Could Trump Stumble Into An Iran War?

Buckle up, America. Donald Trump is President of the United States, and nobody knows precisely what he will do with his newfound power and what the ramifications of his decisions will be.
01/20/2017 03:19 pm ET Updated Jan 21, 2018

Buckle up, America. Donald Trump is President of the United States, and nobody knows precisely what he will do with his newfound power and what the ramifications of his decisions will be. According to the new White House webpage, the Trump administration will "embrace diplomacy...not go abroad in search of enemies" and be happy when "old enemies become friends." These are worthy goals, yet the risks that Trump stumbles into another costly war are high, including with Iran.

Fortunately, President Trump begins his tenure as commander-in-chief without facing immediate war and peace decisions with respect to Iran's nuclear program. This is thanks to the Obama administration's painstaking work to negotiate a comprehensive agreement with international partners to roll back Iran's nuclear program and subject it to intrusive monitoring. Iran continues to implement its nuclear obligations under the accord, which makes the primary question whether the Trump administration or the new Congress will precipitate an immediate crisis by killing the deal unilaterally or backing measures that would put at risk the security gains provided by the accord.

Trump could stay true to his anti-interventionist rhetoric from the campaign and simply police the accord. Several individuals who appear to have the President's ear on national security matters - including incoming Defense Secretary James Mattis and Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Bob Corker - have warned against withdrawing from the nuclear accord, which is positive. They appear to recognize that killing the deal outright would risk freeing Iran's nuclear program from international constraints and monitoring, distance us from our allies and leave few options short of warfare to resolve concerns of an Iranian nuclear weapon.

Of course, Trump's anti-interventionist rhetoric on the campaign trail did not extend to support for the nuclear accord with Iran. He railed against it as a bad deal, including at a Tea Party rally outside the U.S. Capitol during the Congressional review period for the nuclear accord in September 2015. While Trump at times indicated that he would not scrap it, but rather renegotiate it (a premise not supported by the other negotiating parties), his animus toward Iran has also extended outside the nuclear sphere. His promises to sink Iranian ships that frequently harry U.S. naval vessels in the Persian Gulf would risk sparking a war with Iran even without revisiting the nuclear accord.

Further, those who might be counted as constrainers in Trump's cabinet and the broader Republican national security establishment are far outnumbered by Iran hawks, including many who lack depth of understanding about what the nuclear accord actually does. Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AK), the author of a letter to Iran's leaders in 2015 warning them that the next President could overturn any agreement with President Obama, believes Trump will do just that. "I believe the Iran deal is dead," said Cotton, given that Trump "is going to be much more forceful on the terms of the nuclear deal itself, and that itself may cause the Ayatollahs to walk away, but I also know that he intends to confront...Iranian regional aggression, and their imperial project around the Middle East." Hyperbole about Iran's "imperial project" and designs aside, there is sufficient reason to believe that Trump will pursue just such a course. As Cotton notes, he has filled his national security team with men eager to confront Iran.

If the accord is killed, as Cotton predicts, Iran's nuclear program will be unshackled, international monitoring of Iranian nuclear facilities will be greatly diminished, and sanctions pressure on Iran will almost certainly deteriorate. While Trump might make vows of a better deal, the trust needed to sustain negotiations would be gutted. No Iranian leader would sit down for further nuclear negotiations with the Trump administration, let alone sign off on a deal more favorable to the United States. That would leave the businessman and former reality TV star with some very difficult decisions. Would he accept Iran moving forward with its nuclear program, potentially advancing toward an undetectable capability to obtain a nuclear weapon? Or would he pursue a dicey military option that might set back Iran's nuclear capabilities, but ultimately radicalize Iran and do nothing to prevent Iran from reconstituting its nuclear program further down the road? Despite vows not to go in search of enemies abroad, Trump could end up repeating the mistakes of the Iraq war with Iran.

This makes it more important than ever for those lawmakers in Congress who oppose the U.S. backing out of the JCPOA to hold the line on bad legislation, and to put pressure on Trump's advisors to stick to the accord. If U.S.-Iran tension is allowed to spill back into the nuclear sphere, there will be few off ramps to conflict, and Trump's advisors don't even appear to be inclined to look for them.