Michael KreponWhiffs of Grapeshot

Quote of the week:

“Angels and ministers of grace defend us!” – William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act I, Scene IV

The master of self-inflicted wounds has done it again. This time, President Donald Trump is walking away from meaningful, verifiable limits on Iran’s bomb program. The constraints on Iran’s nuclear program embedded in the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action weren’t good enough for those in Washington, Israel, and Saudi Arabia inclined toward regime change and “kinetic” options — otherwise known as military strikes. Now Tehran could become free to act without constraints and on its own timetable, without inspectors on the ground.

A president who mocked the deal that the Obama administration negotiated alongside the permanent members of the Security Council and the European Union will now be challenged to do better. Diplomacy isn’t Trump’s strong suit; trashing Barack Obama’s accomplishments is. Nullification of the Iran nuclear deal suits those with no faith in diplomacy, raising the prospect of harsher strategies, beginning with sanctions. If sanctions and diplomacy both fail, military options become more likely.

Trump’s stated rationales for walking away from the deal are weak. One reason, he said is that “it didn’t bring calm, it didn’t bring peace, and it never will.” But this wasn’t a peace treaty. It was a deal to verifiably block Tehran’s pathways to the bomb.

With that comment, Trump was invoking the concept of “linkage” — conditioning a nuclear deal on improved behavior by an adversary outside the deal’s scope. That’s been tried before, most notably by the Nixon administration. Nixon wanted to rein in Soviet ambitions in the Third World. The Kremlin never signed up to linkage, and Nixon didn’t walk away from the arms control agreements that he and Henry Kissinger struck with the Soviet Union.

So why sacrifice verifiable and meaningful constraints on Iran’s nuclear activities because of Iran’s “malign behavior” — the White House’s words — in Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, and elsewhere? A smarter strategy would be to push back against Iranian ambitions while maintaining verifiable constraints on Iranian nuclear activities. Why would Trump make this an either/or proposition?

Another ostensible rationale for pulling out of the Iranian nuclear deal is, according to the White House “fact sheet” on the decision, that it “did not include a strong enough mechanism for inspections and verification.” In fact, the Iran nuclear deal calls for 10-year, verifiable limits on Iranian research and development of enrichment technologies; 15-year verifiable constraints on enrichment; 20-year monitoring of centrifuge production, and permanent constraints on a plutonium pathway to bomb-making.

To be sure, every existing monitoring regime could be strengthened (especially if US diplomats were negotiating with themselves, as opposed to with the Iranians). But no nuclear nonproliferation, arms control, or reduction agreement to date has ever been this intrusive. It includes the presence of international inspection teams to supplement continuous monitoring by sensors at sensitive sites, reinforced by intelligence-gathering by satellites.

In response to the Trump administration’s withdrawal, Tehran could decide to curtail or remove foreign inspectors. So how will Trump’s walkout lead to tougher on-the-ground monitoring?

Yet another argument Trump uses is that Iran negotiated in bad faith and on false premises. Specifically, Iran failed to come clean on its bomb-making activities prior to 2003 when, by the account of the US intelligence community, these activities ceased. Nothing that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu presented in his show-and-tell last week suggested that the efforts did not cease in 2003.

In any event, supporters of the Iran nuclear deal didn’t presume or argue that Iran had clean hands or that the regime’s blanket denials of bomb-related activities were credible. Instead, the deal’s backers wanted verifiable constraints on Iran’s nuclear program precisely because Tehran didn’t have clean hands.

Trump says he is ready to negotiate new terms whenever Tehran is willing — terms that have longer timelines for nuclear restraints and that address Iran’s ballistic missile programs along with its aggressive activities in the Middle East. Don’t hold your breath: The Iranians have signaled they have no interest in rewarding Trump’s walkout, but they might be willing to deal with European capitals if they are willing to part company with Washington on sanctions.

So what does this suggest for the future?

The White House says its goal is “to put Iran and its regional proxies on notice.” But on notice for what, exactly? The reimposition of tough US sanctions, and most likely additional new sanctions too, for a start. But no other party to the Iran nuclear deal is currently on board with Trump’s decision.

Even if France, Britain, Germany, and the EU bend — a crucial question, at present — their decisions will have little bearing on Moscow’s choices. Beijing will weigh its opportunities against possible sanctions that it is well poised to withstand.

If the Trump administration’s goal is regime change in Iran, that goal has become harder to achieve. Regime change happens primarily from within. But Trump’s move undercuts the deal’s chief supporter in Iran, President Hassan Rouhani, and his backers. Meanwhile, those who held strong misgivings about the deal and engagement with the United States will be further empowered.

If diplomacy and sanctions fail to achieve the Trump administration’s objectives, what then? In this context, the key passage of the White House’s fact sheet is the following: “Today’s action sends a critical message: The United States no longer makes empty threats.” A whiff of grapeshot wafts in the air.

What new threats are next? Imposing regime change based on the prospect of Iranian economic collapse? This seems fanciful even if Trump can bring everyone on board with tougher sanctions.

Responding in kind or in greater measure to Iran’s military tactics outside its borders now seems a given. Trump’s Memorandum to Cabinet Secretaries on his decision states that US policy will be “to disrupt, degrade, or deny the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps and its surrogates access to the resources that sustain their destabilizing activities.” Tellingly, this is the same phraseology used to characterize US military activities against al-Qaeda and “affiliated” outfits. When applied to Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps, this can mean an open-ended campaign involving far more direct US military involvement.

Greater pushback against Iran’s regional ambitions is, in my view, warranted. But sanctions backed up by a greater US military presence in the region won’t stop Iranian nuclear and ballistic missile activities. For this, military strikes would be needed — strikes that Netanyahu has long hoped for and would readily join in.

Opening this Pandora’s box would invite a host of unintended but predictable consequences. If diplomatic and economic coercion strategies fail, Trump has boxed himself into the binary choice of being judged to have engaged in hollow rhetoric or carrying out military strikes.

The re-imposition of sanctions is unlikely to change Iranian behavior for the better. Walking away from the deal is more likely to result in worse Iranian behavior and a steady drumbeat for airstrikes.

Note to readers: This essay appeared on the Vox.com website on 5/9/18.


  1. Pedro (History)

    If I was Iranian, I would want the bomb and I would stop at nothing in order to create it ASAP. (As a historic “great power” sandwiched between a nuclear-armed Israel and a nuclear-armed Pakistan).

    The West’s next challenge is: How do you play “Mutually Assured Destruction” with a regime that believes that martyrdom is a “desirable outcome” where their enemies go to Hell while I end up in paradise.

    • ajay (History)

      “How do you play “Mutually Assured Destruction” with a regime that believes that martyrdom is a “desirable outcome” where their enemies go to Hell while I end up in paradise.”

      There is no evidence whatsoever that the current Iranian regime believes that martyrdom is a desirable outcome. The evidence, in fact, points the other way.

      When the current leaders of Iran were in their 20s and 30s – what we’d call “fighting-age males” – Iran was at war with Iraq. Millions of Iranians volunteered to seek martyrdom; many hundreds of thousands of them achieved it in the human-wave attacks that were that war’s hallmark.

      By definition, no current member of the Iranian regime was among them; they all managed to pass the war years in other, less martyrous ways.

      This isn’t to criticise them as cowardly or insincere, just to note that, when they had the opportunity to be martyred for their faith, every current member of the Iranian regime said “no thanks”.

  2. Phil Tanny (History)

    If we take a wider view, Trump’s idiocy may have a silver lining. I’ve come to the conclusion that the only thing that can bring substantial change to a culture of widespread complacency about nuclear weapons is a nuclear detonation. There really is little evidence that we will reason our way out from under the existential threat that such weapons present.

    The best we can probably hope for is a limited nuclear exchange between small powers which punches us out of our sleepy complacency, thus offering some hope we will take the actions needed to prevent a civilization crushing exchange of strikes between the major powers.

    If we accept that we are not going to reason our way out of nuclear madness, then the question becomes…

    Which is going to happen first, a small exchange, or “The Big One”?

    If a single detonation or small exchange happens first, there’s still hope that we will learn and adapt. Until such smaller scale events unfold we are drifting day by day towards the Big One.

    • Jonah Speaks (History)

      A “limited nuclear exchange between small powers” – India and Pakistan? A full exchange between these two would cause global smoke and a nuclear ice age, killing 1-2 billion people worldwide of starvation from reduced sunlight and reduced agricultural output. This might (or might not) lead to what? Complete abandonment of nuclear weapons? Or a full-scale scramble for food supplies, increasing the odds of additional wars and nuclear threats?

      If the regional nuclear war were truly limited, one or both countries might perceive a “victory” at limited cost. There might be no nuclear winter, but the concept of “victory” through limited nuclear war might emerge less implausible than before. I share your pessimism about the BIG ONE, but not your optimism about the Small One.

      Writing a novel and making a movie presents less downside risk. In peace there is still hope. Not everyone is complacent.

  3. Phil Tanny (History)

    Hi Johah, thanks for your reply.

    I’m not really that optimistic about any of this, I just don’t see an alternative to the “small” event possibility. The ideal small event would be a terrorist nuke attack that affected only one city (quite likely to be Washington). That would generate the biggest media story most of us have ever seen, with a great deal of very graphic imagery.

    Most of those alive at the time of Hiroshima are now gone. Thus, nuclear weapons have become an abstract issue discussed in intellectual terms. Thus, the threat doesn’t seem real to most of us. It’s just one a thousand issues. A single detonation would make the threat seem much more tangible and real, and would make it an emotional issue instead of just an intellectual one. People would start wondering, could this happen in our city??

    Like I tried to express above, if one believes that we’re not going to reason our way out of the nuclear threat, then “small” events are really the only hope. It’s perverse, sick and insane to wish for such an event, but well, welcome to the 21st century.

    • Jonah Speaks (History)

      I realize this is just a hypothetical fantasy, but humans are even less likely to see reason when they become fearful. Terrorist destroys DC? Think 9/11 response on steroids. “Someone” will be blamed and made to “pay” big time (or not). Least likely outcome: global nuclear disarmament.

      If your problem diagnosis is: “nuclear weapons have become an abstract issue discussed in intellectual terms.” then the problem solution is: “write vivid novels and produce riveting movies.” People watch Zombie movies. People watch movies of aliens invading Earth. Why not nuclear war movies? Less fear, more motive to reason, how do we avoid nuclear war, so I don’t end up in that scary movie?

  4. alvaroguva (History)

    If the EU decide to stay in the deal along with Russia and China regardless of the US leaving it, what do you think is the likelihood of Iran living up to its agreements anyways?

    • Michael Krepon (History)

      Depends what you mean by ‘stay in.’

  5. Bradley Laing (History)
  6. Davey (History)

    Here is an uncomfortable truth about small countries and nuclear devices. We all can be glad that Iran and the DPRK sidetracked their weapons development by demanding that their devices use implosion. It’s very convenient that Iran finally gave up. Unfortunately, the world squandered those delays. Political strategies shouldn’t have the unintended consequence of pushing countries into developing nuclear weapons.

    Iran and DPRK could have (should have?) had a working device a long, long time ago. Practically any country with enough fissionable material can make a reliable gun device. (Note that the USA didn’t even bother to test the “Little Boy design”.) A working bomb is all that is required to satisfy many of a country’s objectives. Why do I say that? First, As the DPRK (and Israel, btw) have demonstrated, the simple ownership of a few devices can yield changes in international stature. One successful test (or fewer) is all that is required to join “the club”.

    Second, both the DPRK and Iran frankly wasted time on implosion. That technology is only important if you need to put a warhead on a ballistic trajectory. If your only objective is to move a device across your border (DPRK-> South Korea, Iran -> Syria -> Golan), a gun device is a feasible alternative and you can use a truck, cargo plane or airliner as your delivery vehicle. No missiles required.

    “The World” must be more unified in discouraging weapons research. This isn’t a situation where the USA can unilaterally manipulate countries into “not going there”. Peer pressure works, but we’re not peers to most countries who think that developing a nuclear weapon is in their best interests.

  7. Phil Tanny (History)

    Jonah, my thoughts were not prescriptive, but rather descriptive. I’m describing what I think will probably have to happen before vast populations take nukes seriously. They’re going to have to see it with their own eyes.

    I don’t claim to know what would happen next. As you say, it could very well launch a destructive fear driven spiral.

    • Jonah Speaks (History)

      Yes, I understand you are not advocating even a limited nuclear detonation. Unfortunately, the world is filled with twisted minds who reason, “Let us do evil, that good may come.” So it’s worth examining whether, in fact, the posited evil act would likely lead to the posited good outcome.

      Looking strictly to your descriptive hypothesis, most people will not physically see the real event. They will only hear about it, read about it, see pictures in print, or see images and hear words on television. The reported event will be interpreted and misinterpreted through various national, political, and cultural lenses. It will be unsurprising if different people and nations come to quite different conclusions about the meaning of the event, or what (if anything) should be done about nuclear weapons or nuclear policies in response to that event.

      As an alternative prescription, consider a world where nuclear war movies and nuclear war novels have become quite popular. People would know that nuclear weapons still exist and still have the potential to destroy the world. The complacency might remain for some, and some people will still support the possession and potential use of nuclear weapons. Others (perhaps a majority?) will demand significant reductions and other limitations on nuclear arms.

  8. Phil Tanny (History)

    Jonah, you make good points. All I can say in reply is that we’ve had 70 years to do what you suggest, and with a few minor exceptions we’ve not done it. And there’s little evidence to suggest we are about to do it. But I agree it would be good if we did.

    Here’s an argument which supports both of our views. Consider 9/11. Massive around the clock media coverage for months, leading to two wars costing trillions of dollars, and a major inflation of the national security state.

    Point being:

    1) This relatively small event (compared to nukes) had enormous impact, but…

    2) The impact was not so positive.

    I agree that’s what might happen after a nuke event.

    My point is only that every day we don’t have a small event is a day closer to the Big One. Small events may be a dim hope for change, but without them what do we have?

    Here’s a bit of anecdotal evidence. I’m currently participating on the blog for a major association of academic philosophers, lots of PhDs. They’ve published about 2 articles a day for 2 years. In that time they have only mentioned nuclear weapons twice, in passing. Very intelligent highly educated people, uninterested in the well known fact that the field of philosophy could vanish almost instantly. This reality is considered irrelevant to their work.

    Pretty much the same thing on science blogs. Just yesterday a scientist blogger told me he would publish no more posts from me on this subject, because discussing the pending end of science is “off topic” on a science blog.

    I don’t see these folks waking up in response to some films, but I’d love to be wrong. I’m not going to be the person who wakes them up, that’s been proven for sure.

    • Jonah Speaks (History)

      I am glad you are trying. The small event (or an accumulation of small events) that changes the course of history can just as easily be positive events.

      Fortunately, over the past 70 years, no nuclear war has actually occurred. This may be part of the reason for complacency – a nuclear war has not happened so far, so why should I expect one before I die? This is not a respectable intellectual argument, but emotionally it carries great weight.

      Intellectually, many people believe nuclear deterrence “works”. They see the obvious argument that only a madman would deliberately start a nuclear war that destroys the world. Most are unaware of the many other ways a nuclear war could get started. Also, there is general unawareness of the global climate disaster (nuclear winter) that would ensue from nuclear war.

      Hence, we must keep chipping away at both the intellectual and emotional supports for complacency. Keep on trying to persuade those who will listen.

  9. Phil Tanny (History)

    I would summarize my point this way…

    Human beings typically don’t learn by reason, but by pain.

    We tell ourselves we learn by reason, we sincerely believe it, but it’s usually not that true. When does the drunk driver reach out for help? After he’s plowed in to a kid on bike.

  10. Phil Tanny (History)

    Jonah writes… “Hence, we must keep chipping away at both the intellectual and emotional supports for complacency. ”

    We do what we can where we can. And what I’m learning from that doing is that such efforts, well intended as they are, are unlikely to have much impact. We’re on the wrong channel.

    While most folks are enjoying the wishful thinking illusion that MAD will work etc, we’re enjoying the wishful thinking illusion that reason will work. I suspect such efforts have more to do with us enjoying the processes of reason than they involve evidence that reason can work.

    Personally, I seem to derive some demented pleasure from showing intellectual elites how blind they are on this issue. That’s so easy to do, it’s a shooting fish in a barrel operation. But it doesn’t accomplish anything other than inflate my ego and reinforce the illusion that I’m doing something constructive.

    Well, it’s educating me regarding how effective human existential psychological defenses are. You know, even if there were no nukes or any other such threats, we still all face mortality, and we’ve had millions of years to learn how to push that reality down so that we can function on a day to day basis. I think that’s what we’re up against, a phenomena far larger than reason.

    The question really isn’t whether we personally survive, because none of us will. The question is whether human civilization will survive in anything like it’s current form. That’s a far more abstract question of far less interest to all of us.

    And if we are to reason, it’s not really that logical to have the expectation that human beings will succeed in building a highly complex interconnected global civilization on the very first try. We may instead be in a cycle that will play itself out over thousands of years. As example, the Roman Empire rose and fell, a thousand year dark age followed, and then the Enlightenment came leading to where we are today. Perhaps this loop will continue, bright ages to dark ages to bright ages, with each bright age being a bit brighter than the last.