Donald Trump is set to execute a stunning diplomatic reversal. By word of his mouth alone, Trump could cast a fanatic, aggressive and imperialist country like Iran as an innocent victim worthy of international protection. A regime that spreads terror, violence and fear throughout the Middle East will enjoy support and sympathy, while the country that is supposed to be the leader of the free world will find itself isolated and on the defensive. And bragging rights for this brilliant maneuver will rightfully belong to our own Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
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If one is to believe the repeated and sustained leaks in recent days from the White House, Trump intends to refrain from issuing the quarterly certification that Iran is complying with the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Trump cannot actually claim that Iran is violating the nuclear deal, because it isn’t, but he plans to assert that Tehran is violating the ‘spirit’ of the agreement and that the continued existence of the deal is not in America’s interests. The certification process isn’t actually part of the nuclear deal, but an internal step mandated by Congress, but it could set off a chain reaction that most of the world, with the exception of Trump, Netanyahu and parts of the American right wing, is afraid will end badly.
Such a move by Trump will make him a local hero in Israel, some Arab capitals and among U.S. hawks who have never reconciled with the deal reached by Barack Obama in 2015, but that will probably be the extent of its achievements. Trump intimated over the weekend that we are now in “the calm before the storm” but, like Hurricane Nate that is now homing in on it, the storm is likely to create more havoc in the U.S. than in Iran. A rejection of the deal, even one that isn’t legally binding, will exacerbate tensions with western European allies, who are still trying to persuade Trump to change course. It will give Moscow and Beijing another opportunity to portray Trump as a loose cannon who cannot be trusted. It will cast the United States as a rogue country that does not abide by the agreements it signs. It will paint Trump as a serial pyromaniac who is hell bent on lighting new fires as he struggles to contain his previous flare-ups, most notably with North Korea.
It’s feasible that formally, nothing will actually happen. Trump’s decertification of the Iran deal opens a 60 day window during which the Senate can decide to reimpose sanctions that were suspended because the JCPOA. If and when such a decision will be made, the U.S. will be deemed to have unilaterally abandoned the nuclear accord, but the chances for this happening are slim, despite the GOP majority in the Senate. Until that end result is reached, however, a harsh confrontation between the deal’s supporters and opponents could develop, in which Israel would find itself on the losing side, as it was in 2015. The Jewish community, whose fear of Iran is only eclipsed by its loathing for Trump, will be torn apart once again. And if the decertification actually leads to new sanctions that derail the deal and spark conflict or even war between the U.S. and Tehran, Israel will be accused of pushing America too far, as it was during George W. Bush’s Iraq war. This time, however, the allegations will be harder to refute.
Netanyahu is said to have convinced Trump and other American hawks that Washington can and should present Tehran with an ultimatum to “nix it or fix it”. Most of the international community, including American defense officials, believe that the threat is empty, because Tehran would never agree to amend the nuclear deal, especially when most of the world is standing behind it. Most of the world also believes that the continued implementation of the nuclear deal, whatever its deficiencies, dangers and limitations, is infinitely preferable to its revocation. A statement by Trump that Tehran is not living up to its side of the deal, despite assertions to the contrary by the International Atomic Energy Agency, the co-signatories to the deal and most of the intelligence services in the world, is seen in world capitals as reckless to the point of insanity.
There is no doubt that Iran is supplying numerous justifications for an American president to rally an international coalition that would pressure Tehran to curtail its ballistic missile program, its support for terror and its drive to control the Middle East. A statement by Trump that Iran is not complying with the nuclear deal would make such an effort that much harder. It creates conflict within the international community rather than with Iran. Based on prior experience with Trump, it won’t be perceived as a fact-based and principled position against Tehran’s designs, but rather as an egotistical and impulsive attempt to keep campaign promises, erase Obama’s legacy and wipe out his premier foreign policy achievement. In this context, Netanyahu could be accused of cynically exploiting Trump’s weaknesses in order to achieve the victory that was denied him during his ill advised 2015 campaign against Obama.
A sounder and more popular president than Trump might have been able to muster the international and domestic support necessary to pressure Iran, but Trump is spoiling for this fight at a time when his standing is at one of its lowest points ever. Not only does the world view him as an unguided missile, but a new Associated Press poll published on Saturday shows that his domestic support has reached rock bottom, with an approval rating of only 32%, with many Republicans now voicing their dissatisfaction as well. Trump seemed subdued and helpless after the massacre in Las Vegas and maliciously disinclined to help Puerto Rico recover from the devastation wrought by Hurricane Maria. Never one to rest on his thorns, however, Trump made sure to alienate American women over the weekend as well, by exempting employers from covering health insurance meant to offset the cost of buying contraceptives.
Trump has also lost control of the GOP Senate, the body that can reimpose sanctions suspended by the JCPOA and thus violate it. Senior senators such as John McCain and Bob Corker have already made clear that they no longer trust Trump’s judgment and won’t be bound by his policies. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, whose relations with Trump are tense as well, has signaled his reluctance to catch the hot potato thrown out by Trump and his unwillingness to make the Senate responsible for the cancellation of the deal and the mayhem that might ensue from such a move. Even cabinet secretaries who were personally appointed by Trump are now voicing their reservations in public, from Secretary of Defense James Mattis, who says the U.S. should adhere to the nuclear deal, to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who has refrained from denying he called Trump a “moron.”
Many Israelis are praying that there is a method to Trump’s madness. The news website Axios reported this week that Trump himself instructed U.S. officials to describe him as a “crazy guy” in the context of trade talks with South Korea. It’s a well-known negotiation tactic favored by Richard Nixon, for example, and used extensively by Henry Kissinger in the 1970s to persuade the North Vietnamese to end the War in Vietnam. Although they signed the deal, the North Vietnamese waited for the last American soldier to leave their country before reneging on it and conquering the country’s south. The lesson drawn should have been that a president whose popularity is collapsing and who is facing formidable legal complications, as Nixon did in Watergate and Trump could soon face with Russiagate, cannot afford to use the Madman gambit. With Trump there’s an added complication, because it’s not completely clear whether describing him as a “crazy guy” is just a ploy or an actual description of reality.