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President Trump’s Failing Leadership on Iran


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President Trump has made clear his hostility toward the Iran nuclear deal, labeling it “one of the worst and most one-sided transactions the United States has entered into.” He is right: The ill-constructed deal left Iran with an industrial-scale nuclear program which, when the pact’s terms begin to expire, will provide Iran with a clear pathway to nuclear weapons.

But true leadership requires Mr. Trump to do more than focus solely on Iran’s nuclear program; he must also address the broader threats that Iran poses to the region.

Under the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act, the bipartisan Senate compromise used by the Obama administration to get Congress to buy into the nuclear deal, the president must certify every 90 days that, among other things, Iran is fully implementing the nuclear pact and has not committed a material breach. The president must also attest that the agreement is vital to the security interests of the United States.

Photo
President Trump speaking at the United Nations in September. Credit Doug Mills/The New York Times

Proponents and opponents of the deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, argue about whether Iran is in compliance. Much of the dispute rests on the scope of inspections and access to certain suspect sites. For example, the International Atomic Energy Agency is currently unable to verify the provision relating to “activities which could contribute to the design and development of a nuclear explosive device.” That Russia contends Iran has no obligation to satisfy the I.A.E.A. on this matter highlights the deal’s weakness.

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The Trump administration is signaling that it plans not to recertify the nuclear agreement before an Oct. 15 deadline. But doing that won’t end the pact. It simply punts the problem over to Congress, which will then have 60 days to decide whether to reimpose sanctions on Iran. The administration has suggested that it will not push Congress to do anything specific, and chances are that Congress will agree.

For the president to pass the buck displays neither leadership nor courage. At a minimum, Mr. Trump needs to tell members of Congress what he wants them to do, and then work to ensure the resulting legislation can pass. And whether he decertifies the pact or not, the president must decide by Jan. 12 whether to waive once again the application of one in a broad set of sanctions that existed before the deal was struck and that have been suspended since. It is these waivers, not presidential certifications under the review law, that keep the nuclear deal alive.

Last month, at the United Nations General Assembly, Mr. Trump demanded freedom for American hostages held by Tehran and called on Iran’s government to “stop supporting terrorists, begin serving its own people and respect the sovereign rights of its neighbors.” Fine words, but it remains unclear what the president plans to do to have his demands realized.

Partisans may trade blame, but whether because of the 2003 United States-led invasion of Iraq or the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq in 2011, Iran’s efforts to destabilize the Middle East have accelerated. The Syrian civil war only contributed to the perfect storm. Tehran is now aggressively interfering in countries from Afghanistan to the Eastern Mediterranean, and perhaps even farther. And while some place blame on Sunni governments such as Saudi Arabia for providing Iran with opportunities to meddle, Sunni repression hardly excuses Iran’s transfer of weapons to Yemen, Lebanon and others in violation of United Nations Security Council resolutions or Tehran’s broader efforts to undermine American allies like Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.

Strangely, however, Mr. Trump has done little to push back on Iranian expansionism. The United States provides cursory support for operations by the Saudis and United Arab Emirates against Iranian-backed forces in Yemen. And for most of this year, the administration has been funneling financial aid to the Lebanese armed forces, which in turn have been working hand in hand with Iran’s most powerful proxy, Hezbollah, on the Lebanon-Syria border. While the administration has offered inconsistent and lackluster support for the Arab nations challenging Qatar’s support for extremists, it has largely ignored Iran’s growing influence in both Qatar and Oman.

Mr. Trump’s oddest capitulations to Iran are in Iraq and Syria. Rather than seize opportunities to push back on Iranian power while pursuing the annihilation of the Islamic State, Team Trump has largely embraced Obama-era nonpolicies in both states. In Iraq, the central government is desperate for assistance to rein in Iranian-backed militias that may have contributed to the fight against the Islamic State but now threaten the country’s stability. If the goal is to prevent a repeat in Iraq of Hezbollah’s slow strangulation of Lebanon, the time is now.

Similarly in Syria, despite early hints that he was poised to take on the Tehran-Moscow-Damascus triumvirate, Mr. Trump has been almost supine, to the point of ignoring attacks on American-backed forces. The White House has even shrugged off news that Iran has opened another front against Israel in the Syrian Golan Heights.

If rolling back and diminishing Iranian power is the priority Mr. Trump insists it is, simply dumping the nuclear agreement in Congress’s lap may be the worst possible option. That would be politically easy, but it won’t get the job done.

Continue reading the main story

President Trump has made clear his hostility toward the Iran nuclear deal, labeling it “one of the worst and most one-sided transactions the United States has entered into.” He is right: The ill-constructed deal left Iran with an industrial-scale nuclear program which, when the pact’s terms begin to expire, will provide Iran with a clear pathway to nuclear weapons.

But true leadership requires Mr. Trump to do more than focus solely on Iran’s nuclear program; he must also address the broader threats that Iran poses to the region.

Under the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act, the bipartisan Senate compromise used by the Obama administration to get Congress to buy into the nuclear deal, the president must certify every 90 days that, among other things, Iran is fully implementing the nuclear pact and has not committed a material breach. The president must also attest that the agreement is vital to the security interests of the United States.

Proponents and opponents of the deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, argue about whether Iran is in compliance. Much of the dispute rests on the scope of inspections and access to certain suspect sites. For example, the International Atomic Energy Agency is currently unable to verify the provision relating to “activities which could contribute to the design and development of a nuclear explosive device.” That Russia contends Iran has no obligation to satisfy the I.A.E.A. on this matter highlights the deal’s weakness.

The Trump administration is signaling that it plans not to recertify the nuclear agreement before an Oct. 15 deadline. But doing that won’t end the pact. It simply punts the problem over to Congress, which will then have 60 days to decide whether to reimpose sanctions on Iran. The administration has suggested that it will not push Congress to do anything specific, and chances are that Congress will agree.

For the president to pass the buck displays neither leadership nor courage. At a minimum, Mr. Trump needs to tell members of Congress what he wants them to do, and then work to ensure the resulting legislation can pass. And whether he decertifies the pact or not, the president must decide by Jan. 12 whether to waive once again the application of one in a broad set of sanctions that existed before the deal was struck and that have been suspended since. It is these waivers, not presidential certifications under the review law, that keep the nuclear deal alive.

Last month, at the United Nations General Assembly, Mr. Trump demanded freedom for American hostages held by Tehran and called on Iran’s government to “stop supporting terrorists, begin serving its own people and respect the sovereign rights of its neighbors.” Fine words, but it remains unclear what the president plans to do to have his demands realized.

Partisans may trade blame, but whether because of the 2003 United States-led invasion of Iraq or the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq in 2011, Iran’s efforts to destabilize the Middle East have accelerated. The Syrian civil war only contributed to the perfect storm. Tehran is now aggressively interfering in countries from Afghanistan to the Eastern Mediterranean, and perhaps even farther. And while some place blame on Sunni governments such as Saudi Arabia for providing Iran with opportunities to meddle, Sunni repression hardly excuses Iran’s transfer of weapons to Yemen, Lebanon and others in violation of United Nations Security Council resolutions or Tehran’s broader efforts to undermine American allies like Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.

Strangely, however, Mr. Trump has done little to push back on Iranian expansionism. The United States provides cursory support for operations by the Saudis and United Arab Emirates against Iranian-backed forces in Yemen. And for most of this year, the administration has been funneling financial aid to the Lebanese armed forces, which in turn have been working hand in hand with Iran’s most powerful proxy, Hezbollah, on the Lebanon-Syria border. While the administration has offered inconsistent and lackluster support for the Arab nations challenging Qatar’s support for extremists, it has largely ignored Iran’s growing influence in both Qatar and Oman.

Mr. Trump’s oddest capitulations to Iran are in Iraq and Syria. Rather than seize opportunities to push back on Iranian power while pursuing the annihilation of the Islamic State, Team Trump has largely embraced Obama-era nonpolicies in both states. In Iraq, the central government is desperate for assistance to rein in Iranian-backed militias that may have contributed to the fight against the Islamic State but now threaten the country’s stability. If the goal is to prevent a repeat in Iraq of Hezbollah’s slow strangulation of Lebanon, the time is now.

Similarly in Syria, despite early hints that he was poised to take on the Tehran-Moscow-Damascus triumvirate, Mr. Trump has been almost supine, to the point of ignoring attacks on American-backed forces. The White House has even shrugged off news that Iran has opened another front against Israel in the Syrian Golan Heights.

If rolling back and diminishing Iranian power is the priority Mr. Trump insists it is, simply dumping the nuclear agreement in Congress’s lap may be the worst possible option. That would be politically easy, but it won’t get the job done.

Nytimes

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