By JONATHAN S. TOBIN
National Review, March 29, 2018 - The efforts of the foreign-policy establishment to defend the Iran nuclear deal are boosting the case for Trump to change it.
The prevailing narrative about the Trump administration’s foreign policy in the mainstream media is that a gallant band of “adults” have spent the last year keeping the barbarians at bay. But with the firings of Rex Tillerson and General H. R. McMaster, the walls have been breached. With Mike Pompeo at the State Department and John Bolton now serving as national-security adviser, there will be no stopping Trump from the one thing the foreign-policy establishment most fears: launching an all out effort to replace or scrap the Iran nuclear deal.
The effort to depict policy debates within the administration as between adults and children was always a not terribly subtle way for the foreign-policy establishment and its cheerleaders in the press to put down the efforts of Trump and some on his team to question long-accepted conventional wisdom about how the U.S. should conduct its affairs.
But there’s no question that the efforts of Tillerson and McMaster to slow-walk efforts to persuade America’s European allies to revisit the Iran deal are key to understanding why they lost their jobs. Both Pompeo and Bolton are fierce critics of President Obama’s signature foreign-policy accomplishment, which Tillerson and McMaster seemed determined to preserve despite the president’s angry insistence that it had to go. Which means that once the two are in place, the U.S. effort to rein in Iran and forestall its eventual acquisition of a nuclear weapon — problems that Obama’s pact not only didn’t solve but made worse — will begin.
So it was hardly surprising that this would lead to a new effort by the foreign-policy establishment to reassert that the debate about Iran isn’t so much about the deal’s shortcoming as it is between experts and amateurs.
That was the conceit of a fawning New York Times article on the formation of a group of self-proclaimed experts dedicated to defending the Iran deal. The organization of 100 former diplomats and military personnel calls itself “the National Coalition to Prevent an Iranian Nuclear Weapon.” Given that the deal gave an international seal of approval to an Iranian nuclear program that had hitherto been deemed illegal and that the sunset provisions in the agreement guarantee that Iran will eventually get a bomb after a decade, the name is a classic case of false advertising. The point of the effort goes further than the irony that those advocating policies that have smoothed the way for an Iranian bomb claim to oppose it. Their argument is that the experts understand the issue and that those — like Trump, Pompeo, and Bolton — who want to change it don’t understand that the deal is working.
But a close look at their arguments — summed up in both their statement and a Times op-ed by Wendy Sherman, who implemented Bill Clinton’s disastrous effort to appease North Korea’s nuclear ambitions and served as Obama’s negotiator with Iran — reveals that the experts are the ones who don’t understand the nuclear pact. Rather than highlight the Trump team’s supposed foolishness, the experts are discrediting the notion of expertise.
A look at the list of the roster of experts makes it clear that not everyone on the list deserves the awe that the Times seemed to think they deserve.
Among their number is Gary Sick, the man who promoted the myth about Ronald Reagan plotting with the Iranians prior to his election as president. Others, like former ambassador Thomas Pickering, are shameless hucksters. Pickering may have served in a number of key diplomatic posts, but he is now a lobbyist for Boeing, which, like many European firms, profits from doing business with Iran — business that was made possible by the deal and would be threatened by efforts to change it.
But most are sincere defenders of Obama’s failed effort to let, as the former president put it, Iran “get right with the world” and are determined to ignore the pact’s flaws as well as the way it has both enriched and strengthened a regime that is more dangerous than ever.
The best arguments that can be put forward for the agreement now rest on the notion that it was the best deal possible at the time and that scrapping it would remove the restrictions it placed on Iran’s nuclear program and would allow Tehran to race to a bomb before the West could do anything about it. But all Obama accomplished was to kick the nuclear can down the road so that a successor would have to deal with the same problem, albeit under far less favorable circumstances, since removing international sanctions on Iran has made it richer and more powerful. Those fears have been realized, as Iran’s successful intervention in Syria brought its forces nearer to Israel and gave it what is for all intents and purposes a land bridge to its Hezbollah auxiliaries in Lebanon. Combined with its growing missile program and support for terror, Iran is now more dangerous today than it was before the pact was signed.
The closer one looks at what Sherman and her colleagues are saying, the more it appears that their expertise isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be. She and her colleagues not only take the Iranian regime at its word when it promises it won’t build a nuclear weapon. They also argue that the sunset provisions are meaningless. They take issue with Trump’s efforts to get the Europeans to eliminate the sunset clauses that will end all the restrictions on Iranian nuclear activity after a decade. They think the West will have time to react if Iran moves to build a weapon after the deal expires in the not so distant future.
That shaky premise is hard to take seriously, since it is based on the notion that Western intelligence knows everything that is going on in Iran. That is not a credible position, as the minimal inspections required by the deal place Iranian military installations off limits to inspectors. The Iranians know that the international community is uninterested in changing the deal now. Why should they think the Europeans and anyone else profiting from it would support re-imposition of sanctions after a decade?
The notion that the U.S. is powerless to reverse this situation is rooted in the same spirit of weakness and appetite for appeasement that led to a weak deal in the first place. That’s why Trump and Bolton are right to push for new negotiations. They will also be right to exert as much pressure as needed to force the Europeans to go along with more sanctions so as to regain the leverage that Obama threw away in 2013. Nor does the U.S. have to wait for European approval, since America can implement secondary sanctions on its own that would prevent any entity doing business with Iran from conducting transactions with U.S. institutions.
While efforts to force Iran to give up the sunset provisions and to tighten restrictions on its nuclear and missile programs, not to mention to restrain its foreign adventurism, is not without risks, the alternative is to simply sit back and wait for it to go nuclear while it pursues regional hegemony. If the so-called “experts” don’t realize this, their expertise is of no value.
In this case, the president’s instinctual distrust of the experts is actually well founded. Even those most inclined to assume Trump is wrong about everything must concede that if Iran is to be prevented from gaining a nuclear weapon, the deal must be revisited.