Paul R. Pillar
Iran Nuclear Proliferation,
Donald Trump’s speech on Iran is the latest chapter in his struggle to reconcile his overriding impulse to denigrate and destroy any significant achievements of his predecessor with the fact that the most salient of those achievements in foreign policy—the Iran nuclear agreement or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)—is working. It is fulfilling its objective of keeping closed all paths to an Iranian nuclear weapon. As international inspectors have repeatedly determined, Iran is fulfilling its obligations under the agreement.
The struggle for Trump is more difficult on Iran policy than with the Affordable Care Act, where Trump has been using his own executive actions to destroy directly what he has denigrated. However painful his actions on health care are to American citizens who are adversely affected, there is no international multilateral agreement that direct destruction violates. With health care there are no equivalents to the adults, in the person of senior national security officials in his administration, who have been telling him what a bad idea abrogation of the JCPOA would be.
With those adults uncomfortably restraining him, Trump is turning to Congress to square the circle between impulse and reality, to do what the adults are advising him not to do, and to come up with an Iran strategy that is markedly different from what previous administrations have done. Neither the brief boilerplate in the speech about countering Iran’s “destabilizing activity” and conventional weapons development nor the paper labeled as a “new strategy on Iran” that the White House released shortly before the speech provide such a strategy. Most of the paper could have been written in either of the previous two administrations and probably in any of the previous half dozen.