Long to the Iran Deal
March 16, 2018
Almost immediately after the news broke that President
Trump intends to replace Secretary of State Rex Tillerson with CIA director Mike
Pompeo, media figures speculated that the decision was about Russia. The
argument went like this: Tillerson was fired because he had recently criticized
the Russian government for its attack using a nerve agent on a former spy living
in the United Kingdom. He thereby endangered détente with Russian president
Vladimir Putin and so, the critics said, Trump sacked him.
Yet the rumor was exposed as false almost as soon as it was
aired. For one thing, Tillerson had been informed that
he would be removed days before he made his entirely justified condemnation of
Russian behavior. For another, the Trump administration soon came out hard
against the assassination attempt. Nikki Haley lambasted Russia
at the United Nations. President Trump signed a joint
statement with the British prime minister, French president, and German
chancellor assigning responsibility to Russia. The Treasury Department announced
further sanctions against
It was Adam Kredo of the Washington Free Beacon who
first reported the real
story. Tillerson had been engaged in a months-long defense of the Iran
nuclear deal that finally reached an impasse when he took Europe's side in
debates over the agreement. As Trump said later, he and his secretary of state
disagreed on important policies such as withdrawing from the Paris Climate
Accord, moving the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, and putting
"maximum pressure" on North Korea. When you add his backing of the
Iran deal, widespread criticism of his management style, and the fact that he is
said to have called his boss a moron, it's a wonder Tillerson made it this far.
And the Iran deal may not last much longer than Tillerson.
Last fall, Trump refused to
certify the agreement. In January, he said he
was waiving sanctions on Iran for the last time, barring alterations to the deal
that strengthened America's position. Thus began a countdown that will expire in
the middle of May. By then, Pompeo likely will have been installed at Foggy
Bottom. A longtime critic of both Barack Obama's Iran policy and the Iranian
regime's international terrorism and domestic repression, Pompeo will give
Iran's rulers plenty of reasons to worry.
They already have plenty to worry about. The protests and
riots that broke out throughout Iran at the end of last year exemplified the
regime's weakening grip. Beset by inflation, corruption, and a banking
crisis, the Ayatollah Khamenei, President Hassan Rouhani, and Islamic
Revolutionary Guard Corps have also to deal with imperial overstretch, changing
social mores, and American financial pressure. Additional sanctions, coupled
with the increased threat of military action, will make their problems even
Doves worry that the elevation of Pompeo makes conflict
between the United States and Iran more likely. They get it backward. We are
already in a conflict with Iran, one that Iran has been winning. It was the
Obama administration's diplomacy with Iran that gave it the resources and
opportunity to sow chaos and undermine American interests throughout Iraq,
Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, Bahrain, and elsewhere. What Pompeo can do is shift the
conflict into terrain of our choosing and decide it on our terms.
Deterrence is based on fear of reprisal—a fear magnified
by the elevation of elected and appointed officials known to be hostile and
unpredictable. We have seen this process at work in the Korean peninsula, where
our threats of fire and fury, talk of nuclear buttons, punitive multilateral
sanctions, solidarity with democratic allies, and pressure on China have backed
Kim Jong Un into an apparent willingness to negotiate.
What is amazing to me is that so many Americans seem not to
understand the basic concepts underlying deterrence that have guided American
foreign policy for decades. Earlier this year, the Wall Street Journalran
an article with the headline, "Iran's
Fast Boats Stop Harassing U.S. Navy, Baffling Military." Last August,
the story revealed, the Iranian fast boats that have plagued commercial and
military traffic in the Persian Gulf for years suddenly stopped their
provocations. "It seems like they've absolutely made a conscious decision
to give us more space," a Navy spokesman told the
Associated Press the other day.
Is this really so "baffling"? Might not the
disappearance of the fast boats have something to do with anxiousness on the
part of Iran—anxiousness caused by uncertainty that behavior tolerated under
Barack Obama would not be tolerated under Donald Trump and Secretary of Defense
James Mattis? And might not the presence at the table of Pompeo rather than
Tillerson spook the Iranians even further?
Reflecting on the staff shakeup that has so captivated
Washington, New York Times White House correspondent Maggie Haberman noted that
President Trump is becoming more comfortable in his job and therefore more
willing to run the West Wing like the D.C. outpost of the Trump Organization.
Improvisational, conversational, unstructured, dynamic, and off the cuff, Trump
is also reverting to the issues that won him accolades on the campaign trail:
imposing tariffs, visiting the wall, and preparing, with Mike Pompeo at his
side, to revoke "the worst deal ever."