Nothing could better illustrate the dangerous incoherence of President Trump's foreign policy than his announcement Tuesday that he is withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal and reimposing "powerful" sanctions on Tehran.
Contrary to his woeful effort at explanation, this move will not make America safer. On the contrary, it means that Iran will restart a frozen nuclear program and reach bomb-making capacity sooner rather than later. Nor will Trump's move constrain Iran's regional misbehavior; more likely, it will spur further Iranian aggression.
Most dangerous is that there is no sign the president has any Plan B for what to do when his decision worsens the Iran problem. Judging from his words — and those of national security adviser John Bolton — the new White House goal is to facilitate regime change in Tehran.
Shades of George W. Bush's 2003 pipe dreams about regime change in Iraq led by exiles. Such willful ignorance led to the misbegotten Iraq War, and now could drag the United States into a war with Tehran.
1. Rather than making it less likely Iran will get a bomb, the president's move hastens that outcome. Under the deal, Tehran shipped 97 percent of its low-enriched uranium out of the country and dismantled two-thirds of its centrifuges. This increased the time needed for Iran to produce enough fuel for a single bomb from two to three months to at least one year.
Recent Israeli revelations that Iran lied about a pre-2003 nuclear weapons program don't tell us anything new; U.S. intelligence revealed the same thing in 2007. Those lies make it more, not less, necessary to keep intrusive inspections. (The Israeli documents can be used to pressure Iran for additional access.) However, all inspections will end if the deal is junked.
True, the deal had flaws, including sunset clauses that permit Iran to restart the program – under continued inspection – after 10 to 15 years. Nor did it cover missile development or Iran's expansionist behavior in the Mideast – or firmly specify the need to inspect Iranian military sites.
But as America's European allies have argued, those flaws should be addressed by additional talks and/or sanctions.
"Why would we want to relieve Iran of its commitments and restraints now rather than 10 to 15 years in the future?" rightly asks the Brookings Institution's Robert Einhorn, a former State Department special adviser on arms control. Especially when U.S. intelligence officials, including ex-CIA chief, now Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo say Iran is in compliance.
2, Quitting the deal will make any Iranian threat to the United States worse, not better. Although Trump railed against Iranian expansionism, he has proposed pulling 2,000 U.S. special forces out of Syria, which has already emboldened Tehran. Now, Iran will likely up the pressure on those U.S. troops and on U.S. soldiers in Iraq. How does it help curb Iranian militias in Syria or Iraq if Trump frees Tehran to restart making nuclear fuel?
3. Contrary to the claims of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Israeli military brass say abandoning the deal now will make Israel less secure. According to Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff, Lt. Gen. Gadi Eizenkot, "Right now, the agreement, with all its faults, is working and is putting off realization of the Iranian nuclear vision by 10 to 15 years." Maj. Gen. (res.) Amos Gilad, former research chief at Military Intelligence, told the newspaper Haaretz that the deal gave Israel a vital window to focus "on more urgent threats" in Syria, where Iran is trying to build military installations that threaten Israel.
The deal's collapse will mean the Iranian nuclear threat once again becomes imminent – with Israel urging Washington to join in air strikes against Iran.
4. Withdrawing from the deal puts Washington at sharp odds with its European allies. Will Trump impose secondary sanctions on Paris, Berlin, and London? Such a fierce split among Western allies ends the united front that kept pressure on Tehran, which can now play the victim. That will please Moscow and Beijing.
5. The president has clearly bought the line from Bolton (and Pompeo) that America should push for regime change in Tehran. Bolton admires the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq (MEK) opposition group in exile that until 2012 was on the U.S. terrorism list for having killed Americans and Iranian civilians. The group has little support within Iran because it allied with Saddam Hussein against its own countrymen in the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s.
In July 2017, Bolton told an enthusiastic crowd at an MEK conference: "The only solution is to change the regime itself, and that's why before 2019 we here will celebrate in Tehran."