New York times: Why the Iran Nuclear Deal Must Stand

New York times: Why the Iran Nuclear Deal Must Stand
Sat Feb 18, 2017 13:08:55

Standing next to Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, at a news conference Wednesday, President Trump inveighed against the nuclear agreement with Iran, declaring it “one of the worst deals ever made.” On this matter, Mr. Trump has been consistent — he has called the deal “terrible,” “a disgrace,” “stupid” and “catastrophic,” and said his No. 1 priority as president would be to dismantle it.

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So it was striking last week when senior administration officials told the European Union’s foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, that President Trump was committed to fully carrying out the accord. The administration officials told the press the same thing in tamping down a fiery statement about Iran from Michael T. Flynn, when he was still Mr. Trump’s national security adviser.

Maybe President Trump’s bluster masks a growing recognition within the administration that the deal is a good one for America’s security and that of our allies. It reaffirms and strengthens Iran’s commitment, under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, to never acquire a nuclear weapon. It imposes powerful constraints on Iran’s ability to quickly amass a stockpile of fissile material for a bomb. It includes an inspections regime perhaps more rigorous than any other. And it pays for all of that with Iran’s own money.

According to Adam Szubin, who until recently was the Treasury Department’s sanctions supervisor, Iran has regained access to about $50 billion in frozen funds (not $150 billion, as critics allege), far less than Iran requires for more than $500 billion in unmet economic needs — like government salaries, pensions, debts and infrastructure investment — and to support its currency.

But any apparent retreat by the administration may be temporary and tactical — not a strategic rethink. While Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson are said to counsel sticking with the deal, senior White House advisers continue to talk it down around Washington. These advisers do recognize that a frontal assault — through unilateral American withdrawal — would divide us from our European, Russian and Chinese negotiating partners, isolating the United States rather than Iran. Instead, they envisage the deal’s demise by other means.

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One approach is to demand a “better deal.” President Trump’s broadsides help lay the predicate for a renegotiation. This might be focused on greater access to military sites or on the agreement’s “sunset provisions,” through which some constraints on Iran’s nuclear program will be phased out over time. Or it could center on Iran’s testing of ballistic missiles capable of carrying a nuclear warhead, which is not covered by the agreement and remains subject to sanction under a United Nations Security Council resolution — and for which Mr. Flynn put Iran “on notice.”

Given the effort that went into reaching the agreement and its complexity, it is highly unlikely the other signatories would support a renegotiation. Unless, that is, the administration offered “more for more” — for example, greater economic benefits to Iran in return for additional constraints on its nuclear program. It is equally implausible that the Trump administration would be willing to “give” Iran anything. The main purpose of demanding a renegotiation would be to generate a slow-motion breakdown while muddying the waters so that Washington could avoid blame.