Trump’s threat to decertify Iran nuclear deal is scarier than you think

It not only escalates tensions with Iran, but further subverts U.S. diplomatic efforts for decades to come.

US President Donald Trump, centre,  US Defense Secretary, James Mattis, right, and U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, attend a meeting with EU leaders at the European Council, in Brussels, Belgium.  CREDIT: Stephanie Lecocq/AP Photo
US President Donald Trump, centre, US Defense Secretary, James Mattis, right, and U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, attend a meeting with EU leaders at the European Council, in Brussels, Belgium. CREDIT: Stephanie Lecocq/AP Photo

In a White House briefing on Thursday, President Donald Trump said that he will not recertify the the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, according to The Washington Post. The story is couched in caveats, but if Trump does, indeed announce on October 12 that he will not recertify the deal because he doesn’t view it as being in U.S. national security interests, then there are two clear takeaways from that decision. First, Trump is upping the ante in his rhetoric against Iran, and second, he is committed to publicly undermining his top advisers, undoing U.S. diplomatic protocols and progress.

It was only on Monday that Defense Secretary James Mattis told a Senate hearing that it was “in our best interest” to stick with the Iran deal. He added that if there’s no proof that Iran is violating the terms of the agreement (there is none) then the deal “is something that the president should consider staying with.”

Since his candidacy and certainly throughout the his first nine months as president, Trump has threatened to pull out of of the 2015 nuclear agreement between Iran and the P5+1 (the United States, United Kingdom, Germany, France, China, and Russia). The certification process is the first wrung on the ladder of escalation — in action, not just words — that Trump could take. Under the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act (INARA), the U.S. president must evaluate the agreement every 90 days to see if Iran is still in compliance and if the deal still serves U.S. interests. Decertifying the deal would not necessarily mean that the United States is pulling out of it. It would mean that Trump would be punting the Iran problem — a key campaign promise of his — to a reluctant Congress to deal with and decide if sanctions should be snapped back.

Trump has already twice recertified the deal and even signed off on extending sanctions waivers in September. Whether Trump actually decertifies the deal and pushes the sanctions question to Congress remains to be seen, but what is immediately evident is that the discord and chaos within Trump’s inner circle has reached new levels. Put bluntly, the Trump administration can’t stop punching itself in the face. And the way things are going, this brawl is going to leave a lasting bruise on the face of U.S. diplomacy.

Perhaps the weekend’s developments were an omen of things to come: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Saturday said that the United States has several open lines of communication with North Korea — meaning that the only solution to the escalating tensions over Pyongyang’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs might not be “totally destroying” a country of 25 million, as Trump promised in his speech at the United Nations last month. This was the first sign of a de-escalation in the two-month long war of words (with the occasional war games and test missile) between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.  By Sunday, however, Trump told the world — and certainly Tillerson — that the United States was wasting its time in pursuing negotiations with North Korea.

Far more significantly, though, this means that the president has twice, in the space of five days, dismissed the advice of two of top cabinet officials: his secretary of state and his secretary of defense.

Sandwiched in this PR nightmare for the White House was the remarkable spectacle of Tillerson’s brief, jaw-dropping press conference on Wednesday, wherein he refuted an NBC report saying that he wanted to resign in July. The story also said that Tillerson called Trump a “moron” (or “fucking moron” according to other reports) after a national security press briefing, and when asked about that incident at the press conference, Tillerson did not deny calling Trump a moron and said, he wasn’t “going to deal with petty stuff like that.” In the language of PR, and certainly journalism, a non-denial is essentially a confirmation.

Tillerson announced he won’t resign for now, but there is still serious damage being done to the institution of U.S. diplomacy — damages that might well reverberate well beyond this administration.

“When he [Tillerson] says things like ‘I support the president’s foreign policy’ and ‘I wasn’t trying to quit,’ he’s partially trying to stabilize things in his own building, but he’s also trying to reassure allies that there’s no daylight,” said retired Ambassador Chester Crocker, who in September co-authored a report on State Department reform for the Atlantic Council.

“But this administration leaks like a sieve, so allies have to figure out who to listen to and which phone calls to listen to what’s going on,” said Crocker, who said Trump’s off-the-cuff messaging on Twitter does not help, with technology making it easy to respond immediately, even “when the best course of action would be to shut up.”

“The president seems to specialize in unrehearsed, spontaneous utterances that don’t reflect careful staffing or anything else,” said Crocker. Regardless of what might be going on behind the scenes, he said, “It’s really remarkable to have a president publicly appear to pull the rug out from under the most important person in his cabinet.”

Messaging — to the domestic base, to various media and to the international community is a skill, one that requires nuance and experience, explained Crocker. “One of the hardest jobs in foreign policy is how to get the voice right, so that you’re able to say what you mean to say, so that your allies understand what you’re doing, so that your rivals and adversaries understand what you’re doing, so your negotiating partners understand what you’re doing,” he said. “I don’t think the president thinks that equation through at all.”

Chaos and subversion

One of the dangers in what Trump is doing with the Iran deal in using Congress to (possibly) provide him with a way to back out of the deal short of actually pulling out of it, is involving the government in an international agreement. And, as Barbara Bodine, a retired ambassador and director of the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at the Edmund Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University noted, such agreements are between states, not individual governments. This is done by design, she said, for the purpose of protecting a deal from the “chaos” of changing leadership.

In other words, there is no strategy — no “method to the madness,” no “good-cop/bad-cop” plan, as some have optimistically indicated, said Bodine. “I’ve never seen this amount of space at this level and this publicly before. And that is certainly befuddling.”

She said she’s never seen a government “do unto itself” what the Trump administration is doing — undoing crucial institutions across the board, with, perhaps, the exception of Iraq circa 2003-2004, in the early days of the U.S. invasion, when the government embarked on a wholesale deconstruction of Iraqi bureaucracy, leaving nothing to replace it or manage its functions.

Of course, it’s not just maintaining current international agreements — it’s also about who’s around to help make sure diplomacy works. In August, Tillerson announced cuts to dozens of positions at the State Department, and there are continued reported issues with recruiting and retaining talent in diplomatic corps.

“The only method to what is going on [in the U.S.] seems to be a very unstrategic effort to simply reduce the size of the foreign service and civil service part of the department in a draconian way,” said Bodine. “If you go after the senior, the bottom and the middle, and there’s not a coherent policy. You are making it extremely hard for the country to be credible and to be effective, internationally,” she said. And the damage from what she describes as “public food fights” between Trump and his cabinet members is already showing.

“I was at an international conference in September and was the only American in the room. What I was struck by was not so much an animus towards the U.S. but more that ‘We, the rest of the world, are going to move on,'” said Bodine. “What I was getting a strong sense of — although everyone was far too polite to say it to my face —  is that we’re almost irrelevant… We’re going to be in the room but we’re not going to have the influence that we had.”

Without diplomatic muscle, all the United States has left is the military, she said, “And you can’t use the military for most things.”

“The greater danger for us is that the world will move on,” said Bodine. “That’s what President Trump doesn’t understand. The problem with ‘it’s all about me’ is that it becomes about no one.”