Obama's habit of circumventing the constitutional process has allowed President Trump to dismantle his legacy yet again. The story behind how the "Iran Deal" came to be and why it's gone now.
Like him or hate him, it appears that President Donald J. Trump has kept another campaign promise.
Here’s the story.
In 2015 President Obama signed the Iranian nuclear accord, known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and more commonly known as the Iran Deal. The other parties to this agreement were France, Germany, the European Union, the United Kingdom, China, Russia and Iran.
By the understood terms of this agreement, Iran would redesign, convert, and reduce its nuclear facilities which would lead to the lifting of sanctions and a freeing up tens of billions of dollars in oil revenue and frozen assets.
The Iran deal was the culmination of years of work with the stated goal, at least initially, of keeping Iran from developing nuclear weapons.
Let’s unpack this.
• Candidate Barack Obama said in 2008: “As president I will do everything in my power to stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons…. everything in my power. Everything in my power.”
• President-elect Barack Obama at his first press conference after winning the 2008 election: “Iran’s development of a nuclear weapon, I believe, is unacceptable and we have to mount an international effort to prevent that from happening.”
• Senator Chuck Schumer in 2010: “Diplomacy has failed, Iran is on the verge of becoming nuclear and we cannot afford that.”
• The International Atomic Energy Agency in 2011 and many other sources indicate that Iran is close to a nuclear weapon.
• Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2012: “We are determined to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.”
Despite all this, by 2015 it was obvious that the Obama administration was likely to negotiate an agreement with Iran. It became one the of the President’s key objectives. One adviser called it the “Obamacare of the second term.”
The agreement was signed on July 14, 2015.
But the idea of an agreement with Iran had become very controversial in the United States. Democratic Senators Chuck Schumer and Robert Menendez opposed it. The GOP united against it.
Skeptics of the Deal raised concerns:
• Inspections. In the run-up to this agreement, Americans were led to believe that we would have “anytime, anywhere” inspections. That came not to appear to be the case. Ali Akbar Velayati, a top adviser to Iran’s Supreme Leader, announced that “entry into our military sites is absolutely forbidden.” Senator Schumer whose opposition to the Deal was hardening noted that and said: “(I) inspections are not ‘anywhere, anytime’; the 24-day delay before we can inspect is troubling.”
• Duration. This was the most crucial. Did the agreement rule out Iran’s acquisition of nuclear bombs or did it merely defer it a decade or so?
Surprisingly, this was not an easy question to answer.
Here is what the preface and the preamble and general provisions of the agreement states: “Iran reaffirms that under no circumstances will Iran ever seek, develop, or acquire any nuclear weapons.”
But Mr. Obama said in 2015 that he should be judged “on one thing”: “Does this deal prevent Iran from breaking out with a nuclear weapon for the next 10 years, and is that a better outcome for America, Israel, and our Arab allies than any other alternative on the table?”
One has to ask: Why did the President talk about “the next 10 years” if the deal itself explicitly prohibited Iran from “ever” pursuing nuclear weapons? Mr. Obama’s own statements led the “New York Times” which strongly supported the Deal to editorialize that some could reasonably see it as a “medium-term management of the Iranian program, not its elimination.”
• Missiles. The Deal also ended sanctions on Iran’s ability to obtain conventional weapons including ballistic missiles. This was disconcerting. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Martin Dempsey warned Congress that “under no circumstances should we relieve pressure on Iran relative to ballistic missile capabilities and arms trafficking.”
After the negotiations of the JCPOA, Mr. Obama moved to the question of Congressional approval.
The Constitution provides that the president “shall have Power, by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, to make Treaties, provided two-thirds of the Senators present concur” (Article II, section 2) and the President knew two things:
• That if he called the Iran Deal a “treaty” he would have to submit it to the Senate for approval or rejection
• That the Senate would most like reject the treaty as negotiated because it could not get the two-thirds vote.
Accordingly, the President chose to label the Iran Deal as an executive agreement.
Under legislation passed early in 2015, the Senate and the House – both controlled by the GOP – scheduled votes on the executive agreement.
The House passed a bill opposing the JCPOA and that bill went to the Senate where it had a majority support. The common expectation was that the bill would then land on Mr. Obama’s desk, that he would veto it, that those who opposed the Iran Deal would fail to get the votes for an override and that this political dance would leave the Deal in place.
However, that did not happen. The Democrats in the Senate filibustered, preventing a vote and those opposing the Deal could not get the sixty votes required to break the filibuster. The closest they got in three tries was fifty-eight. Senator Schumer voted with the GOP on the filibuster vote, which was substantively an anti-Iran-Deal vote.
In the end, no bill opposing the Deal passed and Mr. Obama did not have to use the veto. In other words, the Iran Deal survived despite the opposition of 58 senators and the majority of the House of Representatives.
That is where matters stood as 2016 began and there was the further expectation that a President Hillary Clinton would veto any future anti-Deal votes
Than came the presidential campaign. Donald J. Trump spoke out against the Iran deal with his trademark rhetoric, calling it “the stupidest deal of all time.” He said that he would get us out of it.
During this period, Iranian actions contributed to the skepticism about the Deal. In January 2016 ten American sailors were detained by Iran overnight for wandering into Iranian-claimed waters. The mullah’s adventurous foreign policy throughout the Middle East continued. Iran fought and still fights proxy wars in Syria and in Yemen. Its militias continue to harass American allies in Iraq. It built up a military infrastructure on the Syrian border with Israel.
When he took office, Mr. Trump was required by a 2015 law to assess the Deal – whether the relief from sanctions that the Iranians got was “appropriate and proportionate” to Iranian conduct.
In October of 2017 Mr. Trump determined that the answer to that was no. But he kept the Deal in place for the time being, set a deadline and said that he would try to improve the Deal.
He sent emissaries to work with British, French and Germans to develop proposals to Iran to try to modify the Deal. The diplomats focused on the areas of ballistic missiles and inspections. No progress was made. The “New York Times” characterized the European efforts in this diplomacy as trying to convince Mr. Trump that they had “changed the deal without actually changing it.”
The deadline came last month and Mr. Trump, deciding that the Deal couldn’t be repaired, pulled us out of it.
Mr. Obama called the move “a serious mistake.”
Sounding like an if-he’s-for-it-I’m-against-it Trump critic, Senator Schumer seemed to forget his one-time opposition to the Deal and spoke of “President Trump’s reckless decision to pull out of the Iran deal.”
Our European allies have expressed dismay.
Egypt, Israel and Saudi Arabia on the other hand have lined up with Mr. Trump.
Immediately after Mr. Trump’s action, Iran attacked Israel with missiles from Syria. The Jewish state responded with missile attacks of its own, wiping out Iranian positions.
Was President Donald Trump’s decision to leave the JCPOA a mistake?
We don’t know because statecraft is a complicated business. For example, if now war breaks out between an angry Iran and American ally Israel, Saudi Arabia, other Sunni Arab states and probably Egypt will be rooting for Israel to defeat Islamic Iran. Is that bad or good? We think the latter because it might start to end Israel’s isolation – but of course we don’t know how all that could escalate.
In closing, we put forth two points. First, given the serious questions about the Deal and the way in which it came to be American policy, Mr. Obama and others are presently in a weak position to question the reversal. Major policies like this one should pass muster in the United States Senate.
Second, Mr. Trump has followed through on a promise he made as a candidate.
In a politically cynical time in America, that in itself has civic benefits.