The discussions at the White House with French president Emmanuel Macron about devising, in Macron’s words, a “new deal with Iran” may be an instance of different governments using similar words to mean very different things. In that regard, it may be akin to how “denuclearization” means different things in the Korean context depending on which government uses the term. Although Macron can be criticized for some aspects of how he has handled the task he has taken on, especially with respect to the effect of his moves on Iranian perceptions and intentions, give him credit for taking on the task at all. To try to preserve an agreement that serves the interests of France, the United States, and the cause of nuclear nonproliferation, Macron has had to propitiate a bully—one who in front of the press in the Oval Office even added the bullying touch of flicking alleged dandruff off Macron’s suit coat.
No matter what Trump may have said to Macron in private, the French leader cannot be sure that he attained agreement on anything. That’s just how Trump operates; remember how Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi thought they had an agreement with Trump about DACA? European critics of Macron’s approach have argued, with good reason, that the strategy of making concessions to Trump about Iran is no assurance of getting any cooperation from him in return. With Trump’s tendency to be swayed by the last person who talks to him, with John Bolton (or Mike Pompeo) being in good position to be that person, and with Trump’s undiminished desire to wreck anything Barack Obama did, Trump is still likely to keep looking for ways to kill the existing nuclear agreement with Iran, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
Macron is talking about new deals with Iran to try to preserve the old deal. That’s not what Trump is talking about, even if he uses some of the same words. And any killing of the old agreement is one of the worst things that could happen to prospects for reaching any new agreement with Iran. Why would the Iranians—not to mention the Russians and Chinese—make any new commitments if the Trump administration refuses to honor existing ones?
An interview on NPR with State Department policy planning chief Brian Hook—who has been discussing these issues with European counterparts—shows where the administration is going better than Trump’s blustery and fickle language. Hook made clear that the administration does not have in mind new negotiations with the Iranians, or even with the Russians and Chinese. Rather, it seeks an agreement with the European parties to the JCPOA to pressure Iran in additional ways separate from, and possibly in violation of, the JCPOA. The prospects for any success in this pressure-without-negotiations approach would be no better than it was during the years in which ever-increasing sanctions on Iran over nuclear issues were met by Iran spinning ever more centrifuges and enriching more and more uranium. That cycle was broken only when the Obama administration sat down to negotiate with Tehran.
If the new forms of pressure violate the JCPOA—such as by reimposing under a different label what had been nuclear sanctions—then there would be no progress on whatever is the issue on the new label, such as ballistic missiles or activity in Syria. Abrogation through a U.S. violation of the JCPOA would relieve Iran of its obligations under the agreement. That means going back to additional centrifuges spinning and more uranium getting enriched, and without the intrusive international inspections. In any event, there would be no “fix” of the agreement and no “better deal,” because there would be no new deal with Iran at all.
But even that wasn’t the most extraordinary thing Hook said in the interview. When the interviewer referred to the existing agreement, Hook interjected, “"It’s not a treaty. It’s not an executive agreement. It has no signatures. It has no legal status. It is a political commitment by an administration that is no longer in office.” In short, the Trump administration feels no obligation to abide by the JCPOA at all, no matter how diligently Iran observes its obligations, evidently merely because the United States has had an election in the interim.
The first thing to note about this is that there is no necessary connection between the specific art form that an international agreement takes and the significance, value, detailed nature of—or care in negotiating—the agreement. The JCPOA, laboriously negotiated over two years, is 159 pages long. By comparison, the U.S.-Russian strategic arms reduction treaty that currently is in effect consists of seventeen pages. (The immediately preceding strategic-arms treaty was two pages.)
The next thing to note is that a statement like Hook’s, and the fact that it reflects the Trump administration’s attitude toward U.S. obligations, has already dealt U.S. credibility a severe blow regardless of what eventually happens to the JCPOA. Such an attitude, by eliminating much of the nation’s ability to bind itself in return for concessions from other states, effectively destroys much of the diplomatic instrument that otherwise would be in the hands of the United States.
And then, of course, there are the implications for obligations of the counterparty. Does Hook’s comment about “no signatures” mean that Stormy Daniels is correct that she is under no obligation to observe her nondisclosure agreement with Trump about their affair because Trump never signed it?
Of more consequence, does Hook’s formulation mean that Iran can, just as easily as the United States, brush aside its obligations under the JCPOA? If so, why all the fuss about fine print in this piece of paper with “no legal status” when it comes to things like sunset clauses or anything else? If an election or change of leadership is what supposedly triggers a release from obligations, then bear in mind that Iran will have a new president, and very likely a new supreme leader, well before any of those sunset clauses come into play.
So the Trump administration says an agreement really isn’t an agreement. Maybe one way to save the nuclear agreement is for Trump to be able to claim that a non-deal is a deal. That’s what Macron is hoping will happen—that Trump will point to European acquiescence in some new forms of pressure on Iran and boast that he has gotten a “deal” to “correct flaws” in the JCPOA, even though Iran will have not have signed up for anything new or different.
If such a tactic were to preserve the JCPOA, then it would be worth it. Still, it would be a shame that accomplishing such a goal would require manipulating the urges of a narcissistic demagogue rather than just conducting a sober analysis of what is in the best interest of the United States, international security, and nonproliferation of nuclear weapons.
Paul R. Pillar is a contributing editor at the National Interest and the author of Why America Misunderstands the World.