WASHINGTON (JTA) — US President Donald Trump may have expected fanfares when he announced the US would be leaving the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, and certainly Israel, Saudi Arabia, a number of Jewish groups and some foreign policy hawks exulted.
But some of that support was tempered by Republicans and Democrats who agreed with Trump that the deal was a bad one, but were wary about leaving it with no backup plan.
Ed Royce, the California Republican who chairs the US House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee, said Tuesday at a hearing that he worried that a withdrawal “would actually set back” efforts to toughen the existing deal and add pressures on Iran. Indeed, according to The Associated Press, European allies were ready to ink an agreement with the United States to fix the deal when Trump pulled out.
Sen. Charles Schumer, D-NY, who opposed the deal made under President Obama, irked Trump by criticizing the decision to withdraw. He said that “[u]ndoing this agreement makes it harder to deal with” non-nuclear threats from Iran “because we need new sanctions aimed at those threats, which are not addressed in the original agreement.”
Reporters pressed administration officials on what it meant to leave the deal and whom Trump had consulted. The Europeans say they’ve been getting radio silence from the Trump administration, one reporter said.
“That’s not true. That’s not true,” the senior Trump official said. “I have already had, since the president finished his remarks, two calls with foreign counterparts. I have one today at 6:00. It’s just not true.”
At the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, a reliable opponent of the Iran deal, analysts were baffled. JINSA held a conference call Tuesday evening with two figures who were against the deal: Yaakov Amidror, the former Israeli national security adviser, and Stephen Rademaker, who handled the Iran nuclear issue for President George W. Bush.
“We don’t want to be in this position in which America is out but nothing clearly happens on the ground,” Amidror said.
Still, search a little and you could find folks who were defending the pullout whole-heartedly. Here’s a sampling of the reasons they gave for pulling out now.
America can fully flex its muscles
Despite what the deal’s opponents said, the United States was able to continue to sanction Iran for non-nuclear activities, and did so. Both Obama and Trump — Trump, more robustly — continued to impose sanctions on Iran’s missile program and on its proxy in Lebanon, Hezbollah.
But those who are eager to thwart Iran say the nuclear deal robbed the United States of its most effective sanction target, Iran’s Central Bank. While it was not clear from the deal if the United States could reinstate sanctions on the Central Bank for non-nuclear activity, that ambiguity is gone, said Rich Goldberg, who as a senior Republican Senate aide in the first part of this decade was an architect of Iran sanctions.
“By reimposing our toughest sanctions, now including sanctions on Central Bank that lock down Iran’s foreign reserves, we might accelerate Iran’s currency crisis to the degree the regime will face very soon a stark choice of economic collapse or behavioral change based on President Trump’s demands,” said Goldberg, a senior adviser at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.
That was what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was getting at when, in thanking Trump for pulling out of the deal, he reiterated his claim that the sanctions relief allowed Iran to spend big on regional mischief.
“The removal of sanctions under the deal has already produced disastrous results,” he said. “The deal didn’t push war further away, it actually brought it closer. The deal didn’t reduce Iran’s aggression, it dramatically increased it, and we see this across the entire Middle East. Since the deal, we’ve seen Iran’s aggression grow every day — in Iraq, in Lebanon, in Yemen, in Gaza, and most of all, in Syria, where Iran is trying to establish military bases from which to attack Israel.”
The deal was keeping the Europeans from stepping up
According to reports, including AP’s, Europe was ready to play ball with Trump on increasing pressure on Iran to curb its missile program and to loosen restrictions on inspections of nuclear facilities. The stumbling block was the “sunset” clauses, which would allow Iran to resume fissile material enhancement within a decade. The Europeans were not willing to break a provision baked into the deal, and noted that Iran, Russia and China — also parties to the deal — would adamantly refuse.
Pulling out of the deal returns the parties to zero and may facilitate getting the sunset clauses removed, Goldberg said, noting that businesses in the three European countries in the deal — Germany, France and Britain — want their government’s help in doing business in Iran.
“European businesses no longer have those investments available, their trade is winding down,” he said. “And the businesses are coming to their governments and saying ‘What do you need to do to get President Trump to get sanctions relief — I’m willing to deal.’”
A strong signal to North Korea
Trump is entering denuclearization talks with North Korea, and he needs to show he’s serious about ending the prospect of nuclear arms, not just rolling them back, said Harley Lippman, the president of the Institute for the Study of Global Antisemitism and Policy.
“It sends a strong signal vis a vis North Korea, that Trump is serious about denuclearization,” said Lippman, who recently met with the foreign ministers of the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, countries that like Israel backed Trump’s pullout. “He’s been saying he’s unhappy about it, a lot of people think he’s blowing a lot of smoke, [but] there comes a point that Trump is being very credible, he’s very serious, he’s acting on his words.”