The Iran Deal and the Madman Theory
Why pulling out severely damages American interests
On October 5, President Trump announced he plans to “decertify” the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA, better known as the Iran Deal). After Obama completed the agreement, Congress, wary Iran might cheat, passed a law requiring the president to certify that Iran is honoring its obligations every three months. If he doesn’t, Congress has the option to impose sanctions, effectively reneging on America’s commitments.
Almost everyone believes Iran is living up to its obligations. All non-U.S. parties to the JCPOA — U.K., France, Germany, China, Russia — along with the U.N.’s International Atomic Energy Agency say that Iran has:
- Sharply reduced its stockpiles of highly enriched uranium, leaving it with significantly less than could fuel one bomb, and scrapped much of its uranium enrichment capacity.
- Poured concrete into its one plutonium-producing reactor, cutting off the other possible path to a bomb.
- And allowed international inspectors to install monitoring devices at its nuclear sites to verify compliance.
Even the Trump administration twice certified that Iran has done what it promised. The president’s statement indicates he does not have any evidence Iran violated the deal, but will decertify anyway because he thinks the agreement does not serve America’s interest.
He couldn’t be more wrong.
Whether the deal was originally a good idea or not is irrelevant. It’s done. Trump can’t go back in time and reject it or do a better job negotiating it. The decision before him is whether to fulfill America’s commitments or renege.
If the United States backs out, while everyone believes Iran is honoring the deal, the world will blame America. Iran will be freed of its commitments, and get to restart its nuclear program. Given Trump’s belligerence, they will scramble for a bomb, trying to get a deterrent before the U.S. can attack.
Critics are right that Iran sponsors terrorist groups, including Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza, along with Shia militias in Iraq and Houthi rebels in Yemen. They’re also right that Iran has been testing advanced ballistic missiles, in violation of multiple U.N. Security Council resolutions. There’s no question Iran is an American adversary.
But ballistic missiles and sponsoring terrorism are not part of the nuclear deal. And it becomes much harder for the United States to counter Iran in those areas if Iran has a nuclear weapon, not easier.
It’s also true that parts of the deal sunset after one or two decades. Iran would remain in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty as a non-weapons state, and therefore be legally forbidden from building a bomb. But that didn’t stop them from cheating before. And once the JCPOA’s restrictions end, the Iranians could restart enrichment, acquiring all the components to build nuclear weapons, but stopping short of constructing them.
That’s a problem the United States and allies will have to deal with in the future. But, once again, withdrawing from the deal makes the problem worse, not better.
Iran would be months away from a bomb, rather than 15 years. That eliminates time for the United States to develop missile defense and cyber capabilities, and for Iranians to increase cross-border economic ties, which might lead them to see positive relations with the international community as more beneficial than confrontation. But no matter what happens between now and the 2030s, the United States gains nothing by accelerating Iran’s nuclear timetable.
Meanwhile, the Iranians will get to keep almost all of the deal’s economic and diplomatic benefits. Their previously frozen assets are already in their possession. And the sanctions that pressured Iran to cut a deal are gone.
Art of the Deal
Under the best possible interpretation, Trump’s attempting a version of Nixon’s “Madman Theory.” Ideally, Trump communicates he’s crazy enough to renege on the deal, and the other parties make some concessions to stop him.
This is a consistent theme of Trump’s approach to foreign policy — taking the sort of tough negotiating strategy he recommends for business and applying it to international relations.
For example, here’s the president instructing senior trade negotiator Robert Lighthizer in a September oval office meeting about America’s trade relations with South Korea:
“You’ve got 30 days, and if you don’t get concessions then I’m pulling out,” Trump told Lighthizer.
“Ok, well I’ll tell the Koreans they’ve got 30 days,” Lighthizer replied.
“No, no, no,” Trump interjected. “That’s not how you negotiate. You don’t tell them they’ve got 30 days. You tell them, ‘This guy’s so crazy he could pull out any minute.’”
It hasn’t worked with South Korea — at least not yet — nor with American adversaries. In particular, North Korea seems unimpressed with Trump’s bluster.
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The Madman strategy failed Nixon too. He thought convincing the world he was crazy enough to nuke North Vietnam would get Ho Chi Minh to sue for peace, but the Vietnamese kept fighting.
And the current situation with Iran is even less suited to the Madman Theory. Unlike with North Vietnam then or South Korea now, the United States has no leverage.
Multilateral sanctions are the only reason Iran agreed to dismantle its nuclear program. Pressure came from everywhere. Europe, Russia, China, India, Japan and others joined the sanctions regime, squeezing the Iranian economy. With everyone blaming Trump — and enjoying economic gains from new trade with Iran — there’s no way they’ll reimpose sanctions.
The most the United States could do is impose unilateral sanctions, but that wouldn’t do much. America first sanctioned Iran after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, and it barely had an effect. If Iran can’t trade with America, it just trades more with other countries.
Trump might threaten something even crazier, such as cutting off trade with any country that doesn’t impose new sanctions on Iran. But that would crash the American economy, and no one believes he’d do it. Especially not since it would personally cost Trump a lot of money.
But the biggest problem with this Madman strategy is it’s exactly what Iran wants. They get to keep their benefits and back out of their commitments without getting any blame. “I’m crazy enough to do it” doesn’t work if your opponent hopes you carry out the threat.
It’s Up to Congress
If the Madman Theory is the generous interpretation, here’s one that’s less generous. Trump opposes the deal because Obama did it, and his thought process is more Fox News fan than commander-in-chief. He repeatedly denounced the JCPOA during the campaign, and in his September 19 address to the U.N. General Assembly called it “one of the worst and most one-sided transactions the United States has ever entered into.”
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But the president has never explained how pulling out of the deal will serve American interests. Nor has Senator Tom Cotton, or other JCPOA critics in Congress or the media. Instead, they limit their statements to complaints about the deal and Obama’s decision to accept it.
Thoughtful members of the Trump administration, such as Secretary of Defense James Mattis, oppose withdrawal. As recently as two days ago, Mattis said he didn’t like the deal, but now that it’s done the United States should remain in it.
Evidently, Mattis couldn’t prevent Trump from announcing his plan to decertify. But even if Trump thinks rejecting Mattis’ advice plays into the Madman Theory by making him seem crazy, all he’s doing is angering America’s European allies and rallying support to Iran.
If the United States ends up withdrawing, it sets the Middle East on a path to two possible futures:
- A nuclear Iran.
Both are much worse than the status quo.
A deterrent would provide Iran cover for weapons development and Middle East expansion. As North Korea demonstrates, a nuclear-armed rogue state is very difficult to deal with.
One in the world’s most volatile region would be even more problematic, risking a “nuclear cascade” in which Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Egypt develop their own bombs to balance Iran. That would increase the chances miscalculation or aggression cause nuclear war, and provide harrowing new opportunities for terrorists to get their hands on a bomb.
Attacking Iran would leave America isolated, with Israel and Saudi Arabia the only potential partners. While the United States could defeat the Iranian military if necessary, Iran could do a lot of damage to U.S. forces in the region, American allies, and global oil markets. A U.S.-Iran war would also take the two countries having the most success against ISIS and refocus them on fighting each other, giving the jihadist group an opening.
In the best case scenario, the United States launches limited strikes against targets associated with the nuclear program and Iran doesn’t retaliate. That’s not likely. But even if it works out, the most it does is set back Iran’s nuclear program a few years — which the nuclear deal is already doing — while rallying Iranians around their government and convincing Iran the only way to ensure its security is to acquire a nuclear deterrent.
Even worse, violating the Iran Deal undermines America’s efforts to address North Korea. Regional powers necessary to any peaceful solution — such as Japan, Russia, and especially China — won’t trust the United States to follow through. And there’s no way North Korea would cut a deal seeing that the United States will back out of an agreement, even if the other parties are honoring it.
While Trump declared he will decertify the deal, the White House said the president would not yet recommend that Congress reimpose sanctions. That gives him an out, blustering against the deal to please his base without withdrawing and damaging American interests. In this way, he’s following the same playbook he used on healthcare and immigration, punting the hard decision to Congress.
Congress should decline to reimpose sanctions. It should announce that the United States will honor its commitments under the JCPOA, and expects Iran to do the same.
That’s been the smart move all along. Since we have no leverage to renegotiate the deal, we should tightly enforce it.
Like this article? Dislike it, but find it interesting? Then check out my follow up, which analyzes how JCPOA opponents plan to get Iran to agree to a better deal.