Expert Commentary

On Iran Deal, Trump Distances Himself from Obama

General Michael Hayden
Former Director, CIA and NSA

On Friday, U.S. President Donald Trump announced he would not re-certify Iran’s compliance with the nuclear deal signed in 2015, calling it “one of the worst and most one-sided transactions the United States has ever entered into.”

Trump also announced the U.S. will be designating Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)  for supporting terrorist groups, as well as instructing the intelligence community to verify if Iran is assisting North Korea’s nuclear program.

The Cipher Brief’s Kaitlin Lavinder spoke with General Michael Hayden, former director of the CIA and NSA and a Cipher Brief expert, to get his thoughts on the decision’s impact on the future of the Iran nuclear deal, and what signals it sends to U.S. allies, as well as its adversaries, like Syria and North Korea.

The Cipher Brief: What impact does Trump’s announcement of decertification have on the JCPOA’s future and effectiveness?

General Michael Hayden: Let me come at it in a little bit different way. The answer to your question is: not a great deal immediately, but it does create the potential to destabilize the agreement – for good or for ill. I think that’s what the intent was here today.

TCB: Can you expand upon that – what do you mean “for good or for ill”?

Hayden: Here’s what I think happened. I think the President really wants to disassociate himself from a whole bunch of Obama-era things. And that’s why we get the repeal of Obamacare, the ripping up of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement, and now he gets to decertify the Iranian deal. Those are the three or four achievements that the Obama team points to from its eight years in office.

I think a lot of folks in government – in Defense, in State, maybe even in the intelligence agencies – weren’t fans of walking away from the Iranian deal. And so, knowing that the President wanted to make a tough speech about this that clearly painted him as being different from his predecessor, they spent the last couple of months devising a way that he could make a tough speech, but essentially leave the deal intact. And I think that’s what we got today.

TCB: So, if the deal is essentially left intact, do you think this is going to have any concrete impact?

Hayden: It’s left intact for the moment. He tossed it to Congress, and Congress, frankly, is not going to act immediately to re-impose sanctions. I don’t know that Congress has the votes over the long term to re-impose sanctions. But it was a little concerning that the President said if the Congress doesn’t act, he will take unilateral steps in the future.

Look, here’s the issue. You’ve got the Iranian nuclear deal – of which I wasn’t really a fan, and I’ve criticized it in the Cipher Brief – but it is in place. It’s put a stopper into Iranian nuclear development.

But, at the same time, we’re really upset about all the other things the Iranians are doing, and the Obama Administration didn’t push back hard enough on those things. Why? Because, frankly, I think they feared the Iranians were holding the nuclear deal hostage.

So what President Trump did today was to disassociate ourselves from that hostage. In that sense, he’s saying, “If you want to break the deal, go ahead and break the deal. The deal’s not that important to me.” That has the effect of freeing the U.S. up to go after all the other things the Iranians are doing, which it finds offensive too. So that’s good.

But we could set in motion some processes where the Congress, the Europeans, or the Iranians actually break the deal. And I don’t think breaking the deal is in American interests.

TCB: Do you think that this refusal to certify is going to have a psychological impact on other signatories to the deal and, thus, change their thinking?

Hayden: Look, the Russians and the Chinese, they are where they are, and we’re not going to affect their thinking.

Who we’re really worried about are the Europeans. I think the European position will be yes, we are equally concerned with all these other aspects of Iranian activity and look forward to joining with the Americans to search for ways in which we can push back against the Iranians, but we remain committed to the nuclear deal.

TCB: What signal does this send to other countries, like North Korea?

Hayden: I’ve actually raised that a couple of times. Sooner or later, you’re going to have to sit down and talk to the North Koreans about this. We’re not going to woosh the situation in North Korea away. This is going to end up with negotiations, and what we’re demonstrating to the North Koreans right now is that we don’t view nuclear deals as binding. I think that will get in the way of negotiating a deal with them.

TCB: Do you think the U.S. is going to face any backlash over this in Syria?

Hayden: One fear I have is that you’ve got two pretty large militaries now in Iraq and Syria – one of them under American control, the other under Iranian control. And we’ve been trying to stay pretty much out of each other’s way, both of us fighting ISIS. But we certainly don’t like or trust one another. And so, my fear is not decertifying the Iranians from the deal, but rather, the listing of the IRGC as a terrorist organization might actually prompt the Iranians to respond.

Iran certainly has the tools to put Americans at risk in Iraq and Syria. I certainly hope the Administration thought this through when it comes to force protection.

The Author is General Michael Hayden

General Hayden is a retired four-star General in the United States Air Force; he was the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency from 2006-2009 and the Director of the National Security Agency from 1999-2005.

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