Initial thoughts on Trump’s Iran speech: Do all roads lead to a pull-out? [UPDATED]

President Trump has just given an address that outlines how he plans to proceed against Iran. The two main points are: (1) he will impose new sanctions to punish Iran’s Revolutionary Guard and (2) he will not certify the Iran nuclear deal.

The refusal to certify means that Congress has 60 days to act. Trump is asking it to adopt legislation, apparently already formulated, that would remedy the flaws in the Iran deal.

This legislation would become the basis for attempting, if possible with the help of our allies, to renegotiate (in effect) key terms of the deal with Iran. In the negotiations we would, among other things, try to improve the inspection regime and eliminate the sunset provisions (the ones that allow Iran eventually develop nukes).

Crucially, it seems to me on first analysis, Trump said that if Congress doesn’t act along these lines in 60 days, he will “terminate” the deal. The president thus attempts to light a fire under a Congress which, absent his threat, almost certainly would not act. He also attempts to light a fire under our allies who seemingly have no real desire to renegotiate with Iran.

If we take Trump’s speech at face value, it seems to me that all roads lead to terminating the deal. If Congress doesn’t act, Trump says he will terminate the deal.

If Congress acts, it can’t rewrite the deal. All it can do is formulate demands that, if not met by Iran, will result in termination, assuming Trump follows the hard line he took today.

If faced with congressional action and presidential resolve, Iran might agree to certain minor fixes to the deal. But it’s difficult for me to imagine the regime agreeing, for example, to drop the sunset clause.

Only a restoration of the crippling sanctions once in place would have any hope of achieving this result. But that hope would be faint. In any event, it’s unlikely that we could ever rally our allies to impose the truly crippling sanctions that former president Obama lifted.

If my preliminary analysis is correct, then Trump has taken the first step towards pulling the U.S. out of the Iran deal. He has done more, in other words, than just “splitting the baby” — i.e, satisfying hawks by decertifying and satisfying moderates by not pulling out of the deal or enlisting Congress for that purpose. If we take the speech at face value, we are on the road to pulling out.

The “compromise,” is that we are doing so in a measured way — one that is less easy for Democrats and U.S. allies persuasively to denounce. Trump is enlisting their aid by asking them to participate in a process that, in theory, could improve the deal to the point where the U.S. would stay in it.

In practice, the likelihood of substantially improving the deal seems slight. However, it is reasonable for Trump to give it a try, and reasonable for Democrats and our allies to participate in the effort.

I’ll conclude by saying that Trump’s speech was outstanding. In 20 minutes or so, he laid out the history of Iran’s evil-doing; excoriated the Iran deal Obama agreed to; and laid out his course of action going forward.

Will the administration follow that course or will key members persuade Trump to employ off-ramps? It’s difficult to say, or even to guess who the key members of the administration will be down the road. I’m inclined, though, to think that Trump will follow the course he laid out so solemnly today.

These observations are preliminary ones. I’m sure we’ll have more to say upon further reflection.

UPDATE: President Trump’s speech leaves Senate Democrats in a very interesting position. If they block the legislation Trump wants, we likely will be out of the Iran deal by the end of the year, assuming Trump follows through on his promise. If they cooperate and legislation passes, they buy time.

Iran might refuse even to consider renegotiating, in which case very little time will have been bought. But Iran might play “stall ball,” entering into some form of talks that don’t go anywhere. In this scenario, the deal could stay alive for quite some time, maybe until the 2020 election season, or even beyond.

Thus, it seems to me that the Dems have a strong incentive to work with Trump and the GOP on legislation designed to improve the deal. At the same time, of course, the Dems face strong pressure not to cooperate with Trump on anything major.

It would be interesting to know what advice Obama and his former team will provide (or have already provided) to Senate Democrats. Obama’s desire, I would think, is to keep the deal in place past the end of 2017.

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