The conservative case to keep the Iran deal

There was always a basic problem with the so-called Iran nuclear deal inked back in 2015 that was never going to be resolved: Washington and Tehran have vastly different interests across the Middle East. It was never going to be easy to somehow compartmentalize the relationship, to in some way come to terms over Iran’s nuclear program but not resolve countless other issues that have always driven these two nations apart. And it could someday tear the deal to shreds.

But sheer necessity dictates that now is not the time for such an action. In fact, I would argue a move by President Trump to ‘decertify’ the agreement is against America’s national interests.

To be brutally honest, The Islamic Republic of Iran is no friend of the United States—period. Its regional aspirations are nothing short of an attempt to become the dominant power in the Middle East and displace America from the region. The regime is a state-sponsor of terror that will use whatever brutal and violent means it can to achieve its objectives. And it’s no secret that Iran is a human rights-abuser of the worst kind, even working with fellow pariah-state North Korea to develop advanced missile platforms that could someday target U.S. forces in the region.

But the deal that President Obama made with Tehran back in 2015—wrinkles and all—is worth keeping for a very pragmatic, realistic reason: the Trump Administration has much bigger problems on its plate.

Decertifying the deal now—with the danger of Tehran building nuclear weapons that are now pushed out at least a decade or more under the deal—would take away much needed bandwidth from confronting much bigger challenges Team Trump must address that are of much more critical domestic and international importance. And considering the very real possibility that decertifying the deal could very well put both nations on the path towards potential conflict—if Tehran attempts to make a run towards nuclear weapons, fearing an eventual U.S. move towards regime change—President Trump must make the hard choice to stay the course.  

I would identify five core problems Team Trump needs to tackle right now—all that could be in jeopardy of being marginalized if tensions with Iran were to come to a head thanks to decertification. These include:

A Stalled Domestic Agenda: President Trump is unstoppable when he hammers away at his opponents on the issues that turned him from a 150/1 underdog to our nation’s 45th president. Americans voted for Donald Trump because he promised to end our illegal immigration crisis and secure the border, to repeal ObamaCare once and for all, to modernize the tax code and rebuild our badly neglected infrastructure. He needs to press ahead to enact that agenda—period. A confrontation with Iran now could very well use up all the vital political capitol he will need to expend to make his promises the law of the land. And nothing could be more important—and go a long way to seeing him reelected. Getting mixed up in a crisis with Iran could doom this agenda—forever.

North Korea: Now armed with nuclear weapons that our own military commanders are assuming have the capability to hit the U.S. homeland, North Korea is an existential threat President Trump needs to make his top foreign policy priority. There is nothing more important—nothing.

Any move to decertify the Iran deal will take away the momentum needed to confront this clear and present danger. The administration is already in the process of trying to build a global coalition to isolate Pyongyang economically, financially and diplomatically. Team Trump will also likely need to move more offensive military assets into Northeast Asia over the long-term, increase its missile defense capabilities in Asia and at home, as well as convince China to enforce all sanctions and bring the Kim regime to the bargaining table. A self-created crisis with Iran could very well endanger these efforts, and ensure North Korea is a nuclear weapons state for many years to come.

A Rising China: While the world might be rightly transfixed over the North Korea crisis, over the long-term, America will also need to formulate a grand strategy to deal with a rising China. Beijing now has the second largest economy in the world and a military machine to match. With China’s President Xi Jinping pushing his nation's influence into all corners of Asia -- from parts of the former Soviet Union to essentially turning the South China Sea into its own Lake Beijing -- China is on the cusp of superpower status. With countless issues between us and a big presidential visit to Asia coming in the next few weeks, taking on Iran now would once again reinforce a narrative Asian diplomats here in Washington constantly repeat over and over—that Washington is slowly losing Asia to China and is obsessed with the Middle East.

ISIS: While defeat of the Islamic State seems a near certainty—and a national interest we share with Iran—we must keep our focus on destroying the caliphate as our number one objective in the Middle East. As the Islamic State morphs from dying nation-state into a terror network flung all over the globe, America must continue to press forward in making sure ISIS never regains any ground. Needlessly confronting Iran now would endanger such a goal.

Trade: President Trump was speaking truth to power when he argued that America needed fairer trade practices that put our nation's workers first. The administration is working hard to modernize NAFTA, partnering with Asian nations like South Korea and Vietnam to correct job-crushing trade imbalances, and potentially working towards new Free Trade Agreements with some of our closest allies like Japan. All of these goals will require a focused administration that will need to drive some very hard bargains, bargains that will take much time and energy. If Washington were to decertify the deal with Iran and a crisis were to ensue, not only would it have an impact on our Asian allies, but there simply might not be any political bandwidth to make these deals a reality.

Smart foreign policy is always keeping in mind prioritization, ensuring that America’s national interests are front and center. And that is the key promise President Trump made—to make America “first” again. And that means keeping America in the Iran deal.

Harry J. Kazianis (@grecianformula) is director of defense studies at the Center for the National Interest, founded by former President Richard M. Nixon. Click here, for more on Mr. Kazianis.