Freed from the shackles of cautious advisers and brimming with self-confidence, President Trump is boldly executing the disruptive foreign policy that he promised as a candidate. In just the month of March, Trump jettisoned his secretary of State, national security adviser and chief economist, replacing these so-called “adults in the room” with officials more aligned with his unilateralist and nationalist impulses. In rapid succession Trump bypassed his top intelligence advisers in agreeing to an unprecedented summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, rattled Congressional Republicans by provoking a trade war with China, and surprised close aides by inviting newly “re-elected” Russian President Vladimir Putin to a congratulatory visit at the White House. This week he blindsided the Pentagon in calling for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria, and announcing the deployment of the National Guard troops to the border with Mexico.
Next month promises even greater disruption. With a May 12 certification deadline fast approaching, the newly liberated Trump is poised to fulfill one of his favorite campaign pledges: walking away from an Iran nuclear deal negotiated in 2015 by the Obama administration. Trump has called the deal an “embarrassment to the United States” and “one of the worst and most one-sided transactions the United States has ever entered into.”
Certainly Trump’s recent personnel moves seemed to telegraph a determination to kill the Iran nuclear deal, which granted Iran sanctions relief in return for limits on its nuclear program. Outgoing national security adviser H.R. McMaster and outgoing Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, along with Defense Secretary James Mattis, all supported maintaining the agreement. But the new National Security Adviser John Bolton, an uber-hawk who has consistently advocated preemptive military strikes against both Iran and North Korea to destroy their nuclear programs, has called the Iran nuclear deal a form of “appeasement.” Secretary of state-designate and former Congressman Mike Pompeo is also a vociferous critic of the Iran deal, a fact Trump stressed in naming him to replace Tillerson.
“I actually got along well with Rex, but really it was a different mindset,” Trump told reporters last month after announcing the switch. “When you look at the Iran deal, I think it’s terrible. I guess [Tillerson] thought it was OK. … With Mike Pompeo, we have a very similar thought process. I think it’s going to be great.”
Yet the strategy behind Trump’s apparent plan to torpedo the Iran nuclear deal on the eve of nuclear talks with North Korea eludes many experts. U.S. diplomats spent years erecting the crippling multilateral sanctions regime that eventually forced Iran to the negotiating table with the “P-5 plus Germany” (Germany plus the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council — the United States, Russia, China, France and Great Britain). The International Atomic Energy Agency was charged with verifying the agreement and judges that Iran is in compliance, and all of the other parties remain supportive of the deal. The Trump administration’s unilateral hard line thus threatens to isolate the United States, rather than Iran, and potentially start a drumbeat for the kind of preventive war for which John Bolton has long been a champion, including the 2003 Iraq War.
“Assuming the Trump administration is going to walk away from the Iran deal, the real question I have for them is what do they plan to do the day after?” former Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman, who led the U.S. negotiating team that concluded the Iran nuclear agreement, said in an interview with Yahoo News. Even if European allies try to maintain the deal along with Russia and China, she noted, it will leave the United States on the outside and alone. “And if President Trump reimposes sanctions, and Europe cannot keep [the deal] going in some way, the Iranians will likely kick out the international inspectors and reject the deal’s extraordinary verification regime, leaving the United States and its allies with no eyes on what the Iranians are actually doing on the nuclear front.”
Walking away from the deal will thus make it easier for Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon, Sherman argued, and push the United States closer to a larger war in the Middle East that the president insists he doe