Cohen: Killing the Iran nuclear deal would be the worst mistake of Trump’s presidency

U.S. President Donald Trump is threatening to withdraw next month from the landmark international agreement that has prevented Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. It would be the worst mistake of his presidency.

Under the agreement, the United States, France, Britain, China, Russia and Germany in 2015 agreed to lift their severe sanctions on Iran in exchange for restricting Iran’s nuclear program. The deal took years of hard, fitful negotiations. 

For Iran, it meant new access to trade and investment to support its beleaguered economy. For the great powers, it meant containing Iran’s nuclear program.

Trump loathes the agreement irrationally. It is enough that it was Barack Obama’s signature foreign policy achievement, which he burns to reverse. Much like withdrawing from the Paris Agreement and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (which, reportedly, he now wants to rejoin).

The Iranian agreement is imperfect. It addresses Iran’s nuclear program, not its ballistic missiles or nefarious foreign misadventures. It has a life of 15 years. It authorizes inspections of facilities that require weeks of notice.

Critics say Iran is cheating. They say it is building a bomb furtively to use on Israel. Moreover, they say the money flowing into its treasury has financed Iran’s forays in the region, particularly in Syria.

There, in particular, Iran wants to provoke Israel, sending a drone (thought to be armed) into its airspace and creating a forward missile base on Israel’s border. From the Golan, Thomas Friedman of The New York Times worries that a Syrian-Israeli clash is imminent.

We can agree that the Iranian regime is mischievous, devious and dangerous. It crushes dissent at home and sows chaos abroad, supporting butchers such as Bashar al-Assad with chemical weapons.

All true, but the trouble is the Iranian agreement is working. Inspectors have found no unauthorized nuclear activity.

However, Trump and his war cabinet cannot abide that. John Bolton, his new national security adviser, hates the agreement. So does Mike Pompeo, his new secretary of state (if the Senate confirms him, which still remains uncertain). Their predecessors supported the agreement, as does Defence Secretary James Mattis.

So what will happen May 12, when Trump must decide on reinstating sanctions? Mark Dubowitz of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, says this is a question of “fix it or nix it.” Either the deal is changed or it dies, he warns; there is no other real choice.

It may be that Trump persuades the Europeans to make the deal harder on Iran (demanding instant inspections of military sites, ending the sunset clause, designating Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as terrorists.) A year ago, no one thought the Europeans would consider changes; Dubowitz says they are now.

Even if the signatories agree, they would have to persuade the Iranians. They complain that the lifting of sanctions has not generated the economic bonanza they had expected. In fact, their currency is collapsing.

If the Iranians walk away, the consequences could be cataclysmic. They will restart their nuclear program. In response, the United States will consider a military solution, encouraged by Israel, though the prospects of a successful strike on Iran’s hidden, hardened and far-flung facilities are no better now than they were in 2015.

The diplomatic damage would be incalculable. Ending the agreement will show that the United States and its partners cannot keep their word. It will give North Korea reason to doubt any agreement Trump proposes.

Moreover, it will split Washington from Europe, isolating not Iran, but America. In Iran, the militants who always opposed the agreement will say the Great Satan is a great liar.

For Canada, which was cool to the deal under the Conservatives, the scenario is alarming. We will have to align ourselves with our European allies in support of the deal, however flawed, creating tension with the Americans as we struggle to renegotiate NAFTA.

Donald Trump can do much damage as president – and he has. Still, his successor can repeal laws, restore regulations, renegotiate treaties and raise taxes. 

But he cannot undo a war.

Andrew Cohen is a journalist, professor and author of Two Days in June: John F. Kennedy and the 48 Hours That Made History.

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