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Trump wants out of the Iran deal, but to contain Iran he needs to get stuck in

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This article first was first published in The Telegraph.

President Donald Trump will soon announce his decision on the Iran nuclear deal. He calls it the”worst deal ever” but on Tuesday night Theresa May told him it was “vital to regional security”. Clearly, the special relationship is under strain. Trump wants out of the deal because he believes it typifies Obama and his weak foreign policy. This is politically powerful, but it is diplomatically dangerous. With no alternative plan to contain Iran, he is risking an international crisis of his own creation.

Let’s rewind a little to understand how dangerous the situation was before the Iran deal was signed. Iran was racing to nuclear breakout, and perceived as a clear and present danger by Middle East states that Iranian leaders marked out for destruction. Israel, which the Ayatollahs have promised to wipe out since 1979, threatened to go it alone with a military option if international action was not forthcoming. This was no idle threat: Israel destroyed an Iraqi nuclear facility in 1981 and in 2007 attacked a Syrian chemical weapons factory.

But then, in 2015, Iran signed a landmark agreement with the US, France, the UK, Russia, China, and Germany. Iran agreed to suspend its nuclear programme in return for an end to crippling financial sanctions. The US president would have to certify to Congress every 90 days that Iran is in compliance. Now Trump is considering whether he should instead announce that Iran is violating the agreement.

Critics of the deal believe Iran got too much for too little. They say lifting sanctions so fast and so comprehensively was a mistake. Sanctions, they argue, contained Iran’s ability and ambition to build a corridor of influence from Iraq to Syria and Lebanon. With their expiration, a cash-flush Iran has poured resources into Hezbollah and Shia militias in Syria and Houthi rebels in Yemen, fuelling regional instability. Critics also say the deal defused a crisis but delayed the problem: Iran’s nuclear facilities have been put on ice for a decade but not dismantled.
The deal’s supporters, meanwhile, celebrated a rare achievement – consensus to halt nuclear proliferation, prevent a wider Middle East conflict and defang a rogue regime. The Obama administration, alongside Britain, France and Germany, hoped the deal was the first step to opening up Iran and weakening the regime.

Trump promised to scrap the deal because that chimes perfectly with his narrative of US failure. He claims the US became weak, abandoned its allies and is soft on terrorism. His opposition to Obama is so total that if Obama thought the deal a triumph, Trump has to say it was a disaster. But he has since been advised that the deal is working within its limited objectives and, as an international agreement with six signatories, he could hurt it but not kill it. If he refuses to certify that Iran is in compliance, he is reliant on Congress to re-impose sanctions.

Only Israel’s Prime Minister supports Trump’s view that Iran is violating the agreement. But Israel’s security establishment is increasingly challenging that position. Given the choice between an imperfect deal and no deal, they opt for the status quo because it offers years of relative stability vis a vis Iran’s nuclear capability, something no other option can provide. The US Defence Secretary General Mattis and the National Security Adviser General McMaster agree with their Israeli colleagues and have tried to convince President Trump to stick with the deal.

Trump and Netanyahu highlight two areas of Iranian violation. First, Iran’s ballistic missile programme, and second Iran’s military aggression. Both issues damage regional stability, but the nuclear agreement was never meant to address them. Trump says this is why it’s such a bad deal, but that’s like getting into a car and complaining that it can’t fly.

Trump believes the nuclear deal has enabled Iran to step up regional aggression and advance its missile capability. The truth is he can disable both and stick with the deal. The US has conceded to Russia the role of power broker in Syria. This emboldens Iran and boosts Hezbollah. Trump can counter this, but only if he commits more US forces to the region. The Iranian ballistic missile programme is already condemned by UN Security Council resolutions and the US has imposed tough sanctions to target Iranians involved in it.

If Trump really wanted to improve the nuclear deal he could have mounted a carefully designed round of diplomacy to tie up its loose ends. If he really wanted to contain Iran he could have developed a strategy to deter Iranian aggression involving deft espionage and the deployment of US forces and her allies. He has done neither. Instead, he will blame his inability to counter Iran on a deal designed only to be part of the solution. He can claim he is impaired by a bad agreement that accelerated the drift into a multipolar world where the US can no longer dictate the agenda. He can walk away from the deal and it will live on. He can impose sanctions knowing that other states will continue to trade with Iran.

For the UK, France and Germany, this is a fragile netherworld. They will work to limit Iranian missile development but don’t support renegotiation. Although they could be persuaded to examine what happens when the nuclear deal expires, the difference in outlook is stark. They fear the collapse of the nuclear deal far more than Iran’s expanding control in the region. Theresa May has talked about the need to be clear-eyed about the threat that Iran poses to the Gulf and the wider Middle East. Trump’s next step will severely test her resolve.

James Sorene is the CEO of BICOM.