“My number-one priority is to dismantle the disastrous deal with Iran.”
— Donald Trump, March 21, 2016, in a speech to the
American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC)
In a required report to Congress this week, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson grudgingly certified that the Iran nuclear deal that candidate Donald Trump denounced as “the worst deal ever negotiated” is in fact working as designed, and that Iran is fully honoring all of its commitments. Its nuclear weapons program that was once two or three months from producing a bomb remains absolutely dormant.
Given the challenges that we face at the moment with North Korea, that ought to have been welcome news. But of course it is not.
Immediately after submitting his report that the deal is working fine, Tillerson called a press conference to denounce it as a failure. He also announced that the United States was reviewing its continued participation in the seven-nation agreement, warning that “Iran’s nuclear ambitions are a grave risk to international peace and security.”
“The (Iran deal) fails to achieve the objective of a non-nuclear Iran; it only delays their goal of becoming a nuclear state,” Tillerson said in prepared remarks. “This deal represents the same failed approach of the past that brought us to the current imminent threat we face from North Korea. The Trump administration has no intention of passing the buck to a future administration on Iran.”
The crux of Tillerson’s objection is that the deal does not permanently guarantee that Iran will never seek nuclear weapons, and he’s right. It does not, and in fact cannot. Because it focuses solely on nuclear issues, it also allows Iran to continue to be a significant — but non-nuclear — pain in America’s butt, so to speak, frustrating U.S. policy goals in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Lebanon and elsewhere in the region, including Israel.
But here’s what Tillerson didn’t say: If we make it our goal to guarantee that Iran never seeks nuclear weapons and that it becomes more pro-American in its foreign policy, then we have limited our options pretty severely. We have to go to war, invade their country, topple their government, install a client ruler and then occupy a nation of 80 million angry people for decades to come. If there is any other way of accomplishing those goals, no one in the Trump administration has yet articulated them.
And if the situation is beginning to seem oddly familiar, it should. What we have here is, for lack of a better term, The Obamacare Conundrum in a foreign-policy environment.
As you know, The Obamacare Conundrum has three basic steps:
Step One — You spend years attacking and belittling a policy as completely unacceptable, to the point that you have invested your entire credibility in its dismantling.
Step Two — However, when finally given the chance to undo the policy in question, you find yourself unable to propose a better alternative. Of all the options available, the one you hated turns out to be the least objectionable.
Step Three — Unable to reverse the policy, but also unwilling to accept its continuance, you then engage in a less-than-subtle effort to undermine it. You do so even though Step Two remains valid: You still have no idea how to handle the fallout should your sabotage effort succeed.
In this specific iteration of The Obamacare Conundrum, Tillerson already admits that Iran is honoring all of its obligations and is taking no steps toward nuclear weaponry. As a result, if we break the deal, the United States of America, not Iran, will get the blame internationally. We, not Iran, will be the rogue nation, and the notion that other countries will then work with us on some even better deal is fantasy.
And if we break the deal with Iran, after it surrendered 98 percent of its low-enriched uranium and all of its medium-enriched uranium, and after it rendered its heavy-water reactor unusable for weapons work, what possible motivation would North Korea have to negotiate the peaceful surrender of its own nuclear program?