Tehran’s Law of The Sea Moment

While mostly forgotten now, one of the key moments of Ronald Reagan’s presidency was his handling in 1982 of something called “The Law of the Sea Treaty”.  Negotiated over nine years, the United Nations Law of the Sea Treaty was going to permit a multi-national body to have control over much of the activities that take place in international waters.  Reagan was convinced it was a bad deal. Back in 1978 he stated on the radio that “no one has ruled out the idea of a treaty – one that makes sense – but after long years of fruitless negotiating, it became apparent ….”  this was not it.

When the deal was completed in 1982, Reagan’s advisers told him he probably had no choice but to sign it.  Reagan disagreed.  He asked Secretary of State Alexander Haig “Uh, Al, isn’t this what the whole (election) thing was about?” Against all expectations, Reagan rejected the Treaty, and got 77 other nations to reject it.

Reagan’s actions reverberated internationally.  He became known as someone who would not just acquiesce with prior convention, and would not be steamrollered by the political zeitgeist of the time.  His reputation for not accepting bad deals helped him later with Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev and eventually played a part in bringing down the Soviet Union.

It is within that context that one must examine President Trump’s rejection of the Iran Nuclear Deal (known as the “JCPOA”).  The circumstances are very different (one involving a UN negotiated treaty, the other an agreement negotiated largely by a predecessor President) but the issues are the same.  In each case the current President believed an agreement needing his action was flawed and dangerous, and the President refused to sit by and let the process continue.

Since the JCPOA was completed in 2015, it has been vehemently opposed by large groups of American society.  Indeed, when President Obama signed it, the JCPOA polled only 21% approval in the United States. Trump minced no words expressing how he felt about the deal, stating clearly that he believed it was a disaster.  His view has been opposed by much of the political and foreign policy establishment. They relied on the International Atomic Energy Agency’s consistent statements that Iran is complying with the deal.  Trump didn’t care.  He viewed the JCPOA as so dangerous that even if Iran complied it was bad for America.

Reaction to Trump’s action across the foreign policy establishment has been predictable. Appearing this morning on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe”, Council of Foreign Relations Clair Richard Haas said there was now no strategy to contain Iran, the Iranians were likely to kick out the atomic inspectors and that contrary to the wishes of those who oppose the Mullahs, Iran grew economically by 4% last year.

Unintentionally, Haas made President Trump’s case for him. The international inspectors do not have unfettered access to all Iranian sites at any time, so IAEA certifications mean little.  Israel showed last week when it published Iran’s nuclear file that Iran has not given up its nuclear ambitions. Further, the inspections regime and other limitations in the JCPOA last for only eight more years. Iran then is free to develop any nuclear program it wishes, subject only to its promise that it would never develop nuclear weapons (again which the Israelis already disproved).

To argue in favor of the JCPOA, Haas or anyone else must show one of three things: either (a) that Iran has modified its behavior and become a more responsible international actor, or (b) that the regime clearly has given up its desire for a nuclear weapon, or (c) that the current regime is likely to fall. According to Haas the opposite is true. Iran’s behavior has been more threatening since the JCPOA, there is no evidence that Iran has abandoned its desire for a bomb and the Mullah’s are well entrenched. Given that, the foreign policy establishment must explain why leaving the JCPOA in place so that in eight years the Mullahs will have no operative nuclear restrictions and be further enriched by billions of dollars of oil money is a good idea?

It is instructive that while Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China opposed Trump’s pullout, the countries most threatened by Iran – Israel, Saudi Arabia, the other Gulf States – all applauded Trump. Those who seek to earn Iranian money cared little about those who faced Iranian weapons. As The Times of Israel’s David Horowitz pointed out, Iran now is threatening to enrich uranium to a higher grade than ever before while simultaneously remaining in compliance with the JCPOA. What then is the purpose of the JCPOA?

Unlike Reagan, Trump is unlikely to find much Western international support for his position.  That however, may be a factor of how much our allies have changed as how our President has changed.  There are no Margaret Thatchers around today.  Decisions made by the likes of Angela Merkel on immigration are classic examples of early 21st Century wishful thinking triumphing over sober policy.

We do not have the luxury of wishful thinking when it comes to Iran. The JCPOA gave the President no good options. He chose the least bad one. It will cause much dislocation and disagreement intentionally, but like Ronald Reagan before him, in the end the President made the logical calculation he would be better off tearing up a flawed deal than letting it continue. Judging by today’s other events, Pyongyang seems to be listening.

About the Author
Daniel B, Markind is an attorney based in Philadelphia specializing in real estate, commercial, energy and aviation law. He is the former Chair of the National Legal Committee of the Jewish National Fund of America as well as being a former member of the National Executive Board and the National Chair of the JNF National Future Leadership. He writes frequently on Middle Eastern and energy issues. Mr. Markind lives in the Philadelphia area with his wife and children.
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