After President Trump repeatedly disparaged the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, his Secretary of Defense, James Mattis, said Tuesday that it would be in the best interests of the US to stick with the deal. At a hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Mattis was asked whether “it is in our national security interest at the present time to remain” in the Iran deal, to which he responded “Yes, senator, I do.”
“The point I would make is if we can confirm that Iran is living by the agreement, if we can determine that this is in our best interests then clearly we should stay with it,” he explained. “I believe at this point in time absent indications to the contrary, it is something the President should consider staying with.”
Trump has offered a series of criticisms of the agreement, most recently while addressing the United Nations General Assembly last month.
“We cannot let a murderous regime continue these destabilizing activities while building dangerous missiles, and we cannot abide by an agreement if it provides cover for the eventual construction of a nuclear program,” Trump argued. In the past, he has called the deal “an embarrassment” and “one of the worst and most one-sided transactions the United States has ever entered into.”
Trump and other spokespeople have cited Iran’s missile development (permitted by the deal), continued support for rebels in Yemen, and support for Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad, all of which the administration argues are partially funded by relief from sanctions brought about by the nuclear deal. Earlier this month, the president told reporters he had made a decision on the deal, but declined to reveal it. He must decide by October 15th whether to certify Iran’s compliance with the deal. One senior official said Trump is leaning towards not certifying their compliance, which would effectively end the deal.
The administration should listen to Mattis and should neither pull out of the agreement or make moves that would encourage Iran to walk away.
In light of ongoing nuclear tensions with North Korea, which the administration does not seem close to resolving, the last thing the US needs is another nuclear standoff. Everything about the North Korea quagmire, and the difficulties the US now faces using sanctions to “denuclearize” the rogue state, offer a perfect example of why it is important to stop Iran from going nuclear in the first place. It seems likely that the world is now stuck with a nuclear North Korea, despite the US administration holding on to the idea that the nation’s nuclear developments can be rolled back. This is a situation well worth avoiding with Iran.
Despite flaws in the deal, such as allowing Iran to continue testing ballistic missiles, it has, for the moment, stopped Iran from moving forward with the production of weapons-grade material for nuclear weapons. This development may have prevented a military conflict between the US and Israel on one hand and Iran on the other. Such a conflict would have threatened stability in the region, hurt US interests in the Gulf, and triggered a revival of Iranian sponsored terrorism.
Continued development of nuclear weapons in Iran would also mean further damage to the international Non-Proliferation Treaty.
The administration should look to the other nations involved in the agreement, such as France, the UK, Germany, Russia and China, whose leaders, far from reconsidering sanctions, are engaging in building new economic ties and lucrative deals with Iran. European companies are beginning to invest in sectors such as renewable energy, hotels, and auto manufacturing, despite the Trump administration’s reticence to get involved. Trump’s Treasury Department has not yet said whether it will let companies such as Boeing do business with Iran, even though the company has said it would create tens of thousands of jobs for Americans.
Furthermore, if America is perceived to have killed the deal, whether the US backs out or goads Iran into doing so, the diplomatic consequences would be far reaching. Support for existing sanctions could fall apart, and allies in the region, from Israel to Gulf states, would seek American reassurances of their security. Russia and China would be afforded new opportunities to broaden their influence in the region, and international respect for American policy leadership would take further damage.
With the potential for another nuclear state on the one hand, and mutual economic benefit on the other, Trump should seriously consider leaving the deal intact.