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Everything You’ve Been Told About Whether the Iran Deal is Working is Probably Wrong

Trump never promised to tear it up, Obama never claimed it would halt non-nuclear Iranian aggression, and Netanyahu never said Iran would cheat before it obtained full sanctions relief

Yair Rosenberg
April 20, 2017
Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images
Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

On Tuesday, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson certified that Iran has been in compliance with the Obama administration-brokered nuclear deal, while warning of the regime’s continued sponsorship of terrorism abroad. Many pundits were quick to cast this as a huge backtrack by President Trump on the Iran deal, which he purportedly had promised to tear up once elected. Vox dubbed Tillerson’s letter a “major policy reversal” for the president. Speaking to ThinkProgress, pro-deal lobbyist Trita Parsi called it “the mother of all flip-flops” for Trump, given “how strongly he argued he would either renegotiate or scuttle the deal.”

But in fact, throughout the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump distinguished himself on a crowded Republican stage with his refusal to promise to rip up the deal. As the Huffington Post reported back on August 16, 2015:

Unlike most of his fellow rivals for the Republican presidential nomination, real estate mogul Donald Trump would not rescind President Barack Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran.

“I’ve heard a lot of people say, ‘We’re going to rip up the deal.’ It’s very tough to do when you say, ‘Rip up a deal,’” Trump said Sunday on NBC’s “Meet The Press.”

Instead, the businessman who is currently leading GOP polls in the race for the White House promised to “police” Iran to make sure the country doesn’t break the terms of the agreement.

“You know, I’ve taken over some bad contracts. I buy contracts where people screwed up and they have bad contracts,” he said. “But I’m really good at looking at a contract and finding things within a contract that, even if they’re bad, I would police that contract so tough that they don’t have a chance. As bad as the contract is, I will be so tough on that contract.”

During the election, Trump held true to this message. He was highly critical of the terms of the Iran deal and the Democratic administration that negotiated it but did not advocate reneging on the deal, instead calling for “renegotiating” or “enforcing” it. This stance placed him starkly at odds with his chief Republican opponents, Senators Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, and was clearly taken with intent.

The only time Trump ever appeared to commit to ripping up the deal was in his address to AIPAC in March 2016. But a closer read of the speech reveals he promised nothing of the sort: “My number-one priority is to dismantle the disastrous deal with Iran,” he opened. But in explaining what this meant, Trump said, “At the very least, we must enforce the terms of the previous deal to hold Iran totally accountable, and we will enforce it like you’ve never seen a contract enforced before, folks, believe me.” In other words, Trump repeated his longstanding commitment to preserving the deal, which he has kept since taking office. In fact, one of his first calls as president was to Saudi King Salman, in which the two leaders agreed on “rigorously enforcing” the nuclear deal. Trump may yet change his mind on this position, but he certainly has not yet done so.

The erroneous assumption that Trump would immediately tear up the Iran deal, like the mistaken presumption that he would align with Israel’s settler movement and against the two-state solution, is another example of how Trump’s reputation on the Middle East is often at odds with his statements and actions. That reputation reflects wishful thinking on the part of some far-right pro-Trump partisans, who projected their own politics onto their candidate, and far-left anti-Trump activists, who have projected everything they oppose onto him. This fake-news feedback loop has proven potent in the popular perception of Trump, but he himself has not conformed to it.

Just as consequentially, the misrepresentation of Trump’s position on the Iran deal is of a piece with the broader misrepresentations of the Iran deal by both its proponents and opponents since its signing. On one side, critics of the deal have repeatedly pointed to Iran’s continued domestic repression and international malfeasance as proof of the nuclear agreement’s failure. But the deal and its backers never claimed to address those issues, only Iran’s nuclear program. On the other side, supporters of the deal have repeatedly declared it a success because Iran has been in compliance with its dictates in the early going. But most critics of the deal—including Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in his speech to the U.S. Congress—didn’t claim Iran would violate it out of the gate. Rather, they argued that Iran would comply with the deal until it obtained full sanctions relief and rebuilt its economy, and only then relaunch its nuclear program with the infrastructure the deal left intact, and with an international business community too entrenched for sanctions to be reinstated.

In other words, both sides have repeatedly moved the goalposts on the Iran deal for political purposes, when there is still plenty of time on the game clock before we know whether the accord helped curb the regime’s nuclear ambitions or enabled them. And for the moment, President Trump seems inclined to let that clock continue to tick.

But because this reality does not fit into an easy pro-deal/anti-deal framework, you’re unlikely to hear about it from any politician or pundit anytime soon.

Yair Rosenberg is a senior writer at Tablet. Subscribe to his newsletter, listen to his music, and follow him on Twitter and Facebook.