Weekly Standard

The Art of Undoing the Iran Deal

Lee Smith on President-elect Trump's threat to tear up the JCPOA on day one

Former Senior Fellow
A flag flying at an undisclosed location in Iran next to a surface-to-surface Qiam-1 (Rising) missile, August 20, 2010. (VAHID REZA ALAEI/AFP/Getty Images)
A flag flying at an undisclosed location in Iran next to a surface-to-surface Qiam-1 (Rising) missile, August 20, 2010. (VAHID REZA ALAEI/AFP/Getty Images)

The election of Donald Trump signals bad news for the Iran nuclear deal, Barack Obama’s signature foreign policy initiative. Calling it "the worst deal ever negotiated," the author of The Art of the Deal has threatened to tear up the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action on day one of his presidency.

Supporters of the agreement and Obama allies warn that shredding the deal will only benefit Iranian hardliners, the very people it was supposed to restrain. "The big winner in the aftermath of a Trump victory is Iran's Supreme Leader," Suzanne Maloney, an Iran expert at the Brookings Institution, told Reuters. Ali Khamenei, she explained, "will be able to walk away from Iran's obligations under the JCPOA while pinning the responsibility on Washington."

Well, it's true that the nuclear agreement is in big trouble, but Trump's election has little to do with it. Indeed, the agreement would likely have collapsed under a Hillary Clinton administration as well. The problem, as the commander in chief-elect correctly noted, is the deal itself. And that's why the Obama administration has gone to extraordinary lengths to protect its "achievement"—by bribing Iran, drumming up business for the clerical regime, blocking Congress from imposing non-nuclear sanctions, and turning a blind eye to Iranian violations of the deal.

Last week, Iran was again in violation of the JCPOA. According to a report from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Iran exceeded the deal's threshold for heavy water, a material used in the production of weapons-grade plutonium. The White House acknowledged Iran had exceeded the limit and then, bizarrely, praised the regime for its forthrightness in "making no attempt to hide" the violation. In other words, the Obama administration is not just protecting the nuclear agreement, but also rationalizing the Iranian regime's violations of it. All that needs to happen for the deal to fall apart is for the Trump White House to do what the Obama administration has refused to do—enforce its provisions.

The history of the agreement shows a series of deceptions by the Obama administration. Just to keep the Iranians at the negotiating table, the White House bribed Tehran. Every month from January 2014 through July 2015, when the JCPOA was signed, the administration facilitated the transfer of $700 million to Iran from its frozen escrow account in the United States.

Since the deal was signed, the administration has given Iran more money to persuade it not to walk away. Among other sums, the White House paid Iran $8.6 million for 32 tons of heavy water after it was found to have exceeded the threshold stipulated in the agreement last February. The purpose was to protect the deal—even as it gave Iran an incentive to keep overproducing heavy water as a revenue earner.

Most spectacularly, the administration paid Iran $1.7 billion in ransom for four Americans illegally detained by the clerical regime. Iran is holding at least two more American citizens hostage and reportedly demanding money in exchange for their release, a deal the current administration will almost surely make in order to keep Iran from trashing Obama's prize foreign policy win. If the Trump White House simply stops bribing Iran, the regime will walk away from the deal.

To justify inking the agreement with Tehran, the Obama administration contended that the sanctions regime was about to collapse. We couldn't keep our European and Asian allies on board much longer, claimed White House officials. Iran was such a promising market and everyone around the world was in such a hurry to get back in that we had to get a deal signed before sanctions started to backfire.

As it turns out, European and Asian banks and corporations have proven very reluctant to do business with Iran. Why? Because unlike the Obama administration, private industry stakes its own money, not that of the American taxpayer. Global financial institutions and companies were concerned that a post-Obama White House might reimpose sanctions, thereby putting their investments at risk. More important, CEOs realized that dealing with a state sponsor of terror developing a nuclear weapon and at war throughout the Middle East was a risky investment, regardless of who sits in the Oval Office.

Hence the Iranians are unhappy, because they're not seeing all the money the White House promised would come to them from Asian and European investment. That's why a large part of Secretary of State John Kerry's brief in the last year has been to travel the world to drum up business for Iran. If the Trump administration doesn't act like Iran's investment banker, the regime will walk away from the deal.

The Obama administration told Congress that the deal did not eliminate non-nuclear sanctions, like those related to terrorism, ballistic missiles, and human rights. After it was signed, however, and Iran was emboldened throughout the Middle East, the White House blocked congressional efforts to enforce existing non-nuclear sanctions and impose new ones. If the Trump administration doesn't block Congress from reinstating and imposing sanctions, as member have wanted to do over the last year, the regime will crash the deal.

The same holds for overlooking Iranian violations of the JCPOA. Last week's transgression was a repeat of the regime's February violation of the heavy-water threshold. When the White House coughed up cash for the 32 tons, it legitimized a state sponsor of terror as a nuclear supplier. If the Trump administration merely stops overlooking Iranian violations of the JCPOA, the regime will very likely opt out of Obama's chief foreign policy achievement.

The Obama administration was able to sustain its agreement with Iran only because it repeatedly deceived Congress, the American public, and the press about the deal—it bribed Iran, lied about the imminent failure of the sanctions regime, lied about imposing non-nuclear sanctions, and defended Iran's violations. In the next two months, the Obama administration can be expected to try to protect the JCPOA, perhaps by trying to put Iran beyond the reach of U.S. economic pressure. Still, all the next White House has to do is enforce the strict terms of the agreement, and it is the Iranians themselves, not President Trump, who will undo the deal.

At that point, the next White House will have an important decision to reach, one made even more urgent by the mendacious tactics of its predecessor. What happens if the master of the art of the deal can't get Iran back to the table for an agreement that better suits American interests? What if the regime pushes ahead with its nuclear weapons program? Estimates suggest the Iranians are about a year from a nuclear breakout. Will the next White House take action to stop it or will it, too, push a phony agreement and put American citizens, allies, and interests at risk?