When it comes to the Iranian nuclear deal, the Trump administration is a carnival of contradiction. Its attitude brings to mind the story of the inmates who complained that the prison food was terrible and they weren't allowed seconds.
In his tirade at the United Nations, the president said the accord is "one of the worst and most one-sided transactions the United States has ever entered into." During the campaign, he promised to dismantle it. But eight months after he took office, his administration is still abiding by it.
U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley insists that Trump "has grounds" to assert that Iran is not complying. But Trump has twice certified that the Tehran regime has upheld its end of the bargain. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson acknowledged Wednesday that Iran is in "technical compliance" -- which is true in the same sense that Tillerson is technically secretary of state.
He had the chance to lay out any violations during a meeting Thursday with his counterparts from the other signatory governments. But European Union foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini, who chaired the meeting, said "all agreed" that Iran is complying -- including, she stipulated, the United States.
Tillerson, however, is not satisfied just because Iran has done what it agreed to do. He resents that some of the provisions that restrict Iran have expiration dates. But you would think the best thing about a bad agreement is that it doesn't run forever. You would want the terms to be permanent only if you think it's desirable.
The accord is highly desirable because it deprives Iran of the means to build a nuclear weapon for a long time. It forced Iran to shut down most of its centrifuges, surrender 97 percent of its fissile material, convert two reactors to peaceful uses and accept stringent international inspections. In exchange, Iran got the removal of some economic sanctions and access to $100 billion in assets that had been frozen abroad.
The disadvantage of preserving the deal is that it lets Iran expand the number of operating centrifuges after ten years and the stockpile of enriched uranium after 15 years. The disadvantage of renouncing the deal is that it would let Iran do those things immediately.
Giving up the restrictions because they won't be in place after 2030 is like abandoning your car on the side of the road today because it will eventually stop running. It would make more sense to negotiate to extend the deal.
Backing out of the agreement would be even worse than not reaching it in the first place. That's because Iran has already gotten a large share of what it sought -- notably, the $100 billion it was able to reclaim. If Trump were to shred the agreement, Iran would get to keep the money without having to keep its promises. I don't think that decision would merit a chapter in the next edition of "The Art of the Deal."
At the U.N., Trump denounced Iran as an unrepentant "rogue state" that funds terrorism and uses its resources "to shore up Bashar al-Assad's dictatorship, fuel Yemen's civil war and undermine peace throughout the entire Middle East."
Well, yes -- and freeing Tehran from the constraints of the deal would help how? If there's anything worse than a regime full of bad dudes, it's a regime full of bad dudes that has an atomic arsenal.
"You don't make nuclear deals with Sweden," Ben Rhodes, who was deputy national security adviser under Barack Obama, told NPR. "There are other ways of getting at other elements of Iranian behavior, but all of those elements would be worse if they had a nuclear weapon." Maybe the administration could negotiate with the Iranians to curtail their other sinister activities, but not if it discards the product of past negotiations.
If Trump were to renounce the accord, he would be violating an agreement that the international inspectors say Iran has fulfilled. He would be proving to Iran and the other parties to the deal -- Germany, Britain, France, the European Union, Russia, and China -- that Washington's word is no good. As for pursuing a better deal, why would Iran ever sign another agreement with us?
If Trump decides to torch the deal, we will most likely face the choice of watching as Tehran resumes progress toward acquiring nukes or launching another Mideast war in the hope of halting it. The Iranian deal looks bad only if you forget the alternatives.