During a week in which all signs point to Republicans enshrining President Obama's top domestic achievement into law, it's now looking like Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has tricked President Trump into keeping the main pillar of Obama's foreign policy legacy in place indefinitely: the disastrous Iran deal.
On Thursday, the Associated Press reported that as part of Trump's move to certify Iran's compliance with the deal, the administration is pushing to "test" the deal with more inspections. On the surface, this may seem like a move to step up enforcement and lay the groundwork to unwind the deal — theoretically consistent with Trump's vow to "get tough" on Iran. But in practice, it looks like a stalling tactic designed by Tillerson and Obama holdovers in the State Department to handcuff Trump, with endless bureaucratic delays, from ever being able to pull out of the deal.
Last week, Iran deal supporters in the administration, led by Tillerson, talked Trump into sticking with the deal and certifying Iran compliance for the second time of his presidency, even as he told the Wall Street Journal, "If it was up to me, I would have had them noncompliant 180 days ago."
Under the agreement that secured his decision recertify the deal, the United States will push for more inspections of Iranian military sites. As the AP puts it, "If Iran refuses inspections, the argument goes, Trump finally will have a solid basis to say Iran is breaching the deal, setting up Tehran to take most of the blame if the agreement collapses. If Iran agrees to inspections, those in Trump's administration who want to preserve the deal will be emboldened to argue it's advancing U.S. national security effectively."
The problem is twofold — one logistical, and one more fundamental.
Logistically, the process of requesting inspections of Iranian sites is long and arduous, with plenty of opportunities for international institutions and foreign governments to gum up the works, delaying any firm resolution indefinitely, and thus putting pressure on Trump to constantly renew the deal to let the process play out. The prospect of this has not been lost on opponents of the Iran deal, who have been furiously emailing and texting with each other in despair as they contemplate the implications.
In an email to reporters, Omri Ceren, managing director of the Israel Project and one of the most dogged and informed opponents of the deal, observed that, "The push [for inspections] can drag on literally indefinitely: It requires the State Department to persuade the Europeans to persuade the [International Atomic Energy Agency] to persuade the Iranians to allow inspections, and in between there need to be bilateral and multilateral intelligence exchanges, and anyway the [Iran deal] allows Iran to engage in dialogue with the IAEA indefinitely without ever violating the deal."
There are a number of scenarios in which this convoluted process can be exploited by Tillerson and his band of Iran deal proponents at the State Department to maneuver Trump into holding off on his desire to escape the Iran deal.
"One scenario: In 3 months, Iran deal advocates will tell the president he has to certify because the deal is still being ‘tested,'" Ceren wrote. "Another scenario: In 3 months, the Europeans (or Iran deal advocates channeling them) will tell the president he has to certify because they've bought into the ‘testing,' and would backlash against decertification while it's ongoing. These are a half-dozen of these scenarios getting bounced around this morning."
As I noted, these are the logistical problems with substituting the "more inspections" approach in the place of a more focused strategy specifically unwinding the deal. But there's also a more fundamental problem: Regardless of whether it's enforced, the Iran deal is still a really crappy deal.
That is, even if Iran completely complies with the deal, it will still be given space to become a much more dangerous conventional threat while putting it on a glide path to nuclear weapons over time.
One of the main conservative cases for an unconventional outsider like Trump was that at least he was willing to burn things down that needed to be burnt down. But he's been consistently outplayed by swamp creatures. He vowed to reverse eight years of damaging Obama policies, yet more than six months into the Trump presidency, Obama's legacy at home and abroad looks increasingly secure.