should withhold certifying Iran’s compliance later this week. While the president has already made clear he does not like the deal, Trump has not yet said which of the two factions within the “decertify” camp he sides with, or even if he has decided between them.

One side, led by former US ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton, says outright that there’s no acceptable deal with Tehran to be had. “It is not renegotiable, as some argue, because there is no chance that Iran . . . will agree to any serious changes,” Bolton wrote in July. The other side, led by Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR), says the near opposite. “I don’t propose leaving the deal yet,” Cotton said this month. “I propose taking the steps necessary to obtain leverage to get a better deal.”

There are three takeaways from this disagreement, each of which should give us pause.

First, while Bolton and Cotton seem at odds with one another about an ultimate deal, the first step for each is the same: refuse to certify Iranian compliance. For President Trump, this is an opportunity for a quick “win” on an issue that featured prominently in his campaign. In the short term, Trump can satisfy both sides.

Nor might he even have to worry about the long term. While the president must certify to Congress whether Iran is in compliance every 90 days, that procedure is not a part of the actual 2015 agreement, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Failure to certify compliance does not end the deal outright, but rather begins a 60-day window in which Congress may reimpose the sanctions lifted by the agreement. If Congress does not act, then JCPOA remains in force. (Of course, the president has the power to reimpose sanctions himself, thus ending US compliance with the deal, but he is apparently not willing to take that risk himself.)

However, if Congress does reimpose sanctions, therein ending the deal, it would create a massive conflict with US allies, and with Russia and China, all of whom support the agreement and say Iran is in compliance. Worse, breaking the deal would allow Iran to restart its nuclear program, either immediately or ahead of future negotiations as additional leverage. When the centrifuges are spinning and our allies are angry at the United States, then it is Tehran that holds the upper hand in talks—not Washington.

Second, Trump, Cotton, and Bolton have found few supporters for their strategy, either to decertify and dump the deal or to decertify and attempt renegotiations. When asked earlier this month by the Senate Armed Forces Committee if he thought upholding the Iran nuclear deal was in the US national interest, Secretary of Defense James Mattis was unequivocal: “Yes, senator, I do.” He has been joined by a long list of people who say the same.

Third, the disagreement is a reminder that the Iran deal was a bet by the Obama administration, and not only on whether the agreement could keep Iran from a nuclear weapon for the duration of the deal and beyond. The negotiations were also a bet on whether the United States and Iran were even capable of making a deal, one that cordoned off the many disagreements between the countries and sought only to address the nuclear issue. Iran’s missile tests, its support for Hezbollah and the Syrian regime, its provocations in Iraq and the Gulf, its threats against Israel—none was addressed in the deal.

Yet, the opposition’s strategy has been to question the very validity of a single-issue deal with Tehran. In his recent speech at the Council on Foreign Relations, Senator Cotton derided the US side in the talks for overlooking Iran’s “long history of treachery.” In listing every Iranian affront from attacking the Green Movement to providing arms to rebels in Yemen as evidence of this treachery, all in a speech nominally on the nuclear deal, Cotton was reinforcing the idea that these issues are inseparable. As such, any single-issue deal with Tehran is impossible. But the question is not whether Iran has done horrific things; it has. The question is whether Washington and Tehran can sustain a deal on specific issues. If not, then no deal is possible.

Walking away from the deal now, as Bolton endorses and Cotton’s preference all but guarantees, and doing so in no small part because of non-nuclear issues that were not part of the original negotiations, weakens America’s hand in any future negotiations. Why, for example, would North Korea strike a deal on its nuclear program if Pyongyang thinks Washington could void an agreement over issues unrelated to the deal in question?

In the end, diplomacy is about prioritizing goals among competing interests. Negotiating agreements on specific issues with an otherwise antagonistic nation—especially as important an issue as constraining that nation’s nuclear ambitions—is instrumental in this objective.

The Iran nuclear deal will be the focus of an upcoming program at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. On Oct. 30, I will moderate a discussion with Michael Singh and Jessica Mathews about where we go from here. As always, I welcome your thoughts and reflections on this topic or on any of the articles below in This Week’s Reads.

The Nuclear Issue Isn’t the Real Iranian Challenge

David Ignatius/The Washington Post

If President Trump’s reason for decertifying the Iran nuclear deal is to draw attention to Iran’s non-nuclear assertiveness in the Middle East, then his plan will backfire, David Ignatius argues in the Washington Post. Yes, from Damascus to Baghdad to Saana, Tehran has launched a series of provocations, and it is clear Trump wants to make Iran’s overall behavior in the region the central issue guiding US policy. Yet decertifying Iran’s compliance will, instead, result in international attention focusing squarely back on the nuclear issue.

Inside North Korea, and Feeling the Drums of War

Nicholas Kristof/The New York Times

“I’ve been covering North Korea on and off since the 1980s,” Nicholas Kristof writes from Pyongyang in the New York Times, “and this five-day trip has left me more alarmed than ever about the risks of a catastrophic confrontation.” Hardline factions within North Korea seem ascendant, Kristof writes. Military leaders would not even meet with him. The North Koreans he was permitted to speak with were not only convinced of a coming war, they were also convinced their side would win. There is much in Kim Jong-un’s country today, Kristof sums up, that reminds him of the fatalism and last-ditch rationalizations rampant in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in 2002.

Rex Tillerson at the Breaking Point

Dexter Filkins/The New Yorker

“I’m not a diplomat,” America’s top diplomat, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, said during a closed-door meeting at the United Nations. It is just one of many surprising details in this smart profile of Tillerson by Dexter Filkins in the New Yorker. Tracing Tillerson’s experiences abroad back to his time as the head of Exxon, Filkins builds a detailed and nuanced case that the secretary of state has centralized decision-making in the State Department to an inordinate degree. As a result, important details are being lost in the melee of decisions Tillerson and his core staff must now make. Asking one senior Trump official why the secretary does not rely more on existing people and resources in the department, Filkins receives no clear answer: “I cannot frickin’ explain it,” the official said.

China and Russia’s Dangerous Entente

Alexander Gabuev/Wall Street Journal

For much of the Cold War, a shared commitment to communism did little to solidify cooperation between Moscow and Beijing. The decades-long animosity between the Eurasian powers more than once nearly led to war, and was a main reason Beijing went along with President Nixon’s opening to China in the 1970s. Yet what communism couldn’t unite then, mistrust of the United States today can, writes Alexander Gabuev in the Wall Street Journal. Beijing and Moscow, he explains, have developed a coordinated “good-cop/bad-cop routine” at the United Nations when it comes to North Korea, and have deepened their bond with cross-border investment and the sale of Russian military technology to China.

Putin’s Russia, Guided by Its Totalitarian Past, Has No Future

Susan B. Glasser/The Washington Post

Russian President Vladimir Putin so dominates the news today, and has led his country for so long, that it’s difficult to recall a time when neither was the case. But as Susan B. Glasser writes in this review of Masha Gessen’s new book “The Future Is History,” many Russians in the 1990s yearned for Russia to be a “normal, civilized country.” Gessen’s book is an account of how that wish largely vanished. In its place, Gessen argues, totalitarianism on par with that of Hitler’s Germany or Stalin’s Soviet Union has swept through Putin’s Russia. It’s a provocative claim, but as Glasser writes, one need not buy into every aspect of Gessen’s strong argument to find her book a compelling indictment of Russia under its current leader.

The Relentless Decline of Social Democracy in the West

Josef Joffe/The American Interest

The center left, long held in Europe by the social democrats, is spent, writes Josef Joffe in the American Interest. In the United States, the Democrats, too, seem out of ideas and excitement, he writes. Why? One answer: success. Many of the social welfare policies that rallied the left together in the past have become the taken-for-granted programs of the present. Nor is the outlook any more reassuring. As long as the current left lacks a way to incorporate elements of the populism making headway on the right, Joffe argues, its influence will continue to wane.

Behind the Silence of Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi

Niharika Mandhana and James Hookway/Wall Street Journal

It wasn’t that long ago that Aung San Suu Kyi was feted in the West as the hero who brought democracy to Myanmar after years of military rule. Yet her silence on the Rohingya crisis in recent months has left many of her former champions stunned. Hundreds of thousands of Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslims have been driven from their homes in the Buddhist-majority country. Thousands have been killed. This essay in the Wall Street Journal seeks to answer one key question: Why has Suu Kyi not sought to end this crisis?

The Catalan Crisis Poses a Threat to the European Order

Tony Barber/Financial Times

It appears the “domino theory” has been revived, no longer in regards to communism in Asia, but rather now about sub-state nationalism in Europe. Spain’s conservatives, writes Tony Barber in the Financial Times, are arguing that Catalonia’s bid for independence could set off a chain reaction across the continent, emboldening separatist movements, exploding existing states, and putting an end to the postwar European project and the stability it has created. Certainly the events in Catalonia have many in Europe on edge, and this piece by the FT’s Europe editor does an excellent job of explaining why. 

A German Who Explains Trump

Roger Cohen/The New York Times

Forget the title. This smart, timely piece by Roger Cohen in the New York Times is not about the US president, at least not directly. Instead, it’s about Klaus Riedelsdorf, a member of Germany’s far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, which did surprisingly well in the recent federal election. Understanding what makes Riedelsdorf tick goes a long way in better understanding the populist phenomenon that is emerging in Germany and across Europe, which is all part of a dealignment in European politics. For more on this, see my earlier This Week’s Reads.

Theresa May’s Nightmare Week Ends With Party Coup Attempt

Stephen Castle/The New York Times

Prime Minister Theresa May’s high point in the last few weeks was a speech on Brexit she gave some 750 miles from London in Florence, Italy. Closer to home, she has fared far worse. The recent Conservative Party Conference in Manchester, for example, was a shambles, bookended by thinly veiled calls for her ouster from rivals within her party. In the New York Times, Stephen Castle provides an important overview of where the embattled British leader stands now and how her uncertain future as prime minister is casting a long shadow over Brexit negotiations.

Saudi King, in Russia, Seeks Warmer Ties With a Longtime Foe

Ivan Nechepurenko and Ben Hubbard/The New York Times

Last week marked the first visit by a Saudi monarch to Moscow. Under ornate chandeliers and gold-leaf frescos, President Vladimir Putin welcomed King Salman to the Kremlin. The visit caused a wealth of speculation by Gulf and Kremlin watchers about the changing relationship between these two regional powers. Russia’s military strikes in Syria have increased its power in the Middle East, making it all the more important for the Saudis to engage with the Kremlin. Meanwhile, lingering tension between Riyadh and Washington has spurred the Saudis to hurry along new diplomatic efforts with Beijing and Moscow.


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