President Trump's Dangerous Decision on Iran
David Goldfischer is an associate professor in the Josef Korbel School of International Studies. He has taught at the University of Denver since 1991. Goldfischer's research and expertise focuses on nuclear arms control and disarmament, ballistic missle defense, international relations theory, human rights and security, international terrorism and homeland security.
President Donald Trump has offered a bad argument for withdrawing from the Iran Deal, while failing to offer any plan for addressing the real and immediate dangers posed by Iran.
The foolish – and false – rationale for his pullout is that the deal was failing to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. Every knowledgeable observer knows that his claim that Iran could continue enriching uranium until it reached a “breakout” is simply a lie. In fact, the deal had forced Iran, which had no prior obstacles to pursuing “weapons-grade” uranium enrichment levels (at least 80 percent), to reduce the enrichment level of its stockpile to 3.67 percent. In addition to this, the deal reduced Iran’s uranium stockpile to 660 lbs. (a decrease of 98 percent), an amount than could not be exceeded until 2031. Finally, Iran’s 20,000 centrifuges were cut to 5,060, a number that could not be exceeded until 2026.
Every senior Trump Administration official, including Mike Pompeo during his recent confirmation hearings for Secretary of State, has confirmed that Iran was complying with those drastic cuts, which were keeping Iran a constant one year away (at least) from acquiring a nuclear weapon – should the deal be broken. Now, assuming Iran will follow Trump’s lead, the clock will start ticking and Iran could be nuclear as early as next spring.
The truth, in short, is that the deal had frozen in place a huge reduction in Iran’s capacity to pursue nuclear weapons. Trump’s false assertion to the contrary comes at a high price, including a weakening of United States credibility in all of its future international negotiations, particularly with North Korea. That collapse of the U.S. diplomatic reputation will extend far beyond Trump; the fear that some equally erratic president might be waiting in the wings may take a generation to fade.
While it is important to remember the logical reasoning for distrust of Iran, there is no basis for hoping that they will be addressed by the president’s action. Trump correctly claims that Iran’s theocratic dictators have pursued a murderous foreign policy whose threat to international security is rising. In Iraq, former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, Iran’s ally following the 2010 U.S. withdrawal, suppressed and marginalized Iraq’s Sunni population, setting the stage for the rise of ISIS. In Syria, Iran’s massive intervention to prop up the unpopular dictator Assad, made it directly responsible for more than half a million deaths in Syria’s civil war. Iran has increased the threat to Israel by turning Lebanon’s militant Hezbollah Party into a proxy army along with the deployment of traditional Iranian forces. In Lebanon, there is a sense that Iran represents the wave of the future, and this has been validated by Monday’s elections, which gives Hezbollah a prospect of controlling Lebanon’s Parliament. Finally, Iran’s support for Yemen’s Houthis has fed a horrific civil war, plunging the country into a bottomless humanitarian catastrophe.
One could imagine that a more assertive United States policy could deter, and potentially reverse Iran’s aggressive policies. Certainly, Trump’s re-imposition of economic sanctions will impact the potential scale of Iran-backed violence. Unfortunately, there is absolutely no evidence that the United States is envisioning, let alone preparing to implement, a comprehensive strategy for advancing regional stability. Instead, the President has been talking openly about withdrawing U.S. troops from Syria, which would complete the process – enabled by his predecessor – of turning that country over to Iran and Russia. Moreover, Trump has doubled-down on U.S. backing of Saudi Arabia, a fossilized Kingdom who despotic rulers have long tried to counter the aims of post-revolutionary Iran with their own extremist vision of Islam.
The pillars of a viable Western strategy in the region would necessarily link a renewed military commitment to the principles the United States applied – so long ago – to post-war Europe and Japan. Those principles: nation-building, economic integration, democratization, and human rights, have been explicitly rejected by Trump as irrelevant to his vision of “America First.” Without those values, backed by force, the region is now left to be picked apart by the authoritarian whims of Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Turkey’s Tayyip Erdogan, and the sectarian Saudi-Iranian rivalry.
Absent a positive strategy, the use of a bald-faced lie to reverse the Iran Deal, painstakingly negotiated by six nations, will destroy the credibility of U.S. diplomacy, mark another step toward abandoning the already frayed U.S. global and regional leadership role, remove a key restraint on the further descent of the Middle East into unlimited violence, weaken Iranian reformists who supported the deal, drive up oil prices, cut off burgeoning U.S.-Iranian business deals, and renew the dark prospect of a regional nuclear arms race. Even if Iran prudently holds off on its own threatened withdrawal from the deal, today’s decision has left the world less stable and less safe.