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An elegant but unconvincing attack on the Iran nuclear deal

An elegant but unconvincing attack on the Iran nuclear deal
United States Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley at UN Headquarters in New York on August 29. (Kena Betancur/AFP/Getty Images)

During last year’s presidential campaign, Donald Trump heaped abuse on the international agreement negotiated in 2015 that placed strict limits on Iran’s nuclear program, calling it “the worst deal ever negotiated” and intimating that he might tear it up if he were elected.

After he won, he calmed down briefly, and even twice certified to Congress that Iran's conduct justifies continuation of the agreement. But now, he has signaled that he might refuse to do so in mid-October at the end of the next 90-day period provided for by law.

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Trump's long-standing argument against the deal is that Iran is "not living up to the spirit of the agreement." But his argument for repudiating the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action is entirely unconvincing. He hasn't defined "spirit" in any meaningful sense, or made much of a case for his vague assertion.

The weakness of Trump’s critique offered hope that the president’s more rational foreign-policy advisors might again coax him back from the precipice. But that hope diminished last week when Ambassador Nikki Haley, the U.S. representative at the United Nations, offered a seemingly more nuanced and reasonable-sounding — but ultimately unconvincing — argument for abandoning the agreement.

It would be folly to treat [past] behavior by Iran as a reason to repudiate the nuclear agreement.


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In a speech at the American Enterprise Institute, Haley alleged that Iran had violated the letter of the agreement, pointing to the fact that it twice exceeded limits in the agreement on the amount of a form of water used in nuclear reactors, a minor violation that was corrected. But most of her critique was a more sophisticated version of Trump's catchphrase about Iran's violation of the "spirit" of the agreement.

"Judging any international agreement begins and ends with the nature of the government that signed it," Haley said. "Does it respect international law? Can it be trusted to abide by its commitments? Is the agreement strong enough to withstand the regime's attempts to cheat? Given these answers, is the agreement in the national interests of the United States?"

She answered those questions by asserting that "the Islamic Republic of Iran was born in an act of international lawbreaking," the taking of hostages at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979. The lawlessness has continued, she said, with actions by Iran that threaten its neighbors and by Iran's defiance of a U.N. resolution, approved at the time of the nuclear agreement, that calls on Iran not to "undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons."

But those arguments miss the point. The U.N. resolution on ballistic missiles, for instance, isn't even discussed in the nuclear agreement. Furthermore, the resolution is not legally binding, and besides, Congress already has approved sanctions to punish Iran for its ballistic missile program. It would be folly to treat that behavior by Iran as a reason to repudiate the nuclear agreement, which benefits the U.S. and its allies and restrains Iran. Doing so would harm the U.S. and divide it from its allies.

Perhaps recognizing the weakness of the case for Iranian violations, Haley emphasized in her speech that the presidential certification required by Congress involves more than whether Iran is complying with the deal. The president, she noted, also must certify that suspension of U.S. sanctions under the agreement is "vital to the national security interests of the United States." In making that determination, Haley said, Trump could consider Iran's "repeated, demonstrated hostility toward the United States."

If Trump did refuse to issue a certification, Haley noted, it would be up to Congress to decide whether to reimpose sanctions suspended as part of the deal. In the ensuing debate, she said, Congress could discuss "Iran's support for terrorism, its past nuclear activity, and its massive human rights violations."

But again, the question at hand is not whether the Iranian government is generally hostile to the United States or whether it funnels money to terrorists or provides its citizens with human rights. Those are all important questions that need to be addressed — and in many cases are being addressed — but they are simply not germane to the question of whether the nuclear deal is a net positive for the world and should be allowed to continue.

When this editorial page endorsed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, we expressed the hope that the U.S. would maintain sanctions aimed at Iran's destabilizing activities and its support for terrorism. We also lamented the fact that the sanctions relief promised under the deal might subsidize Iran's sponsorship of militant groups like Hezbollah and Hamas.

But we concluded that the benefits of the agreement in restraining Iran's nuclear program made it worthwhile. So long as Iran complies with the letter of the agreement, that is still our view. It should also be the president's.

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