Paul Pillar

The Persistence of Falsehoods About the Iran Nuclear Agreement

The biggest current threat to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the agreement that limits Iran’s nuclear program, comes from Donald Trump’s obsession with killing the accord.  That obsession is driven by his impulse to undo whatever Barack Obama did and to fulfill campaign rhetoric based on such contrarianism.  The power of that impulse should not be underestimated, no matter how much it collides with truth, reason, and the best interests of the United States.  Trump has demonstrated parallel obsessions in pulling out of the Paris climate change agreement in the face of an overwhelming scientific and global political consensus, and in his current posture on health care, in which he evidently is willing to harm the health of the American people in an effort to make his rhetoric about Obamacare appear to come true.

Perhaps the best hope for slowing Trump’s pursuit of his obsession about the JCPOA is the transparently ham-handed way he is going about it. His own statements have corroborated the gist of other reporting that Trump has made up his mind to kill the agreement and will bend whatever facts he needs to bend, and try whatever stratagems he needs to try, to achieve that result.  Those stratagems include asserting Iranian compliance even though international inspectors say Iran is complying with the agreement, or demanding inspections of non-nuclear sites in Iran even without reason to believe that any prohibited activity is occurring there.  The game being played is so obviously concocted to get a predetermined result that anyone, either foreign or domestic, with a sense of integrity ought to have a hard time going along with it while keeping a straight face. 

Yet another technique is to make the United States so noncompliant with its obligations under the agreement that the Iranians will get sufficiently fed up to abandon the JCPOA.  With Iran filing a formal complaint about the newest U.S. sanctions against it, the Trump White House probably has its hopes up that this path toward killing the agreement may work.

Trump’s pursuit exploits a much larger opposition to the JCPOA that goes back more than two years to when the agreement was still under negotiation.  As with Trump, little of this opposition has to do with nuclear weapons or with the terms and purpose of the JCPOA.  Also as with Trump, some of the opposition, including in much of the Republican Party in Congress, is based on an oppose-anything-Obama-did posture.  Much of the opposition has to do with a desire to keep Iran in the status of a perpetually isolated and castigated adversary that is blamed for all or almost all of the ills in the Middle East.  That desire characterizes certain other regimes in the Middle East (especially Israel and Saudi Arabia) that are rivals of Iran, want outside powers to take their side, and want international scrutiny diverted from their own contributions to regional instability.

The opposition to the JCPOA became a major, well-funded movement that came close to killing the JCPOA in its infancy.  Well-rehearsed talking points, including misleading or false ones, had ample opportunity to gain air time and column space.  The opposition offensive slackened once the JCPOA took effect and was no longer a front-page item.  Then the election of Trump, with his campaign rhetoric including excoriation of the agreement, re-energized the opposition to the JCPOA.  Many of the same old themes, notwithstanding the agreement’s success in the meantime in being implemented and maintaining its tight restrictions on, and scrutiny of, Iran’s nuclear program, are being repeated.  And like Trump, who keeps repeating falsehoods about crowd sizes, voter fraud, and much else regardless of how many times his assertions are disproved and debunked, the anti-JCPOA themes that are misleading or false keep getting repeated despite having been refuted long ago.  The sheer repetition gets many people believing what is repeated.

Trump himself is one of the offenders in using such themes about the JCPOA.  Last week at a campaign-style rally in Ohio, for example, he repeated one of the hoariest of the anti-JCPOA assertions: that the United States “gave” Iran between $100 and $150 in assets under the agreement and separately “gave” Iran $1.7 billion in cash.  In fact, the United States has not given Iran a penny.  All of the money was Iran’s in the first place.  Most of the assets in question had been frozen in foreign financial accounts. The separate cash payment was resolution of a very old claim dating back to the time of the shah, in which Iran paid for some airplanes that the United States did not deliver.  Pallets of cash were used because sanctions continued to shut Iran out of the international banking system.

Trump ought to be familiar with such situations from his business career, given the number of times he reportedly stiffed suppliers and sub-contractors.  The only difference is that with Trump’s business, goods were delivered but never paid for.  In the aircraft deal with Iran, the Iranians paid but the United States never delivered the goods.

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