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Why Trump is right and the experts are still wrong about the Iran deal

President Donald Trump
Nicholas Kamm | AFP | Getty Images
President Donald Trump

The experts all agree. They are very nervous about the Trump administration's continued dithering about whether it will again certify Iran's compliance in the nuclear deal. As the New York Times helpfully pointed out in an article about a joint letter signed by what we are told is a list of 80 of the world's leading authorities on nuclear nonproliferation, the experts believe that Trump's inclination to ditch the deal (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA) has nothing to do with "the merits" of the question.

Much of his national-security team reportedly seeks to persuade Trump to keep the deal, despite his publicly expressed belief that it is a mistake. But the letter from the experts should make him doubly suspicious of their arguments.

Among the many factors that led to Trump's unexpected victory last November was a deep and abiding skepticism among many voters about the wisdom of experts. To his supporters, Trump, the ultimate non-expert on most policy issues, had the savvy to do the right thing even on topics to which neither he nor they had ever previously given much serious thought. While that cynicism is not always wise, the groupthink in the foreign-policy establishment and among nonproliferation professionals is proof that Trump's instincts are not always wrong.

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Like the International Atomic Energy Agency and the other five nations that signed the JCPOA, the 80 experts say that Iran has been complying with its terms. They worry that ditching the deal because of "unsupported contentions of Iranian cheating" would cancel out the deal's main achievement, which is "reducing the risk" of Tehran's getting a bomb. They insist that whatever complaints the U.S. might have about Iranian behavior since the deal went into effect are irrelevant because the whole point of the negotiation was to focus solely on the nuclear-proliferation issue and nothing else. They predict that a Trump decision to blow up the deal will only lead to Iran's resuming nuclear activity and will make it impossible for the international community to do anything about it.

Trump should ignore their arguments and those inside the administration who are echoing them. It's wise to have some skepticism about experts' opinions; their consensus can have little to do with achieving the goals they're tasked with accomplishing. But the problem is not only that the deal was a bad one. It's also that plenty of experts place more value on diplomacy per se — getting a piece of paper signed and then defending its value — than on the conviction that diplomacy will stop Iran from getting a bomb.

The agencies that monitor the deal all agree that Iran has kept to its terms. But their certification of Iran's compliance vindicates Obama' critics, who warned that once in the deal was in place, the signatories' desire to preserve it would lead them to ignore a host of small violations. Over the past three years, the IAEA and Washington have routinely ignored reports about a variety of problems, including obstruction of inspections, illegal attempts to purchase nuclear and missile technology, and exceeding the limits on uranium enrichment and production of heavy water.

Viewed in isolation, each violation is insufficient to justify threatening Iran with new sanctions or an end to the deal. So the signatories ignore or rationalize the infractions. In the negotiations that led to the deal, Obama and the secretary of state jettisoned their demand that Iran end its nuclear program and stop advanced nuclear research, and that it concede it had no right to enrich uranium, They always saw getting an agreement on any terms as more important than the details. The same applies to keeping it in place despite multiple violations.

That's why the arms-control community wound up endorsing a deal that did not put an end to the Iranian threat; at best, it kicked the can down the road for a few years on proliferation.

But the point of isolating the Islamist republic via sanctions wasn't to "reduce the risk" of a nuclear Iran; it was to end the risk altogether. Even if Iran is complying with the terms of the JCPOA, it allows them to go on working toward a bomb. Moreover, the JCPOA expires within a decade, so the deal can't be said to be doing much to make the world safer.

The 80 experts assert in their letter that the JCPOA's main achievement is to make it "very likely" that future Iranian efforts to produce a bomb would be "detected promptly." That is setting a very low bar. Leaving aside the sketchy nature of the intelligence that the West has about Iran's nuclear program, and that the inspections mandated by the deal don't include military facilities, there is little reason to have confidence that monitoring is working. And prompt detection of a nuclear "breakout" won't mean much if it doesn't give an international community that is already predisposed to complacency the time to act. In order to be a true success, the JCPOA would have to prevent a breakout — not be in position to sound the alarm after it's too late to do anything about it.

But just as important is something that Trump has repeatedly pointed out, only to be told that he doesn't "get it."

Obama believed that the deal would be an object lesson in the wisdom of multilateralism and diplomacy and that it would give Iran an opportunity to "get right with the world." But what has happened since his signature foreign-policy achievement has conclusively demonstrated that Obama's hopes were pipe dreams.

Buoyed by the end of sanctions and the release of frozen assets, Iran has doubled down on a foreign policy whose goal is regional hegemony. Iran remains the leading state sponsor of international terrorism. What's worse, Obama's desire for a nuclear deal, at almost any cost, made the U.S. ignore Iranian threats. That's why the U.S. tacitly allowed Iran to intervene in Syria while also consolidating its influence in Shia-dominated Iraq. That has led to the creation of what, for all intents and purposes, is an Iranian land bridge that extends from Tehran all the way to Lebanon, which is dominated by the mullahs' Hezbollah auxiliaries.

The JCPOA treated nonproliferation as the prime objective of Iran policy, and it made only weak attempts to reach this goal. The consequences are far-reaching. Iran is still on a path to a bomb — made more certain by the fact that its nuclear program now has the West's seal of approval. And it's also strengthened by the economic carrots that came when the stick of sanctions was removed. Iran's renewal of its alliance with Hamas — which had been broken off over a disagreement about the Syrian civil war — will enrich another terror group while also giving Tehran the ability to start a three-front war on Israel at a time of its own choosing.

Trump wants good relations with Moscow and is prioritizing the war on ISIS; that has led him to mimic Obama's policy and acquiesce to the permanence of Russian and Iranian forces in Syria that won the civil war for the Assad regime. At this point, there may be no walking back that blunder. But if there is to be any hope of preventing Iran from becoming a regional hegemon, Trump will have to roll back the nuclear deal.

In this case, the experts are not only wrong on the facts, but they are also looking at the situation through the wrong end of the telescope. For all of his faults, Trump's instinctive desire to end the nuclear deal is more reality-based than the arguments of his critics. He should stop listening to them and begin the process of decertifying the nuclear agreement.

Commentary by Jonathan S. Tobin , opinion editor at National Review. Follow him on Twitter @jonathans_tobin.

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©2017 National Review. Used with permission.