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Trump wants to cancel the Iran deal. His administration doesn’t seem to know what it does.

A really striking anecdote.

President Donald Trump arrives t the White House in September 2017. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

The Trump administration doesn’t seem to actually know very much about the nuclear deal with Iran that the White House may soon torpedo.

That’s the key takeaway from a new piece in Bloomberg Businessweek about how the International Atomic Energy Agency — the organization tasked with monitoring Iran’s adherence to the pact — has had to spend a large amount of effort educating the administration on basic details of the deal, including the fact that it’s limited to Iran’s nuclear program and not, say, Tehran’s support for the armed group Hezbollah.

Here’s the key part of the Bloomberg piece, written by Nick Wadhams:

Yukiya Amano, head of the IAEA, had to explain that agency monitoring doesn’t cover Iranian support for Hezbollah and meddling in the region. IAEA also denied administration appeals to reveal classified data collected in Iran, say the diplomats, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

That’s jarring for one major reason. President Donald Trump has less than three weeks to decide whether to certify that Iran is complying with the terms of the pact. If he says Tehran is playing by the rules, he’ll be pledging himself to uphold the agreement he’s called the “worst deal ever”; if he says Iran is breaking the pact, it will collapse and Tehran could in theory resume its quest to attain nuclear weapons.

There are legitimate questions about Iran’s malign influence throughout the Middle East, from its support for Hezbollah in Lebanon to the Houthi rebels in Yemen to the Shia paramilitary groups in Iraq. There’s also no question Tehran continues to work on more advanced missiles.

The problem for the White House is that the nuclear pact doesn’t cover any of those issues, so Iran’s activities have literally nothing to do with the agreement itself. The problem for the rest of the world is that Trump may use Tehran’s nonnuclear misdeeds to justify pulling the US out of the pact anyway.

Trump’s hatred for the nuclear deal has nothing to do with the nuclear deal

The Iran nuclear deal is a very specific thing. It ends a series of punishing international sanctions on Iran imposed prior to 2015 in exchange for Iran ending a large swath of nuclear-related activity and agreeing to a strict regimen of international inspections to ensure compliance. The punishment for Iranian cheating — like operating prohibited technology used to produce nuclear material — is the reimposition of sanctions.

The deal, by all accounts is working. The IAEA has repeatedly certified Iran’s compliance, and neither the Trump administration nor any other foreign intelligence agency has produced evidence to the contrary.

Instead, what you hear more from Trump and members of his administration is that Iran is violating the “spirit” of the agreement, through things like its support for terrorist groups and ballistic missile testing.

Trump has something of a point here: Iran’s activities are destabilizing to the entire Middle East and are definitely not in the “spirit” of US-Iranian cooperation. But they have little to do with the deal itself.

By pressing the head of the IAEA on things that aren’t germane to the pact, like Hezbollah, the Trump administration is signaling that it’s considering torpedoing the deal because it’s angry about the things that aren’t in the deal.

Much of the international community clearly doesn’t support canceling the deal on these terms, as representatives of major nations have expressed repeatedly in multiple different forums. And without buy-in from partners like the European Union, whose corporations do far more business with Iran than America’s, it’ll be very difficult to reimpose a sanctions regime that actually does serious damage to Iran’s economy.

The upshot is that if Trump does cancel the deal on October 15 for reasons largely unrelated to its terms, the results could very well be catastrophic.

“It’s just the worst of all possible worlds: You walk away from the deal but you’re not going to get the reimposition of sanctions,” Jeffrey Lewis, a nonproliferation expert at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, told me earlier this month. “If this administration walks away from the Iran deal, my suspicion is that Iran will end up looking just like North Korea, right down to the thermonuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missiles.”

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