For the next month, the media is going to busy itself with grading President Donald Trump’s performance by the meaningless standard of how much he accomplished in his first 100 days in office.
The standard is made doubly meaningless by the fact that Mr. Trump is not anchored to any ideology against which progress can be measured. Such is the case for his defense and foreign policy, which remains a mystery to friend and foe.
During the 2016 campaign, he said NATO was “obsolete.” After meeting with NATO Secretary General Stoltenberg, he proclaimed that it wasn’t. Before the election, former president Obama’s deal with Australia to accept into the U.S. over a thousand “Syrian” refugees, was a “dumb” deal. Last week, visiting Australia, Vice President Mike Pence said we’d live up to it. Those are only two examples of post-election policy shifts, of which there are many.
By far the most important — and most troubling — example is the mixed signals the president has sent on Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran, the so-called “Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.” Under that agreement, Iran has already benefited from the relaxation of sanctions, receiving billions of dollars in withheld funds as well as what is probably an equal amount of hitherto-prohibited trade agreements.
During the campaign, Mr. Trump frequently said that Obama’s was a “bad deal” and “the worst deal ever,” at times saying he’d renegotiate it and, at others, indicating that it was unacceptable in its current form.
Iran, to no one’s surprise, refuses to renegotiate the deal. (Its parliament hasn’t ratified the deal, which action was independent of Congress’s anti-constitutional action, which — thanks to Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn. — enabled then-President Obama to claim congressional approval, though no such thing had occurred.) Our “partners” in the deal — the other permanent members of the U.N. Security Council (Britain, France, Russia and China) and Germany — won’t support any effort Mr. Trump makes to renegotiate it.
Last week, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson sent Congress a very puzzling letter. The first paragraph certified that Iran was living up to its obligations under the Obama nuclear weapons deal.
It would have been far better for Tillerson to have told the obvious truth: We haven’t a clue whether Iran is abiding by the agreement. That’s clear for at least five reasons.
First, the agreement allows Iran to bar international inspectors from certain sites and inspect those sites itself. This risible provision is being followed only in the sense that Iran’s self-inspection is reporting that Iran is complying with the agreement.
Second, there is no way to determine how many nuclear weapons development and testing sites Iran has kept secret, despite the agreement.
Third, as I wrote last week, North Korea has partnered with Iran in the development of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. There is every reason to believe that Iran’s development of nuclear weapons is proceeding at maximum speed in North Korea, hidden from U.S. intelligence agencies and U.N. inspectors.
Fourth, what the IAEA — the U.N.’s purblind nuclear inspection agency — has found is that Iran retained more enriched uranium and “heavy water” than the agreement entitles it to. Those breaches aren’t regarded — by the IAEA or our “P5+1 partners” — as sufficiently serious to conclude that the agreement is being violated.
Fifth, as Rowan Scarborough reported last week, an Iranian opposition group — the National Council for Resistance in Iran, also known as the Mujahideen e-Khalk — alleges that Iran is secretly testing nuclear bomb triggers at a secret site north of Tehran. The NCRI has previously reported — accurately — on Iran’s nuclear weapons development.
The second paragraph of Tillerson’s letter said:
Notwithstanding, Iran remains a leading state sponsor of terror through many platforms and methods. President Donald J. Trump has directed a National Security Council-led interagency review of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) that will evaluate whether suspension of sanctions related to Iran pursuant to the JCPOA is vital to the national security interests of the United States. When the interagency review is completed, the administration looks forward to working with Congress on this issue.
All that means is that the review Mr. Trump has directed will not result in a recommendation of whether the agreement should be renegotiated or canceled. Its terms of reference do not call for such a determination. Moreover, economic or diplomatic sanctions will never succeed in stopping Iran’s race to develop nuclear weapons.
More important than the terms of the letter, Tillerson said the administration was reviewing the Obama nuclear deal to determine whether we would abide by it. He stated the obvious when he warned that “An unchecked Iran has the potential to travel the same path as North Korea and take the world along with it.”
Mr. Trump has said that Iran should not be allowed to obtain nuclear weapons. His predecessors, going back at least to George H. W. Bush, insisted on that position. Even Obama said so while, at the same time, entering into an agreement that clearly allows Iran to do so at least at the end of ten years when Iran is permitted to resume uranium enrichment to any degree it chooses.
Tillerson’s statement indicates that the president hasn’t put the Obama deal aside, just that he’s undecided on how to deal with it. He — or Tillerson or both — have certainly spoken about it with others of our “P5+1” partners and been told that they won’t support any effort to renegotiate the deal.
If Mr. Trump were planning to take on the great danger created by Obama’s nuclear weapons deal with Iran, he would be speaking about it, raising the public’s awareness of that danger. But he is silent on it. Tillerson only mentioned the second review as an aside in an interview.
Mr. Trump may have decided unwisely, as some of his predecessors (most notably Lyndon Johnson) did, to push concerns about national security aside while he put his energy into his domestic priorities. Or, more likely, he may be waiting for the review to be concluded.
Defense Secretary James Mattis, first among the president’s advisers, understands the danger of relying on the Obama deal to keep Iran from having nuclear weapons. He also understands the near-certainty that Iran’s nuclear weapons development must be proceeding at full speed in North Korea.
Together with Mr. Tillerson, Mr. Mattis should be conducting the review of the Obama deal for the president.
That review will proceed while the president deals with the Obamacare mess, tax reform, and his other domestic concerns. When it’s completed, the two should meet with the president to ensure he understands that inaction on the Iran nuclear deal poses an unacceptable risk to the nation. At that point, the president will have to be made to understand that his actions on the agreement take precedence over his domestic priorities.
That review, and its inevitable conclusions, will have to focus the president on what is a clear and present danger to our national security: a deal that he can demand be renegotiated or revoked. The president will be left with the only choice he can make. Which he should do without further delay.