Act 1: The Iran Deal Begins to Unravel

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Quote of the Week:

“Dear Mr. Fantasy play us a tune
Something to make us all happy
Do anything, take us out of this gloom
Sing a song, play guitar, make it snappy”
—Stevie Winwood

Another wave of leaked accounts has washed through the media about Donald Trump’s unsuitability to have direct access to America’s nuclear codes. There’s no use now in bemoaning that sixty million American voters chose a man who has no clue about governing. Worse, the United States has a President who abuses and alienates those whose help he needs in order to govern. Only a fantasist or a fabulist would do that.

After being cut off at the knees for trying to keep open a diplomatic option with North Korea and after other insults that he has chosen not to share, Trump’s Secretary of State reportedly called his boss a “moron.” After being on the receiving end of a barrage of false and belittling tweets, the retiring Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Bob Corker, tweeted back, “It’s a shame the White House has become an adult day care center. Someone obviously missed their shift this morning.” More importantly, Senator Corker has felt impelled to publicly warn that Trump risks placing the United States on a fast track to World War III. Who would systematically and repeatedly denigrate serious men who seek an alternative to a preemptive war against a nuclear-armed state? Only a fantasist and a fabulist would do that.

Who would refuse to certify a nuclear deal with Iran to which Tehran is complying, according to the U.S. intelligence community and the agreement’s inspection corps at the International Atomic Energy Agency? Who would make this decision against the advice of his most competent advisers? Who could possibly believe the fairy tale that Iran’s misbehavior outside the scope of the nuclear deal would improve, and that U.S. leverage would become stronger after dissing Iranian compliance? Only fantasists and fabulists would think and act in this way.

How would the United States manage to negotiate a verifiable agreement with North Korea to reduce nuclear dangers after snubbing a verifiable nuclear deal that Tehran is abiding by? Who would even be willing to advance this argument?

What, then, are Trump’s plans to reduce nuclear dangers when he doesn’t believe in diplomacy? He doesn’t say and he doesn’t really know. The best he can do is to hint (repeatedly) at pyrotechnics. What are the options to reduce nuclear dangers in Iran and North Korea when the President believes only in punishment?

The wreckage of the Trump Administration is growing and is now poised to become far worse. At stake is not just the State of the Union, which is listing badly because of Trump’s divisive tactics, compulsive tendencies and disinterest in governing, but also on matters of war, peace and the Bomb.

We are headed toward a world of greatly increased nuclear dangers amidst U.S. diplomatic impotence, the hollowing out of alliances and the shearing of what’s left of the nuclear safety net woven by previous generations. Trump’s specialty is to make a mess and then pass the baton to Capitol Hill. If members of Congress can’t agree on cleaning up the mess, they are to blame for screwing up.

It’s possible that deconstructionists on Capitol Hill will actually be able to muster a majority on the next step toward Iran. After all, one of the few things that feuding factions with the Republican Party and feuding Republicans and Democrats can agree upon is to impose sanctions. Vote against sanctions and be soft on Iran? No thank you.

And what then? Assuming Tehran refuses unilateral concessions and some, if not most, of the other parties to the deal refuse Capitol Hill’s dictation, we are left on the path of greater complaint and misbehavior, leading to the deal’s unraveling.

The deal’s staunch opponents are fine with this—strategic logic be damned. The “sunset” provisions come too soon, we are told, so the Congress must show toughness even if the end result is no deal, with no sunset provisions. Vote to demand mandatory tougher inspections? Yes, of course, even though the Senate refused to accept mandatory tougher inspections on U.S. soil when consenting to ratify the Chemical Weapons Convention. Never mind: one outlier against mandatory tougher inspections will succeed in demanding them on another outlier. Or maybe not, which would demand a kinetic backup plan.

The non-governing wing of the Republican Party on this issue is led by Senator Tom Cotton, whose playbook isn’t a secret; he provided a detailed speech on the subject at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Senator Cotton projects even greater confidence in his plan to bring Tehran to heel than Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld projected at the outset of introducing U.S. troops into Afghanistan, or Vice President Dick Cheney at the outset of the war to topple Saddam Hussein. When asked (by me) whether any aspect of his plan gave him the slightest pause—a plan that he acknowledges culminates in airstrikes if Tehran fails to see reason—Senator Cotton’s succinct answer was “No.” What could possibly go wrong with Senator Cotton’s plans, with Bibi Netanyahu cheering on from the gallery?

Michael Krepon is Co-Founder of the Stimson Center. This piece originally ran in Arms Control Wonk on October 14, 2017.

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