President Donald Trump announced Tuesday that the U.S. government would drop out of the 2015 multinational agreement limiting Iran’s nuclear activities. His White House speech included inaccurate statements and omissions of fact that reflect either misunderstanding of the accord or an effort to distort the historical record.
Violations that aren’t
“At the heart of the Iran deal was a giant fiction, that a murderous regime desired only a peaceful nuclear energy program,” Trump said. Actually, it was the concern that Iran might be creating the ability to build weapons that led to the 2015 deal.
Trump then said: “Today, we have definitive proof that this Iranian promise was a lie. Last week, Israel published intelligence documents, long concealed by Iran, conclusively showing the Iranians’ regime and its history of pursuing nuclear weapons.”
What Trump did not disclose: the Israeli revelations concerned already-well-known Iranian efforts to pursue a nuke more than 15 years ago. Regardless, with the kind of tough inspection regimes contained in the Iran deal, the world does not have to rely on Iran’s word about anything.
Watch: Trump Announces Withdrawal From Iran Nuclear Deal
Trump said the deal has allowed Iran to enrich uranium. He left out that Iran agreed to only enrich to levels of uranium-235 needed to operate a nuclear reactor (3.67 percent) – not to the vastly higher levels needed for a bomb (90 percent).
Trump did not mention that, under the 2015 deal, Iran can only maintain a stockpile of 661 pounds of that lower-enriched uranium, versus the thousands of pounds of the higher-enriched uranium it had before the deal.
Also not included in the speech: Iran limited its plutonium enrichment and its enrichment centrifuges, and has sent huge amounts of uranium and plutonium out of the country.
Trump said the deal’s monitoring provisions are inadequate. No credible other source has made that argument. The International Atomic Energy Agency has said it has the access that Iran agreed to provide to its nuclear sites.
Trump has previously contended that the Iranians can block access to sites. But that’s only the case with certain non-nuclear sites, and there’s a process for inspectors to get to those, too, in a short period of time.
Most importantly, international inspectors say they have access to many more facilities than they saw before the deal — and access to every single place they say they have needed to see. U.S. intelligence agencies and Defense Department leaders also have consistently and publicly said that visibility into Iran’s nuclear program has increased substantially and that Iran is doing everything it said it would do.
On Tuesday, America’s president effectively said this country would nonetheless not comply with its end of the bargain.
Missiles and terrorism
Trump said the nuclear deal is flawed because it lacks any constraints on Iran’s ballistic missiles and its support for terrorism, including the killing of Americans.
But the United States has sanctions on Iran for its non-nuclear behavior. Perhaps those could be ramped up. But why would the president scuttle progress in one area — the nuclear one — in the hope it would lead to better outcomes on the other concerns?
Trump implied that, under the deal, Iran could rapidly break out and attain a nuclear weapon. But it would take longer under the deal for that to happen than it would have without the deal.
Trump has complained that the deal’s provisions will start to expire in 2025. In fact, its most critical terms last until 2030 and inspectors have access to sites for even longer periods.
But if the problem with the pact is that it doesn’t last long enough, then why isn’t the answer to extend the deal — or to reach a better deal that lasts longer?
Comparisons to alternatives
Trump says the deal’s limitations on Iran are “weak.” Even if that were true, and that is highly debatable, aren’t weak limitations better than the virtually zero limitations that existed before — and may exist again if the deal is abandoned?
The president seemed to suggest that he would have struck a better arrangement had he been at the negotiating table a few years ago. We’ll never know if that’s true. But why couldn’t Trump sit down with Iran now and hammer out what he thinks is a better deal? He says he’s working toward that. But why pull out beforehand?
Whatever the shortcomings of the Iran deal, the comparison that must be made is not Iran Deal vs. Ideal Other Deal. Rather, it is: World With Iran Deal vs. World Without Iran Deal, whether that world is the world before 2015 or whatever world follows Trump’s announcement.
That brings us to the key question: What’s going to happen now?
It depends on what other nations do. If the Europeans, Russians and Chinese keep doing business with Iran — and especially if the United States does not punish their continued trade with Iran — then little may change.
But there is a wild card question: How much will Trump’s move strengthen Iran’s hardliners? Will they succeed in returning Iran to its previous path of accumulating the know-how and material to build atomic bombs, if they were to choose to do so?
Trump said the 2015 Iran pact would lead to a nuclear arms race in the Mideast. But it’s hard to believe that the absence of a deal would reduce that likelihood. Quite the contrary: If Iran reacts to Trump’s move by returning to its pre-deal nuclear activities, such an arms race would almost certainly become more likely, not less.
Ironically, Trump also said Tuesday that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was en route to North Korea to strike a nuclear deal with that country. Maybe whatever deal the Trump team reaches with North Korea will be much smarter than the one Obama and other world powers struck with Iran.
On the other hand, maybe Trump will learn how difficult such negotiations are. And maybe he’ll see how much harder it is to talk with an actual nuclear power (North Korea) than with a would-be one (Iran). He may also discover how much countries want in return for giving up a nuclear arsenal, the sort of weaponry that gives the United States and other world powers clout on the global stage.
But Kim Jong Un’s confidence in Trump’s word can hardly be bolstered by watching how Trump has treated the Iran deal — a pact that, according to its admittedly imperfect terms, is, by all believable accounts, working.