Trump blows hot on the World stage


Devoid of lofty rhetoric and replete with dystopian angst along with direct and implied threats against Iran and North Korea, Trump’s maiden UN speech September 19th, fulfilled the expectations of both his critics and his cheering section. His focus, as expected, was on North Korea, with Iran as a also ran, and Venezuela as a poor cousin. 

On Iran, Trump’s thesis is that it has violated the “spirit’ of its agreement with the international community. His reference is to the preface of the agreement, which refers to expectations by the drafters for Iran’s future moderated behavior. It is worthwhile to quote the text that Trump’s people have been highlighting in claiming that Iran is not living up to its part of the “deal:” “They (the parties) anticipate that full implementation of this JCPOA will positively contribute to regional and international pace and security.” The agreement refers to “building confidence and encouraging international cooperation,” but only with respect to the nuclear threat.  Nothing in the agreement elaborates on these expectations.  Nor does the agreement pretend to bind Iran to any changes other than in the nuclear context.  

Based on my time at the UN security Council, Trump’s premise that Iran has agreed to principles not contained in the text is fatally flawed, both in international law and in the context of UN agreements. We, and he, may not like the agreement.  It may even be, in Trump’s words,“an embarrassment.”  And it may be “one of the worst and most one-sided transactions the United States has ever entered into.”  But hyperbole aside,  we must not apply “alternative facts” to modify the terms of this or any other international agreement. 

At 159 pages I am 100% confident in saying that our President has not read the text of the agreement.  (Full disclosure - neither have I, but I bet I have read more of it than he has.)  If, indeed, the United States feels that Iran is in violation of its “agreement” under the JCPOA there is a comprehensive dispute resolution mechanism, which to my knowledge, the Trump administration has not triggered. Furthermore, in July, the Trump administration re-certified, for the second time, Iran’s compliance to the US Congress. If Iran is in compliance and we want to walk away from the agreement, then it is we, and not Iran who will be violating the agreement. 

No one, at least in the Administration and the Congress denies that Iran’s behavior outside of the agreement is despicable. But the question is whether pulling out of the agreement will lead to positive change in Tehran’s behavior?  And, whether pulling out would dispose countries outside of the Iranian orbit to impose new sanctions on Iran or in other ways impose costs on the Iranian regime? My guess is that they will not.  And no amount of US bullying will move them to go against their perception their own interests.  

Ironically, this is actually the approach the President advocated for our friends and allies: “I will always put America first, just like you, as the leaders of you countries will always, and should always, put your countries first.”  I suspect what trump meant was that they should look out for their own interests only so long as they conform to our interests. 

Prime Minister Netanyahu has been the leader of the chorus opposed to the deal.  But his national security team including military and intelligence professionals apparently disagree.  This mirrors the view of many in our own national security establishment. The one question that the detractors, including Trump, have failed to answer is what the alternative is.  And when you ask that question and find that you have run the sanctions solution to its diminishing returns, the answer quickly comes to military solutions.

We can obliterate Iranian cities and rain fire on the population but the Iran-Iraq war should have shown us that the Iranian people do not take kindly to foreigners, including Americans and Israelis, dictating their policy.  

Saddam Hussein thought he had a military answer to the Iranian and Shiite regime.  He was wrong.  And the cost was the lives of over a million Iranian and Iraqi soldiers and a debilitating eight year long war that devastated the wealth and economy of both countries. Is that a price Americans or Israelis are willing to pay? 

At the very least the agreement gave us the “breathing room” of the better part of a decade.  Instead of railing against the agreement, just because it bears the name “Obama,” the Trump Administration might want to concentrate on how we can make the best use of this time.

Ned Walker