Thinking through the consequences: Donald Trump, Iran and the trust gap

President Donald Trump, stuck with his own rhetoric about the Iran nuclear deal, needs a face-saving gesture to show his campaign contempt for it wasn't based on ignorance or disingenuousness.

Today's move doesn't rip up the Iran nuclear deal, but how will Congress and U.S. allies react?

U.S. President Donald Trump's approach to the Obama administration's Iran nuclear deal has been that Iran's behavior has violated the spirit of the regional stability it was intended to encourage. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Throughout the 2016 election campaign there was one issue above all that pulled back the curtain on Donald Trump's fundamental ignorance of diplomacy and U.S. foreign policy: the Iran nuclear deal.

Even allowing for the usual hyperbole we associate with political campaigns, Trump's take on the complex multinational deal seemed crude and somehow frighteningly silly.

Here's a synopsis of it from a July 2016 lecture he gave at Pat Robertson's Regent University in Virginia. (You can watch it here.)

First, he conflated the nuclear deal with a bilateral prisoner swap that was actually tangential to the multinational negotiation. He talked about the U.S. paying $150 billion for the safe return of a handful of Americans held captive in Iran, a sum that made no sense.

Then, hoping to prove how stupid Barack Obama's negotiators were, he described how he would have made a better deal. He said he would have insisted on proof the captives had been delivered safely and, once he'd seen that, he'd have simply refused to hand over the $150 billion to the Iranians as agreed.

He'd plead poverty, he said, to lie his way out of the deal.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, left, said Sept. 20, 2017 it would be a 'great pity' if the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and world powers including the U.S. 'were to be destroyed by rogue newcomers.' He was referring to U.S. President Donald Trump, right. (Associated Press; Yuri Gripas/Reuters)

"I'm dying to give it to you, but I can't, we don't have any money!" he imagined himself telling his Iranian marks. His audience, suckered into believing they were in on the joke, chuckled at the presumed canniness of the self-described great deal-maker.

In other versions of the same routine, Trump said he'd apply even stronger sanctions against Iran after they'd lived up to their end of the deal — diplomatic duplicity on a grand scale and in front of the world.

It's hard to believe he would publicly admit to even imagining such a grift, but the world wasn't taking him seriously then, and of course every bit of it was pure fantasy anyway, so no one cared.

But by now, most of us — possibly even Trump — understand:

a) that the Iran deal isn't a bilateral deal between Iran and the U.S. but includes Europe, China, Russia and others, and

b) that the $150 billion wasn't cash paid out of the U.S. treasury to Iran. It was the value of Iran's own assets that had been frozen in banks around the world when sanctions were imposed.

Trump, now stuck with his own rhetoric about the Iran deal ("worst deal ever"), needs a face-saving gesture to show his contempt for it wasn't based on ignorance or disingenuousness.

So he is refusing to certify that Iran is in compliance with its obligations under the nuclear deal, saying in fact that it is not, even though Iran's compliance has been confirmed by all the other parties to the agreement, plus the International Atomic Energy Agency, and even by Trump's own national security team.

This doesn't amount to ripping up the agreement, but it's a step in that direction, particularly as Trump also said there will be new sanctions applied to Iran.

Congress will have 60 days to decide whether it wants to reimpose sanctions on Iran. If it does go that route, that would be a clear violation of the agreement, and the burden of sanctions would fall most heavily not just on Iran but on U.S. allies that do business with Iran.

In this Dec. 29, 2016 photo, released by the semi-official Iranian Students News Agency, a long-range missile is fired in a military drill in the port city of Bushehr, on the northern coast of Iran. Iran has test-fired various ballistic missiles since the July 2015 nuclear deal. (Amir Kholousi/ISNA via AP)

It's likely that Iran and the other partners to the agreement would try to hold the deal together without the U.S., but that could become increasingly difficult as new sanctions took hold.

For Iran that would act as a disincentive to honour its end of the bargain and to continue to forsake its nuclear program.

Iran was judged to be less than a year from having a nuclear capability when the agreement was struck in 2015. That's why there was such urgency to the search for a diplomatic solution — the alternatives to negotiation were few and included just letting Iran go nuclear or launching a preventive military strike against it and risking yet another Middle East war.

Those options might quickly be back on the table, but this time under the consideration of the Trump administration, which would also be trying to manage North Korea's march to nuclear power status.

In the case of both Iran and North Korea, U.S. diplomatic options will have been narrowed by the new reality that it cannot be trusted to honour its word.

These might turn out to be exactly the reasons Congress decides not to accept Trump's gambit and begin reimposing sanctions on Iran — a decision Trump might try to blame on Congress but that would certainly reflect on his own judgment.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani addresses the 72nd United Nations General Assembly at UN headquarters in New York on Sept. 20. (Eduardo Munoz/Reuters)

But there was more about Trump being revealed today.

His strategy is meant to be seen as comprehensive, and so it has other elements to it.

For instance Trump talked a tough line on the brutal Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the IRGC. His administration is apparently designating them a terrorist organization, for which the IRGC has already warned it would target U.S. soldiers on the ground wherever they see them.

In that menacing context, Trump spoke of working with international partners to constrain "this dangerous organization."

It's smart to look at the Iran problem beyond just the nuclear threat, but it seems inconsistent to speak of working with international partners when you've just betrayed them in the nuclear deal with Iran.

In fact, it seems inconsistent with Trump's entire political posture.

Early signs long ago

Whether with Iran on nukes, the world on climate, his partners in NAFTA or the American people and their health care, Trump has been a deal-breaker not a deal-maker. And so far, he seems unaware that breaking deals and appearing unreliable has wider consequences.

There were signs of this long ago.

A clear warning of Trump's untrustworthiness as a partner likely slipped past the world during the hubbub of the Republican national convention last year. It was about that time when Trump had to settle a relatively minor lawsuit in Florida that arose from him breaking a contract with a mom-and-pop paint shop, of all things — The Paint Spot.

Trump, had stiffed The Paint Spot to the tune of about $34,000, apparently for no other reason than he felt, as his lawyers said, that he'd "paid enough." The judge disagreed and ordered Trump to pay The Paint Spot what he owed it plus legal costs — a total of $282,949.91 — a sum not far short of 10 times what Trump originally owed.

It was as though Trump had broken the deal without really thinking through all the consequences.


Keith Boag

American Politics Contributor

Keith Boag writes about American politics and issues that shape the American experience. Keith was based for several years in Los Angeles and now, in retirement after a long career with CBC News, continues to live in Washington, D.C. Earlier, Keith reported from Ottawa, where he served as chief political correspondent for CBC News.