Trump’s Iran Plan Does Too Much and Too Little

Donald Trump

President Donald Trump’s advisers are at pains to emphasize that Friday’s speech on Iran policy was an effort to lay out a comprehensive strategy to tackle the malign behavior of the Tehran regime, not just an announcement that the president had refused to certify Iran’s compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal. Their frustration that the headlines missed the forest for the trees is understandable — given the need for an Iran policy, not simply an Iran nuclear strategy, which was essentially the approach of the Barack Obama administration.

But Trump’s advisers only have the president — and not the media — to blame. The Iran nuclear deal has long been the focal point of the president’s rhetoric and was the centerpiece of the speech. And the decertification of the deal was one of the few tangible actions outlined by the president.

This focus on decertifying the Iran deal, reached between the US, five other major powers and Iran — is not just a distraction from the bigger picture: Iran’s destabilizing activities in the region. In fact, it also undermines US efforts to execute a strategy aimed at reducing Iran’s influence. While decertification brings with it an array of costs, it brings no obvious benefits.

The main motivation for decertifying the deal seems to be the need to scratch a high-priority presidential itch. As the world knows, while the International Atomic Energy Agency and other entities have judged that Iran is complying with the nuclear deal, Trump is uncomfortable certifying it every 90 days, as required by Congress. His refusal to do so today must give the president a certain amount of satisfaction, given how unequal he perceives the terms of the deal to have been. And he has a point. But the decertification is not linked to the rest of a more comprehensive strategy in any way; none of the steps laid out in the speech require the president make such a determination before they can be taken.

Instead, the failure to certify Iran’s compliance will make the stated objectives — to deter and prevent Iran from undertaking malign activities in the region from Syria to Iraq to Yemen –harder to achieve. Few people or governments will understand the difference between the president’s decision not to certify the deal from a complete US withdrawal of support for the deal. How many Americans — or others — know the difference between the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act and the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action? The first is the U.S. domestic law that requires certification; the second is the international accord with Iran, and US participation in it is not related to certification in any direct manner.

This complexity will help the president appear to be delivering on a campaign promise to “rip up” the pact. But it will also have the unfortunate downside of confusing allies, making it harder to work with them to bring additional pressure to bear on Iran outside of the deal. Moreover, it plays into Iranian propaganda and seems to reinforce Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s longstanding mantra that the US cannot be trusted and is really seeking regime change above all else.

Moreover, Trump’s tough rhetoric obviously has repercussions within Iranian society. It undermines those in Iran who have been advocates of the deal — and strengthens its opponents. At the top of the list of those opponents is the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps — the group responsible for Iran’s efforts to destabilize the Middle East. Strengthening the very actor that you most want to debilitate seems to be a poor approach.

Finally, if — as is very possible — the move not to decertify is answered by congressional crickets, Trump could find himself weakened, not strengthened. Surely, no president wants to declare his position that an agreement entered into by his government is flawed and against the US interests — only to see nothing happen. This will leave the president looking as if he is all talk and no action.

The starting point for Friday’s speech was correct: The US needs a more comprehensive strategy toward Iran, one that addresses its problematic behavior in the region. But a much better approach would have had very different components.

First, it would not have made the nuclear deal the focus, but would have put it in the proper context: a transactional agreement about one particularly problematic behavior (the nuclear file), but not a transformational agreement that can only be viewed as failing in light of Iran’s continued misdeeds in other domains.

Second, Trump could have alleviated the discomfort he feels in repeatedly certifying the agreement by working with Congress to find a way to designate that responsibility to another member of his administration. This would not be unusual; in other circumstances, the certification required by lawmakers is made by the secretary of state or other cabinet members. The president actually made a reference to this possibility when he said, “this law requires the president, or his designee, to certify that the suspension of sanctions under the deal is “appropriate and proportionate” to measure — and other measures taken by Iran to terminate its illicit nuclear program.”

Third, tangible measures to increase pressure on Iran to curb its meddling in other parts of the Middle East would have been the cornerstone of the strategy articulated Friday — rather than a sideshow. Such steps have been widely expected, and do not run afoul of the nuclear deal unless they replicate the sanctions that were lifted as its result of its signing. Steps to curb financing of terrorist groups and sanctions against the IRGC are fair game even while adhering to the pact. Notably, although complicated, a stronger approach might have involved some military measures; past experience tells us that the IRGC curbs its behavior when confronted more directly, as the US did in 2007 under the surge strategy in Iraq.

Fourth, had the president been silent on certification, congressional efforts — such as those led by Senator Bob Corker — to lay out conditions under which lawmakers could impose new sanctions might have actually provided the Trump administration with some leverage. As has been true in other cases, from Libya to China, the administration could have found its efforts to gain greater cooperation from allies were enhanced by the perception that it is under great pressure from Congress to see tangible results. Instead, current congressional initiatives look a lot like what they are — efforts to stave off the most destructive behaviors of the administration — and are unlikely to help the president extract more cooperation from allies.

Finally, a solid strategy toward Iran would of course need to address the country’s nuclear pursuits. But rather than focus on renegotiating the elements of the deal as it stands, a comprehensive US policy might have shifted gears to focus on what happens when elements of the deal start to expire. This is the only way to approach the very real question of what constraints will remain on Iran years later down the road.


Trump Can’t Solve North Korea by Just Making a Deal

President Donald Trump’s tweet last weekend that the US might terminate all tradewith countries doing business with North Korea was widely derided on the grounds of realism. Given that 90 percent of North Korea’s trade is with China, the tweet was little more than a veiled threat to terminate all US trade with Beijing, ending a bilateral trade relationship valued at $650 billion a year. It would, as many correctly pointed out, mean economic disaster for North Korea — and also for the US.

The “realism” argument — as well as its companion criticism that such statements call into question US credibility — is well founded. But my bigger issue with the president’s tweet lies elsewhere. Trump’s threat — particularly when viewed alongside his reported preparation to withdraw from the free trade agreement with South Korea — shows that he is willing and inclined to take on would-be allies in the hopes that the pressure he creates will force them to address a common problem on his terms.

By threatening to curtail US trade with South Korea and China, Trump seems to be trying to create some leverage, some bargaining power, over Beijing and Seoul that he can then use to get them to be tougher on North Korea. As he said back in April on “Face the Nation”: “I think that, frankly, North Korea is maybe more important than trade.” He also mused that securing China’s help in dealing with North Korea could be “worth making not as good a trade deal for the United States.”

We have known for some time that the president views all negotiations through such a transactional lens. And perhaps, in some circumstance, such a transactional approach can bear fruit in the realm of foreign policy, although I am hard pressed to point to one. Some US administrations have tried to deal with Russia in this way; Moscow generally saw any concession as a sign of weakness, rather than as part of an explicit bargain.

Taking this approach with allies such as South Korea or potential partners such as China (at least in regard to North Korea) is even more problematic. In these instances, the possibilities should be greater, based on the assumption that the relationship is bigger than a cost-benefit analysis. The arrangements that make sense in a context of some trust may otherwise fall flat in a context only of short-term gain.

But what is so surprising and unsettling about the president’s statements of the last couple of days — particularly in the aftermath of North Korea’s most powerful nuclear test yet — is that Trump seems to think this transactional approach is appropriate even in a crisis that could be existential to some of the parties. Trump appears to believe he can tweak the balance sheet of these relationships in a way that both China and South Korea see no choice but to approach the North Korea problems as he would like them to do.

This is highly risky. Finding a solution to — or, more likely, the sustainable management of — a problem as high-stakes and complex as North Korea demands an entirely different approach. In the past, when collective action was required to combat a looming threat, each actor was often required to take what was sometimes an enormous leap of faith, and commit to pledges and take risks dramatically outside its comfort zone. Such leaps were possible in the context of trust and common values and purpose — such as NATO members uniting behind the idea that an attack against one is an attack against all.

Sometimes this coming together was less noble and unconditional — such as when the US and China started their rapprochement in the 1970s. But this was done against the backdrop of perceived and real common interests in an alignment against the Soviet Union, and was broad-based enough to survive some disappointments on both sides. It was bigger than the outgrowth of a series of short-term quantifiable calculations, weighed against one another on an Excel spreadsheet.

I have real sympathy for those in the Trump administration charged with addressing the threat from North Korea. It is a policy problem of enormous proportions, with no obvious right answer. There are, however, obviously wrong strategies, and adopting a hard-core transactional approach toward allies and necessary partners is among them.

To the extent it is possible to imagine a positive outcome to this crisis, it involves the US, China, South Korea and others working together — and almost certainly putting some element of trust and confidence in each other to uphold promises and commitments that cannot be externally guaranteed. A transactional approach stands no chance of getting us that far.

Bloomberg View

4 Reasons Why Trump’s Saudi Visit Is Different


President Donald Trump prides himself on being unpredictable and, thus, no one knows what to expect of his first trip abroad. But when it comes to the first stop, Saudi Arabia, we can be sure it will be very unlike the visits of past US leaders to Riyadh when it comes to one vital topic: oil.

For decades, petroleum — specifically Saudi oil production — was high on the list of American talking points. But this time around, to the extent that oil figures into the conversation, it will not be about Saudi production, but about investments, joint ventures and the upcoming (maybe) initial public offering of the state-owned oil behemoth Saudi Aramco.

This departure from the past is not — as many Americans may think — because the US no longer imports much oil from Saudi Arabia now that the shale boom has made America an energy superpower again. In fact, despite its own energy prowess, the US continues to import a steady amount of Saudi crude. If one looks from the financial crisis onward, as a percentage of overall US imports (which have declined significantly), Saudi Arabia’s share is on a slightly positive trajectory.

US imports of Saudi crude have not really fluctuated with the ups and downs of the political relationship.

Oil imports from Saudi Arabia fell markedly in 1985 on account of the huge Saudi production cuts in the 1980s, yet the bilateral relationship remained on firm footing. From the Gulf War in 1991 until 2009, US imports of total crude and oil products from Saudi Arabia remained stable, despite the volatility in relations. They were approximately 1.4 million barrels a day following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990, when President George H. W. Bush told Prince Bandar, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Washington, “If you ask for help from the United States, we will go all the way with you.”

And they were at similar levels after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when relations were so tense that some US soldiers who had received medals from the Saudi government during the Gulf War reportedly returned them in protest of the primarily Saudi group of terrorists responsible for the tragedies of that day.

In any case, even when oil markets were at their tightest, American leaders never visited Saudi Arabia to ask the kingdom to export more oil to the US. Rather, they would entreat the Saudis to increase overall oil production and add it to the global market — easing pressures on the price, which is set on the global market.

At the moment, such a conversation would be counterproductive: global markets are oversupplied and many view the oil price as too low to be sustainable, although trends are moving in a direction which would firm it up.

There has been a big turn of events, with the US now producing more crude and natural gas liquids.

But the US also loses some leverage now that it is no longer the Saudis’ largest customer. Asia has become far more important as a market for Saudi crude than the Americas. This trend will only strengthen in the coming years.

While the question of leverage is tricky, one thing is clear: The lack of need to press Saudi Arabia to step up oil production, or to increase its capacity to produce more in the future, opens up a big space for Trump and the American delegation to talk about other subjects, particularly critical regional issues and how the US can help Saudi Arabia in its own pressing quest for economic reform.