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Why Trump is right to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal

The case for pulling out of the Iran deal, explained by one of its biggest critics.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a speech on Iran’s nuclear program at the defense ministry in Tel Aviv on April 30, 2018. Netanyahu was likely trying to influence President Donald Trump to abandon the Iran nuclear deal.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a speech on Iran’s nuclear program at the defense ministry in Tel Aviv on April 30, 2018. Netanyahu was likely trying to influence President Donald Trump to abandon the Iran nuclear deal.
Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images

President Trump just announced that he will reimpose unilateral sanctions on banks that finance Iran’s oil industry, a major move that will irritate European allies and effectively end the 2015 nuclear deal.

Trump has been telegraphing this decision for months, so it’s not surprising. Still, it’s a strange decision that doesn’t appear to make much sense. The point of the deal was to prevent Iran from advancing its nuclear weapons program, and by all accounts, it has done that.

So what does the US accomplish by abandoning the deal?

Richard Goldberg is one of the strongest critics of the Iran nuclear deal. An analyst at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, Goldberg knows Iran well. He was an architect of the sanctions that the Obama administration lifted in 2016 as part of the Iran deal, and as senior foreign policy adviser to former US Sen. Mark Kirk from 2015 to 2017, he helped negotiate additional sanctions on the Central Bank of Iran.

I called Goldberg and asked him to walk me through the case for pulling out of the nuclear deal — a case I told him I didn’t totally understand and remain very skeptical of. I wanted him to answer a simple question: How does scrapping this deal make it less likely that Iran acquires nuclear weapons?

A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.

Sean Illing

Let’s start with you reacting to what you just heard from President Trump. Obviously, you think we should pull out of the Iran deal, but do you think Trump is going about it the right way?

Richard Goldberg

I do. I think his speech offered a coherent vision for what he’s going to do next. I think he started with a stunning and accurate indictment of the deal itself, and he ended in two positive directions.

First, he linked this to the upcoming North Korea negotiations — reminding us that in contrast to the Iran nuclear deal, which was somewhere between appeasement and detente, his approach to North Korea has been the opposite: maximum pressure until he sees observable steps toward denuclearization.

Second, he also left the door open for a new negotiation with Iran and other world powers over broader issues, including the nuclear program, the ballistic missiles program, and Iranian-sponsored terrorism. I think it was smart to leave open this possibility, as the pressure will increase on Iran after the return of sanctions.

Sean Illing

You don’t want Iran to have nukes. I don’t want Iran to have nukes. Tell me how pulling out of this deal makes Iran having nukes less likely.

Richard Goldberg

Let’s remember that the stated policy under the Obama doctrine, which has continued under Trump, was to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, with all options on the table. So let’s stipulate that Obama claimed he was willing to use military force, if necessary, to stop Iran from acquiring nukes.

Put aside the idea that Iran is going to race to the bomb now; that fear has existed for a very long time, and both Republican and Democratic administrations have agreed that they would use military action to prevent that scenario, and the Iranians know that and are therefore unlikely to provoke that response.

Iran also doesn’t want to become politically isolated, and if they were to race to the bomb, they would lose the support they still have right now in Europe and elsewhere. In other words, President Trump has some time here to ratchet up the pressure again, to unlock the lockbox where all our sanctions have been the last few years, and to use any other means of state power possible to coerce the regime to change its behavior.

When that pressure becomes so severe, the leaders of Iran must once again choose between regime survival economically or negotiating over all their malign activities, and I think they’ll have to negotiate.

Sean Illing

That’s certainly one way to look at it. Here’s another way: Imposing more suffering on the Iranian people will encourage them to support an even more hardline government, and also make it near impossible for a future Iranian leader to sell any agreement at all with the US to the Iranian public.

Richard Goldberg

I think what we’ve seen over the last several months is disconnected from the mythology that we’ve heard about Iran for years. The regime is very much disconnected from its population. What we see in the streets today are working-class and middle-class Iranians who are not the same white-collar Iranians that we saw on the streets in 2009 during the so-called Green Movement.

At that point, upper-class Iranians still believed they could be part of the regime and elect reformers and moderates who could then change the regime from within. What we’ve seen over the last few weeks are people in the streets who are supporters of the “hardliners” and “moderates” both saying death to the regime, who want the regime to stop intervening in Syria and Yemen and take care of them.

This is an opportunity for us to communicate that our sanctions are targeted at the regime and remind them that the sanctions relief that was given to them the last few years did not go into their pockets but instead went to Syria and Yemen and to missiles.

Sean Illing

I’m hearing a lot of people complain about Iran still funding Hezbollah, still countering Saudi power in the region, still developing missiles, and basically still pushing their influence in the region, but wasn’t the point of the nuclear deal to prevent Iran from acquiring nukes and not to prevent them from advancing their foreign policy? It seems to me that you’re unnecessarily conflating these two goals.

Richard Goldberg

Well, that was President Obama’s and [former Secretary of State] John Kerry’s intention in signing the nuclear deal. That is not an intention I share, and it’s not what the deal would’ve covered if I was negotiating it. First of all, even if you say you’re only focused on nukes, not including ballistic missiles, which are the delivery system for nukes, doesn’t make any sense.

Beyond that, pressure is pressure, and malign activity is malign activity. Whether it’s terrorism, missiles, or human rights abuses, all of these things are violations of international law and have been condemned by the international community. When you build up that level of pressure, where the regime is facing real economic collapse, that is the moment where you try to extract the most concessions possible to address all of your concerns.

Sean Illing

I understand that Iran is a bad actor and is causing all sorts of problems in the region and around the world, but you don’t make a deal like this with a country you trust. You make a deal like this with a country you don’t trust because it creates an accountability mechanism so we know if or when Iran is cheating. Does scrapping this deal make it easier or harder for Iran to develop nuclear weapons in the short and medium term?

Richard Golberg

Well, it’s unclear at this point because the Iranians haven’t told us what they’re going to do. Right now the Iranian president has said that he plans to continue complying with the deal regardless of what the US does, and that’s smart if he wants to maintain political support in Europe.

Over time, all that really means is that the economic pressure of US sanctions will continue to build. Currently, the international community still has the capacity to monitor Iran’s nuclear program.

But if Iran decides that it wants to accelerate its nuclear weapons program, that will prompt an international reaction. We will still see their facilities come online. We will see their enrichment increase, and if they get to certain red lines, again, that would provoke an international response that the Iranian regime doesn’t want.

Sean Illing

So where does this leave us? If we’re not going to rely on diplomacy or a deal of the sort we just scrapped, what other options do we leave ourselves other than war?

Richard Goldberg

In fact, what we just did was give ourselves more options that are nonmilitary. Remember, the deal took all of our nonmilitary, economically coercive options off the table. Yesterday, we had no way of confronting Iran in the region, or confronting their missile program, or confronting their support of terrorism, short of military action.

Now we have all of our sanctions back. Now we can build maximum pressure that is nonmilitary and use our diplomatic tools to encourage negotiations to restart on our terms. That is giving us the best hope of solving this issue via nonmilitary means.

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