When Wayne White, one of the United States’ top foreign policy hands in a previous Republican administration, got up Friday morning, he couldn’t help wondering if the nation was headed down a dangerous path toward war.
White could just see the Iranian hardliners telling their adversaries “I told you so” as President Donald Trump chose not to certify Iran’s compliance with the nuclear deal struck by his predecessor, thus confirming their warnings that Americans couldn't be trusted. The hardliners would gain influence, and more power. They’d push to get an even more ambitious nuclear program back on track. And that would be a threat not only the United States, but also its greatest regional ally, Israel.
“It could very well mean war between the U.S. and Iran, or Israel and Iran or some combination of the two,” said White, the former senior State Department intelligence official for the Near East and South Asia under George W. Bush. “That is the nightmare scenario.”
Less than a year into the Trump administration, the world’s diplomatic community is shaking its head at Trump’s actions and wondering how long allies and adversaries will continue to trust the United States.
Trump called Iran a “fanatical regime” on Friday and suggested Tehran was working with the North Koreans on their nuclear program. But he stopped short of pulling out of the Obama-era deal with five other world powers that he has ridiculed since his presidential campaign. He instead kicked over to Congress a decision on whether to restore sanctions against Iran.
This thread-the-needle plan of decertifying, but keeping the deal in place, allows Trump to proclaim to supporters he kept his campaign promise, White said. It also relieves Trump of having to weigh in every three months, as the pact requires. But that could mean less scrutiny over whether Iran is complying, White noted.
The decision put the United States at odds with European allies who pushed the administration to renew Iran’s certification and remain in the accord. United Nations inspectors say Iran is in compliance.
Some of the top U.S. diplomats who served in the region are warning that the Trump administration is establishing a pattern of undermining the nation’s credibility by pulling out of multinational agreements.
“Just look at what’s happening,” said Ryan Crocker, the former United States Ambassador to Iraq, who served under Democratic and Republican administrations. “President Trump pulled us out of the Transpacific Partnership, is pulling us out of the Paris Agreement on climate and is threatening to go his own way” on the Iran deal, formally the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action — not to mention his plan to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement.
Crocker sees other repercussions from the collapse of the deal, including pressure on European unity without a strong and trusted U.S. hand in the mix. And that instability could lead Russia to try to expand its influence.
The White House dismissed concerns that Trump’s actions in this arena were damaging the country’s trustworthiness as a partner and charged the Obama administration with rushing into a multilateral agreement without getting the support of Congress.
“They had their opportunity to do this,” said a senior White House official. “They didn’t have the support of the American people.”
James Jeffrey, a former ambassador to Iraq and deputy national security adviser under Bush, blasted critics in the United States and Europe for what he said was not the full story. The reality, he said, is that Iran is a major security threat: By his telling, after indirectly triggering ISIS`s expansion, Iran forged an alliance that brought major Russian military forces into the region, which accelerated the war in Syria that led to half-a-million deaths and a flood of refugees to Europe.
Jeffrey said he’s angry about reports that United States is not fulling its obligation or being a good ally and asked which country is putting up the most money and resources to fight ISIS and other terrorist groups threatening Europe and the rest of the world.
“We’re not reliable,” Jeffrey said. “We’re not a good ally…A good ally is taking those guys down by the tens of thousands so that they don’t go roaring around turning Paris and Berlin into Jihadi land.” Trump has the right, he said, to try to fix a deal that many see as flawed.
But former CIA Director Leon Panetta, who served under Barack Obama, said Trump was “alienating key allies.” Panetta was already out of office when the Iran deal was struck, but called it a “huge endeavor, years in the making, a hugely complex issue” — like, he said, the Paris climate accord and other multinational agreements.
“I don’t see how this decision can be anything other than damaging for the United States in world leadership,” he said.
White said no one thought the agreement was perfect. Iran would never have agreed to all the conditions the United States wanted and vice versa, but it provided needed stability in the region.
"Even people who supported it realize it was not perfect,” White said. “That’s the way these things are. Trump is satisfying this visceral horde of Republican critics and politicians. What Trump is trying to do is put political points on the scoreboard. It has nothing to do with certifying because Iran is in compliance."
Anita Kumar contributed to this report.