Spoiler! It won’t be the correct decision.
President Trump is expected to announce Tuesday that he will not continue a waiver of sanctions against Iran, according to current and former U.S. and foreign officials, a major step toward ending the nuclear agreement he has called an “insane” deal that “never, ever should have been made.”
The decision follows the failure of last-ditch efforts by the three European signatories to the agreement to convince Trump that his concerns about “flaws” in the 2015 accord could be addressed without violating its terms or ending it altogether.
In this one decision, a monumental decision, portentous in every way, we have the essence of the Trump administration boiled down.
Manufactured reality show drama. While other Presidents have made it clear when they are going to give a speech, only Trump likes to tease out his decisions, with the weight of a commercial break. He still sees himself as a reality show judge, sitting on the high chair, with supplicants having their fate decided. And in a way, he’s correct. There’s no doubt that he’s brought the language of the genre to our politics, with its phony drama, heightened personal confrontations, and (most importantly), the wholly false idea of Himself being a man to whom people need to listen. That it has become, well, reality, is our nightmare. The tweet tease is small in the grand scope of things, but demonstrates the essential seriousness with which he approaches his job (which is to say: none at all).
Fake tough guy New York style negotiating, you understand? The essence of Trump is that he’s a fake tough guy. His entire persona, which he doesn’t try to hide, is that if you go after him, he’ll sue you. If you insult him, he’ll sue you. It’s maddening, because being able to afford high-priced lawyers is not actually tough! It’s hard-nosed, or whatever, and works really well in the world of New York real estate, I guess, where everyone thinks they’re some kind of street thug. Trump is part of this, Kushner definitely is, as is Rudy, and Cohen, and a ton of other people around him, who are beginning to realize that manipulating tabloids isn’t the same as life-or-death decisions with nowhere to hide.
This is painfully clear in Iran, where Trump brings his one negotiating idea- that you can walk away- to the table. That’s all he knows! It’s his one trick, because it makes him seem tough, but it has backed him into a corner. The other partners, especially Russia and China, aren’t about to back out of the JCPOA. In fact, those two are probably pretty glad America is, because it undermines US leadership even more (and that had little ground beneath its feet anyway), and forces Iran to turn more toward Eurasia.
There are times when this tactic works, even perhaps on the international stage. One could argue that being willing to go nuclear was a from of “walking away” in the Koreas. I personally think that it might have played a part, though once Kim had reliable ICBMs the game was essentially over. But even if you think it worked with North Korea, even if you think it was the only factor that has led to these historic times, you have to recognize that it doesn’t always work.
But these are essentially parochial dummies with one trick. And it isn’t going to work with Iran. Good luck telling Trump that, though, because of Point #3.
Essential bone-deep ignorance. The Iran deal was a masterwork of diplomacy, retroactive justification for Obama’s Nobel Prize. He (and John Kerry, and a host of others, but we have an auteur vision of geopolitics) convinced Russia and China to levy punishing sanctions on Iran, when neither of them particularly wanted to. In exchange, Iran essentially gave up its nuclear program, the one guarantee of non-interference, and agreed to the most invasive inspection regime in human history.
But Trump is clear this was the worst deal ever made, because Iran also got some things out of it.
This is part of his idiotic maximalist approach to “deal making”, which exists entirely to justify his own ego. Trump doesn’t understand why the JCPOA was incredibly difficult to oull off. He doesn’t understand why bringing Russia and China to the table was incredible. He doesn’t understand that there was no way to hold together the sanction regime while demanding Iran give up its army or its regional influence, something he seems to think he can convince them to do.
All the understands is that Obama made a deal, and Obama isn’t Trump, so deal bad.
We dove into why this is such historical madness a bit ago, when Nikki Haley laid out her case for reimplementing sanctions:
For one thing, it is crazy to think that after years of holding together a multinational sanctions regime to get a deal that gave the world what they most wanted, i.e. an Iran that can’t restart its nuclear program for 15 years, the rest of the world will be thrilled that we ripped up the deal. It’s crazy to think they’d want to start over, and wildly delusional to think they’d trust the United States at all. They wouldn’t if a normal GOPer like Rubio or Cruz tore it up; they certainly won’t trust Trump.
And more than that, do you really think Iran would actually respond to that? That they’d say “OK, now that you’ve made it clear we get nothing at all for giving up our weapons program, we’ll be sure to come to the table. What’s that? You actually want us to give up more? To stop trying to influence our region? To stop acting like the historic power we are, and let America do whatever it wants in the Middle East? Great! Where do wanna do this? We’ll bring orange slices!”
It’s madness and fallacy to think that the Iranian regime, or really, any post-Shah Iranian government, would enter into any agreement that lessens their regional power and increases that of the West. To believe that is to have zero historical understanding, of the near or the distant past.
But none of that matters. Someone like John Bolton might understand this, but it doesn’t comport with his worldview, which is that the US is in a constant state of Great Game battles with other powers, and indeed should be in that battle, so working against Iran is a good in and of itself.
General Mattis, too, looks at the world like a, well, general. He sees Iran as being the primary driver of conflict with the US in Iraq, and is obsessed with undercutting them. This has some merit, to be sure, but is also a hammer’s way of looking at the world.
And Trump? To imagine that he recognizes any of this is absurd. To imagine he even knows what JCPOA stands stretches the imagination. To think he understands the ramifications of unilateral US action isn’t even worth considering.
All is Trumpism
The world will be more dangerous. Iran might stay in the inspection regime, or they might not. Hardliners will certainly be emboldened, and if Russia and China open their arms to embrace Iran, and its tens of millions of young people, its oil, and its enormous markets, Iran might not have any need to placate the west. As Russia and China heighten the tension between the old world and the new, Iran an important but currently deeply-irresponsible actor in the Middle East, could be a major fulcrum.
The main question is if China and/or Russia could live with a nuclear Iran. I don’t have an answer to that, but I really don’t want to find out.
Don’t get me wrong. There is no doubt that our European allies will work to minimize the fallout, which I suppose for Trump and the media will look like they are renegotiating, or at least bending to his will. But they will be doing nothing but cleanup, scrambling to contain the fallout of Trumpism, and rushing to fill the void where US leadership once was.
Because this isn’t leadership, in any sense. It’s the illusion of swagger that a stumbling drunk has while he stutter-sways down the sidewalk, lurching from building to building, a moment’s spasm away from collapsing on the street. It is all our post-War policy mutated by Trump, reflected in the carny-mirrors of his self-loathing, his all-encompassing narcissism, and his essential boredom.
He’s spent a lifetime crafting an airless, empty, phony image. In barely more than a year, he’s changed all our policy to be an extension of that. We’re just beginning to see those terrible ramifications.