You can just imagine Benjamin Netanyahu watching Donald Trump’s Friday night speech on Iran, lighting a cigar, sipping from a glass of pink champagne, a wide smile spreading across his face. The president of the United States was attacking Iran in terms that could have been formulated in Jerusalem, and possibly were. He was talking in fluent Bibi, in tone if not in delivery. This was Trump describing “the aggressive impulses of an evil empire,” as Ronald Reagan depicted the Soviet Union in 1983. Netanyahu and many other Israelis would be happy to see the Islamic Republic of Iran collapse within six years, as the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics did after Reagan’s speech.
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Netanyahu, however, was not the only world leader who might have celebrated Trump’s address to the nation. Underneath their expected expressions of outrage and indignation, the Iranian leadership, along with America-haters throughout the world, had ample reasons to be satisfied as well. Trump’s speech elevated Iran to the top of the charts, crowning the Islamic regime as America’s number one enemy, a coveted position among radical revolutionaries. The speech instantaneously achieved the impossible, garnering sympathy for Tehran, despite its evil ways, in the many places where Trump is considered a greater menace. It put Washington on a collision course with its allies and rivals on the world stage. And while Trump did mention alleged Iranian violations of the deal that were hitherto deemed insignificant, it is the United States which is seen as trying to wiggle out of a signed agreement with no pretext at all.
Trump’s speech was clear and explicit in its condemnation of Iran’s present aggression but its prescriptions for the future were murkier. If Congress refuses to take the heat for violating the agreement, if Europe, Russia and China refuse to adopt Trump’s demands for measures to reinforce the agreement and if the Iranians themselves don’t play into Trump’s hands by overreacting - which they may, if only because of the sanctions imposed on the Revolutionary Guard - his last remaining card will be to nix the agreement unilaterally, as he threatened in his speech, and to pit America, and not Iran, against the world. This is not an unrealistic scenario.
Trump left no doubt how much he detests the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, as the Iran deal is known, though it’s doubtful he’s ever read it. Trump may know how to mumble something about advanced centrifuges and sunset clauses and he may have been genuinely impressed by the confident baritone with which Benjamin Netanyahu told him the deal was awful. But these considerations pale in significance compared to his supreme motive. Good deal or bad, the nuclear accord was achieved by Barack Obama and thus, by definition, needs to be incinerated, preferably by Trump himself.
Trump’s problem is that the whole world suspects as much. Some are convinced that Trump is lashing out at the nuclear deal because of his impetuous personality, his fragile ego, his campaign promises and his surprisingly fierce hatred for his African American predecessor. Others who believe in Zionist domination of the world might also factor in the influence-by-fawning that Netanyahu exerts over Trump. Few people will examine Trump’s speech on its merits or weigh the significance of his assertions. This is the price one pays for being a U.S. president who has established a reputation for being erratic, impulsive, capricious, obnoxious and interested only in himself.
Trump’s advisers had tried to persuade him that America has no interest in jeopardizing the deal at this time and no pretext to renege on it, but Trump, according to reports, blew his top. He wasn’t willing to hear facts and figures that contradicted his campaign promise to scrap the deal. In his speech he included supposedly factual assertions that intelligence services could easily dispel, if anyone would listen to them. No, the Obama administration did not relieve the sanctions against Tehran as the Islamic regime was on the verge of collapse. The money that Trump said was delivered to Tehran as payment was actually Iran’s in the first place. And surely if Iran was in clear violation of the JCPoA, as Trump asserted, he would have taken harsher measures than simply refusing to certify that Tehran was in compliance.
But that, according to several administration sources, was the extent of Trump’s aspirations on Friday night. He can’t stand the fact that Congress forced him to certify every 90 days that Tehran is in compliance with the “terrible deal” signed by Obama. He felt humiliated by the process. The certification was like a red flag that enraged Trump and drove him crazy. And as long as Trump is in a frenzy, his generals and advisers don’t have a life either.
Which is why the U.S. secretary of state, secretary of defense, the national security adviser and the White House chief of staff - who all believe, incredibly, that Washington should stick to the deal - endeavored to find a way that would allow the U.S. to continue adhering to the JCPoA while give Trump the satisfaction of having trashed it. Not to abandon the agreement, exactly, but to deliver a blistering speech blasting it. Not to violate it, precisely, but to launch a process that could tear it apart.
That’s what Trump did in his speech. He read out the riot act to Tehran as an instigator of evil, spreader of terror and suppressor of its own people. He explained why Obama’s deal was the worst ever. But since his advisers didn’t allow him to nix the deal right now, he’s happy to pass the buck to Congress, which can either resume suspended sanctions, thus violating the deal, or impose new ones, thus ratcheting up tensions with Tehran, or refrain from doing so, thus allowing Trump to forever describe senators as weak and stupid, which he’s bound to do anyway.
It’s no coincidence that Trump’s speech came on the same day he signed new regulations that would remove federal subsidies to insurance companies for people with limited resources. Unlike Trump’s prescriptions for the nuclear deal, which may or may not destroy it, experts are convinced that Trump’s new regulations could gut ObamaCare. Trump is willing to harm millions of needy Americans and to destabilize the health insurance market to prove a point, to satisfy his ego and to trample on Obama’s legacy.
By the same token, Trump was equally willing to isolate America, enrage its allies and risk a crisis that could escalate to war - at a time when America already finds itself in a precarious confrontation with North Korea - in order to satisfy his personal whims. If you’re a half-glass-full kind of person, you’ll be impressed with Trump’s relative restraint. If you lean to the half-empty version, you’ll be depressed that his disruptive personality could entangle the U.S. in a war and endanger American lives. If you’re Netanyahu, you’re split between the elation of vindication by the president of the United States and the trepidation of where his unhinged personality will lead him, and Israel.