Paul Pillar

Hold the Iran Deal–Killers Accountable

Lacking logic, the opponents have resorted to confusion. They have tried to sow misperceptions about the JCPOA. This has included outright lies, such as the one often heard, including from high levels of the Trump administration, that the United States had to meet commitments up front while Iran’s obligations were all to be fulfilled later. In fact, the opposite is true; Iran had to do nearly all the bomb-proofing steps the JCPOA required it to take—including dismantling centrifuges, disposing of most of its enriched uranium, and filling a reactor with cement—before it got an ounce of new sanctions relief.

In today’s statement, Trump continued the campaign of confusion. He included chestnuts such as the notion that Iran was given billions of dollars, contrary to the truth that unfrozen assets and returned funds were all Iran’s money in the first place. He said that the JCPOA “allowed Iran to continue enriching uranium and over time reach the brink of a nuclear breakout”—giving uninformed listeners the impression that the agreement had moved Iran closer to that brink rather than, as is actually the case, moving it substantially farther away from it.

Trump echoed another confusion-generating gambit: Benjamin Netanyahu's recent show-and-tell featuring old material about Iran’s previous work pointing to possible development of a nuclear weapon. Such material was the very reason an agreement such as the JCPOA was needed, but Netanyahu’s presentation was aimed at confusing people into thinking there was something new and that Iran was violating the JCPOA. In fact, there was nothing new, and Iran has rigorously observed its obligations under the agreement.

When logic is missing and even confusion may not be enough, opponents have resorted to smear tactics. An Israeli investigative firm reportedly was retained to try to dig up dirt on Obama administration officials who had duties related to negotiation of the JCPOA. Some reporting suggests that aides to Trump were involved in hiring the firm. It is hard to imagine getting any farther than this from an honest pursuit of objectives that are in U.S. interests.

Motivations for Opposition

Two motivations, more than any others, have driven the opposition to the JCPOA. One is the desire to wreck whatever Barack Obama accomplished. This clearly is Donald Trump’s principal motivation. Undoing whatever Obama did is the closest thing to an organizing principle in what is otherwise a disorganized set of Trump administration policies, especially in foreign policy. The motivation also has applied to many Congressional Republicans (although some of those who opposed the agreement when it was new have more recently, bowing to reason, urged Trump to stay in the accord). The urge to wreck has been reflected in the wrecking ball being swung even when—as with Obama’s principal domestic legislative accomplishment, the Affordable Care Act—no replacement structure is at hand.

The other major motivation is to stay in step with the preferences of the right-wing government of Israel. The political and financial mechanisms involved include fear among American politicians of antagonizing the lobby that works on that government’s behalf. They also include wealthy supporters of that government bankrolling advocacy groups dedicated to sustaining tension and confrontation with Iran, with opposition to the JCPOA being at the core of that effort.

The latter motivation involves double dishonesty, in that the JCPOA is very much in Israel’s security interests, as many retired senior Israel security officials have repeatedly stated. Of course it is; why wouldn’t anyone with a concern for the safety and well-being of Israel want to block all paths to an Iranian nuclear weapon, as the JCPOA does? However consistent it may be with U.S. interests to support Israeli security, it certainly is not in U.S. interests to support the game that Netanyahu is playing with the issue, which is to oppose any and all agreements with Tehran as a way of maintaining Iran as a pariah and a foil, in an effort to distract attention from Israel’s own destabilizing activities and to restrict U.S. diplomatic freedom of action in the Middle East.

Both of these motivations represent unjustifiable approaches toward the JCPOA or any other major subject of international security and U.S. foreign policy. Regardless of one’s views of a previous administration’s actions, it never will be sound policy to knock down everything a predecessor did just for the sake of knocking it down. Regardless of how much fondness one may have for Israel, it never will be sound policy to subcontract any portion of one’s own nation’s policies to a foreign government. Acting from either or both of these motivations is policy malpractice of the worst kind. It represents not just bad judgment, but bad intentions.

Those guilty of such malpractice should be held accountable. There is no court of policy practice in which such accountability can be applied in any formal sense, but those guilty should continually be called out for the consequences of their actions. Doing so might reduce at least somewhat their ability to cause more damage in the future.