President Trump announced that the United States would withdraw from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), aka the Iran nuclear deal, on the afternoon of May 8. The deal, announced to such fanfare in July 2015, did not live to see its third birthday. And for that, I am grateful.
Why? Because the president said not only that America will be leaving the accord. He declared that the period of waxing Iranian influence in the Middle East is at an end. The deal financed several years of Iranian expansion through Shiite proxies in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen. By reimposing sanctions, President Trump will weaken an already ailing Iranian economy. The Iranian currency, the rial, has plummeted in recent weeks. Inflation is rampant. The financial system is corrupted, dysfunctional. Strikes are proliferating, and often turn into displays against the government. This is a situation the United States should seek not to mitigate but to exacerbate.
Removing ourselves from the deal puts Iran on the defensive. Its people and government are divided and uncertain how to respond. Its leverage is minimal. Iranian citizens have seen their leaders use the money from the deal not to improve the economic lot of the average person but to fund the military, IRGC, and other instruments of foreign adventurism. Implicit in the deal was recognition of the Islamic regime as a legitimate member of the so-called "international community." President Trump has rescinded that recognition and the standing that came with it. The issue is no longer Iranian compliance with an agreement that contained loopholes through which you could launch a Fateh-110 heavy missile. The issue is whether Iran chooses to become a responsible player or not, whether it curbs its imperial designs, cuts off its militias, abandons terrorism, opens its public square, and ceases its threats to and harassment of the United States and her allies. That choice is not Donald Trump's to make. It is the Iranian regime's.
Trump has made his choice. Like he did with the Supreme Court, the Paris Climate Accord, and the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem, Trump kept a promise made many times throughout the campaign. In truth, anyone who has listened to Trump over the last several years should not be surprised by his decision. From the beginning, he understood that any deal which gives the weaker party benefits up front in exchange for minimal temporary concessions is not a deal worth taking. And since he does not accept the worldview that inspired the deal, there is no reason for Trump to remain in it.
The worldview Trump opposes privileges therapy and dialogue over realism and hard decisions. It imagines that the Iranian theocracy is a reliable or trustworthy hedge against Sunni power and will liberalize gradually as the arc of justice progresses. These are the ideas that motivated the presidency of Barack Obama. The Iran deal was the signature achievement of Obama's second term, and it is now gone. In truth, though, Obama's legacy was disappearing long before Trump made his announcement. Obama's legacy, like much of his self-presentation, was a mirage, a pleasing and attractive image that, upon closer inspection, loses coherence.
Because he governed so extensively through executive order and administrative fiat, because he was so contemptuous of criticism and had a "my way or the highway" approach to negotiations with Republicans (though not with Iranians), the longevity of Obama's agenda depended heavily on his party winning a third consecutive term in the White House. As Tom Cotton warned the Iranians years ago, an agreement entered into by a president and not submitted to the Senate as a treaty can be abrogated by the next man who holds the office. Hillary Clinton's failure doomed the Iran deal and the reputations it had established. It was Barack Obama and John Kerry who allowed Donald Trump to exit the deal by rejecting longstanding procedure. Perhaps it was knowledge of this fact that inspired Kerry in his desperate attempt to preserve the agreement.
Trump has spent much of his time in office reversing Obama policies that were made outside of, or in opposition to, America's constitutional framework. He has had the hardest time repealing Obamacare, for the very reason that the Affordable Care Act was passed by the Congress and upheld by the Supreme Court. That is a lesson for any president: To have a long-lasting influence on American life, work within the system bequeathed to us by the Founders.
Because Republicans widely shared a negative attitude toward the Iran deal, many people assume that President Trump is doing what any other GOP president would do. But I am not sure. Another Republican president who had come up through the political system, or been enmeshed in the foreign policy establishment, or held elite opinion in esteem may well have given in to pressure to remain in the Paris accord, keep the U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv, and stay, at least partly, in the JCPOA. Trump's outsider status and independence give him the freedom not only to flout political correctness but to repudiate the international and domestic consensus in ways his supporters love.
It took a small boy to say the emperor had no clothes. And it took Donald Trump to say that Barack Obama's foreign policy legacy was a superficial and dangerous mirage.