Speaking to reporters after a dinner with his military leadership team, the generals and admirals and their wives standing with him and the First Lady, President Trump said, “You guys know what this represents? Maybe it’s the calm before the storm.”
Was that cryptic remark aimed at North Korea? Iran? Russia? Was he anticipating his widely expected refusal to certify Iran’s compliance with the Obama nuclear weapons deal? Mr. Trump wouldn’t say.
On Saturday, Trump tweeted, “Presidents and their administrations have been talking to North Korea for 25 years, agreements made and massive amounts of money paid… hasn’t worked, agreements violated before the ink was dry, makings fools of U.S. negotiators. Sorry, but only one thing will work!”
As usual, Trump’s governing-by-Twitter leaves us in the dark as to what that one thing is. By eliminating all the peaceful means we’ve used to disarm the North Koreans of nuclear weapons, does he mean he intends to go to war? Hardly. So what, oh, never mind. Another North Korean launch of a long-range missile is expected today.
If it was Trump’s intent to make people worry about what he’s going to do, he succeeded. Nobody’s calm. Not in Europe — which treasures trade with Iran more than security. Not in the media, which treasures trashing Trump more than anything else. And not among conservatives who are wondering whether the president is going to compromise on Obama’s disastrous nuclear weapons deal with Iran, a compromise that will attempt to please everyone and won’t please anyone, even the Iranians.
This week, probably on Wednesday, the president will make a major speech about Iran and the Obama nuclear deal. Under the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act (“INARA,” the unconstitutional bastard child of Sen. Bob Corker), the president is required to certify to Congress, every ninety days, whether Iran is complying with its obligations under the deal and that it remains in our national security interests to continue the deal. White House trial balloons indicate he’ll refuse to do so, but what else he may do is the subject of much speculation.
Twice before, in January and again in April, the Trump administration has given those certifications despite the fact that Trump campaigned against the agreement, calling it at various times and in varying terms the worst diplomatic deal ever. Only a couple of weeks ago, addressing the UN, Trump called it “an embarrassment.”
Now, with the third certification due on October 15, the president’s advisors are — as usual — badly split.
The president has, we are told, made the prior certifications after being persuaded to do so by his cabinet, particularly Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and some of his other advisors including National Security Advisor Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster.
McMaster reportedly told a group of Democratic senators, arguing that Trump must keep Obama’s deal, “I’m not the one you have to convince.” Tillerson, at a bizarre press conference last week, said that he’ll make a recommendation to the president but wouldn’t elaborate. (He also declined to deny that after a recent meeting he’d called the president a “f***ing moron.”)
The press has been reporting breathlessly that Defense Secretary James Mattis said last week that we should keep the Iran deal and that it’s in our national security interests to do so. But that’s not quite what he said.
Mattis did tell one senator that it is in our national security interests to stay in the deal at this time. But Mattis also said, “If we can confirm that Iran is living by the agreement, if we can determine that this is in our best interest, then clearly we should stay with it,” adding, “I believe… absent indications to the contrary, it is something that the president should consider staying with.”
Mattis knows all too well that we can’t confirm that Iran is complying with the deal because American inspectors are barred from Iran altogether and Iran’s military sites are off limits to UN inspectors. He knows that the secret side agreements to the Obama deal preclude confirmation and provide risible results such as the Iranians self-inspecting their principal nuclear sites. He knows, too, that they are partnered with North Korea in developing nuclear weapons and missiles.
French President Emmanuel Macron, speaking for the other signatories of the Obama deal — not Iran, but the four other members of the “Permanent Five” UN Security Council members plus Germany — said that we shouldn’t be backing out of Obama’s agreement. France, Germany, and others are too busy selling aircraft to Iran and capturing contracts for Iranian oil production to worry about what Iran is actually doing. (American companies, such as Boeing, are doing the same.)
Macron wants to start negotiations on a deal with Iran to follow the Obama deal when it ends in 2030. (The deal restricts Iranian uranium enrichment for fifteen years and presumes to limit research and development for twenty-five years.) The French president is acting, well, French in seeking to pre-emptively appease Iran as a nuclear power.
Macron and our other NATO “partners” are loosing their foreign ministers and other lobbyists on Capitol Hill this week to persuade Congress that Trump is wrong and that they shouldn’t impose new sanctions no matter what Trump wants.
Iran has said, many times and in high dudgeon, that there cannot be any renegotiation of the deal and that any re-imposition of sanctions will cause it to immediately cancel the deal.
We know that Iranian self-inspections, allowed under secret side-deals to which we aren’t privy, result in glowing reports of how well Iran is complying with its obligations.
And we know that Iran is partnered with North Korea on missile and nuclear weapons development. The Obama deal doesn’t even mention, far less limit, Iran’s missile development and testing. From that we can deduce that a train that runs regularly from Pyongyang to Tehran isn’t just carrying tourists.
Trump has a big problem. If he chooses the so-called middle ground — refusing to certify Iran’s compliance and our national security interest in continuing the deal but declining to ask Congress to re-impose the sanctions, he will choose the worst possible path. Congress won’t re-impose sanctions without a presidential demand and may not do so even with one. Iran will continue whatever it’s doing at home and in North Korea without interruption.
The Iran nuclear deal isn’t the law of the land. The Senate — despite Sen. Corker’s brainchild — never ratified it. Neither has the Iranian Majlis, Iran’s parliament, which — at Ayatollah Khamenei’s insistence — attached so many preconditions to ratification that it can never occur.
The president should terminate the deal. He’s pretended for almost nine months that we know enough about Iran’s actions to certify its compliance when we clearly don’t. How much longer will he play the role of chump on a deal that he’s said was the worst deal imaginable?
We’ll find out on Wednesday. This is going to be a very interesting week.