Standing next to Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, at a news conference Wednesday, President Trump inveighed against the nuclear agreement with Iran, declaring it “one of the worst deals ever made.” On this matter, Mr. Trump has been consistent — he has called the deal “terrible,” “a disgrace,” “stupid” and “catastrophic,” and said his No. 1 priority as president would be to dismantle it.
So it was striking last week when senior administration officials told the European Union’s foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, that President Trump was committed to fully carrying out the accord. The administration officials told the press the same thing in tamping down a fiery statement about Iran from Michael T. Flynn, when he was still Mr. Trump’s national security adviser.
Maybe President Trump’s bluster masks a growing recognition within the administration that the deal is a good one for America’s security and that of our allies. It reaffirms and strengthens Iran’s commitment, under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, to never acquire a nuclear weapon. It imposes powerful constraints on Iran’s ability to quickly amass a stockpile of fissile material for a bomb. It includes an inspections regime perhaps more rigorous than any other. And it pays for all of that with Iran’s own money.
According to Adam Szubin, who until recently was the Treasury Department’s sanctions supervisor, Iran has regained access to about $50 billion in frozen funds (not $150 billion, as critics allege), far less than Iran requires for more than $500 billion in unmet economic needs — like government salaries, pensions, debts and infrastructure investment — and to support its currency.
But any apparent retreat by the administration may be temporary and tactical — not a strategic rethink. While Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson are said to counsel sticking with the deal, senior White House advisers continue to talk it down around Washington. These advisers do recognize that a frontal assault — through unilateral American withdrawal — would divide us from our European, Russian and Chinese negotiating partners, isolating the United States rather than Iran. Instead, they envisage the deal’s demise by other means.
One approach is to demand a “better deal.” President Trump’s broadsides help lay the predicate for a renegotiation. This might be focused on greater access to military sites or on the agreement’s “sunset provisions,” through which some constraints on Iran’s nuclear program will be phased out over time. Or it could center on Iran’s testing of ballistic missiles capable of carrying a nuclear warhead, which is not covered by the agreement and remains subject to sanction under a United Nations Security Council resolution — and for which Mr. Flynn put Iran “on notice.”
Given the effort that went into reaching the agreement and its complexity, it is highly unlikely the other signatories would support a renegotiation. Unless, that is, the administration offered “more for more” — for example, greater economic benefits to Iran in return for additional constraints on its nuclear program. It is equally implausible that the Trump administration would be willing to “give” Iran anything. The main purpose of demanding a renegotiation would be to generate a slow-motion breakdown while muddying the waters so that Washington could avoid blame.
Another approach is to increase pressure on Iran in non-nuclear areas, resulting in a crisis that would give hard-line opponents of the deal in Tehran cause to pull the plug — and let Washington off the hook. There is no shortage of objectionable Iranian behavior. In addition to the ballistic missile tests, the government provides lethal aid to Houthi rebels in Yemen, harasses shipping in the Persian Gulf, sustains the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, backs Hezbollah and Hamas, supports violent Shiite militias in Iraq and represses its own people.
The Obama administration was clear that the nuclear deal did not give Iran a pass for its nefarious activities. It maintained a long litany of non-nuclear domestic and international sanctions, continued to enforce them and beefed up military and intelligence cooperation with our Gulf allies. But President Obama also concluded that these same nefarious activities would be far more dangerous and difficult to confront if they were carried out under an Iranian nuclear umbrella. He was careful to calibrate additional pressure, in order to keep our international partners with us and prevent the nuclear deal from derailing.
The Trump administration could crank the pressure beyond the breaking point. For example, it could reimpose sanctions lifted by the nuclear deal under a non-nuclear rationale, which Tehran would interpret as a violation of the accord. Or it could designate the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organization — a move reported to be under active consideration.
The Revolutionary Guard Corps is the official protector of Iran’s revolution, with 100,000 troops divided into air, naval and ground divisions. It plays a large role in Iran’s economy. Its international paramilitary arm, the Quds Force, is Tehran’s main vehicle for supporting Shiite proxy forces. The Bush and Obama administrations named Iran a state sponsor of terrorism and put sanctions on individual Revolutionary Guard commanders and two dozen Iranian firms to which the guard corps is connected. But they stopped short of designating the guards corps itself a terrorist organization because the potential blowback outweighed the benefits.
A direct challenge to the Revolutionary Guards Corps would likely cause its commanders to press for Iran’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal. It would undermine the re-election prospects of the accord’s main advocate, President Hassan Rouhani, who seeks to moderate Iran’s international behavior. It could also prompt the guards corps to unleash Shiite militias against United States forces in Iraq — just when our shared, if uncoordinated, objective of defeating the Islamic State there is within reach — or to go after American ships in the Gulf or shut down the Straits of Hormuz, through which 25 percent of the world’s oil flows.
Any of these actions could escalate into a full conflict, especially in the absence of the effective crisis management channel established by John Kerry when he was secretary of state and his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif. In that event, losing the nuclear deal might be the least of our concerns.
Antony J. Blinken, a deputy secretary of state in the Obama administration, is a contributing opinion writer.