Two years ago, when the Republican candidates for president were jabbering on about how Barack Obama betrayed us all by signing a deal to restrain Iran's nuclear program, Donald Trump wasn't the one taking the craziest position on the issue. That's not because he was being unusually temperate, but because his fellow candidates were almost all making the same ludicrous promise: As soon as they took office they'd tear up this horrible agreement, whereupon the Iranians would presumably come crawling back, begging to give us whatever we demanded.
Of course, the idea of tearing up the nuclear agreement, which was painstakingly negotiated between Iran, the United States, Russia, China, France, Great Britain, Germany, and the European Union, was ridiculous from the beginning. But it's especially ridiculous now that it's so clear the deal is working.
As a refresher on just what's in the deal: In exchange for a suspension of any work on nuclear weapons and a program of inspections to make sure such work wasn't going on, Iran got some relief from sanctions and the release of Iranian funds that had been frozen for years in Western banks. The deal is a success, insofar as Iran is not building nuclear weapons. That may not make headlines (since it's the absence of an event, and the news media is concerned not with things that don't happen but with those that do), but it's an enormous victory.
If we were to trash the deal, it would mean a return to the status quo ante, in which the inspectors monitoring Iran's nuclear facilities would be removed and there would be nothing to stop Iran from pursuing nuclear weapons. How that would benefit the United States, Israel, or anyone else outside of Iran is hard to fathom, but Republicans have long been united around the principle that if Barack Obama did something, it is awful by definition and must be reversed.
Which brings us to today. The problem President Trump faces is that by all appearances, Iran is complying with the agreement. That's what the International Atomic Energy Agency is likely to say when it issues its latest report, which will deprive Trump of the rationale he can offer to declare that Iran is noncompliant and withdraw from the agreement. He has already made his position clear: In July, he said, "If it was up to me, I would have had them noncompliant 180 days ago."
You see, the president has to recertify Iran's compliance every 90 days. Trump has already done so, but only grudgingly. As The New York Times reported back in July, he had to be pressured into it against his will:
At an hourlong meeting last Wednesday, all of the president’s major security advisers recommended he preserve the Iran deal for now. Among those who spoke out were Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson; Defense Secretary Jim Mattis; Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster, the national security adviser; and Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, according to an official who described internal discussions on the condition of anonymity. The official said Mr. Trump had spent 55 minutes of the meeting telling them he did not want to. [The New York Times]
This will surely happen again. All of Trump's national security team will implore him to act like a rational adult and not a petulant child, and he will resist. I'm fairly certain that to this day Trump couldn't tell you how the agreement actually works, since whenever he has talked about it in the past he either spewed falsehoods or said vague things like it's "the dumbest deal perhaps I've ever seen in the history of deal-making." My favorite moment related to this topic came in March 2016, when Trump was speaking before AIPAC and told them, "I've studied this issue in great detail — I would say actually greater by far than anybody else," whereupon the audience burst into laughter.
So what happens now? Either Trump's relatively sane national security advisers will once again convince him to recertify Iran's compliance by presenting a united front that he feels he cannot overcome, or he'll rebel against them and refuse to do so. It's a little unclear what would happen then (assuming the other five countries and the EU still want to uphold the deal even if America is out), but the agreement could certainly be on its way to collapse. Or, as is perhaps most likely, Trump relents to his team and then acts out like an angry toddler, taking to Twitter to tell everyone that Iran is evil and his babysitters are a bunch of jerks.
In any case, it's almost certainly true that Trump will never fully accept the deal no matter what Iran does, and that he'll continue to hope for the day he can pull out of it. So it's absolutely vital that we find out from the Trump administration, and the president himself if he'll answer the question, what he thinks will happen if he pulls out of the deal and it were to collapse. Does he actually think he can start negotiations all over again, and that Iran will agree, and that so will those five other countries and the EU? Does he believe Iran will just not bother pursuing nuclear weapons if the deal is torched? Does he think that with the negotiating skills that have served him so spectacularly in the last seven months that he can convince them to accept some new agreement?
It's clear that President Trump's idea of a "good deal" is not one that's mutually beneficial but one in which you take the other side to the cleaners, then walk away and look for your next mark. The Iran nuclear deal is not that. Iran got something it wanted (sanctions relief) and we got something we wanted (a halt to their nuclear weapons program). It may not be perfect, but it has worked so far. And there's no reason to think it can't continue to work — unless Trump manages to screw it up. He's certainly going to try.