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Trump’s Withdrawal from the Iran Deal: Q&A with Ambassador Tara Sonenshine

To diplomats, ambassadors and officials of the Obama administration, President Donald Trump’s foreign policy decisions are incomprehensible, radical and unexpected as they are to many citizens across the world. Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal was one of his eyebrow-raising moves.

Tara Sonenshine, who was the Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs under President Obama, says the decision by President Trump to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal is a public diplomacy nightmare.

Ambassador Sonenshine is one of the many Obama administration diplomats who believe that President Trump has devalued “America’s word.”

“You don’t have to be a nuclear scientist to understand that among the most important currencies in the world is America’s word. As a nation, we say what we mean and we mean what we say. Broken promises have unintended consequences—none of them good,” she commented in our interview.

Tara Sonenshine is a Distinguished Fellow at the George Washington University School of Media and Public Affairs. She served in various capacities at the White House during the Clinton administration, most notably the Special Assistant to President Bill Clinton.

I interviewed Tara Sonenshine about Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran deal, its international implications and the future of Iran-U.S. relations.

President Donald Trump withdrew from the Iran deal but never cited any clear reason for his decision. What do you specifically think was the main reason President Trump turned his back to the result of months of intensive and breath-taking diplomatic efforts by Iran and the six world powers?

I believe that Trump pulled out of the deal, in part, because anything connected to the previous Administration is deemed, by him, personally to be a negative. He made that clear in his campaign and has not changed much. The plan is to undo the legacy of Obama.

Withdrawing from the nuclear deal with Iran was against the UN Security Council Resolution 2231. Do you think President Trump violated a UN Security Council Resolution and doesn’t consider himself accountable before the international community and the European Union?

The decision by President Trump to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal is a public diplomacy nightmare. You don’t have to be a nuclear scientist to understand that among the most important currencies in the world is America’s word. As a nation, we say what we mean and we mean what we say. Broken promises have unintended consequences—none of them good.

President Trump’s foreign policy seems to be an aggressive and unusually antagonistic, especially towards Iran and the Muslim world. Do you think he is abiding by his constitutional commitments to work towards meeting the national security interests of the United States and the American people?

We signed an agreement with Iran, negotiated with our allies over many months and presented to Congress and the public. Yes there were flaws. Yes there were disagreements. But we signed it with our allies – friends in Europe with whom we have mutual agreements – friends who have stood by us through war and peace. When you violate that kind of trust, you leave others around the world, friend and foe alike, questioning your credibility. Why would any power trust us to adhere to any agreement after abrogation of this one. North Korea just got a major warning: don’t negotiate in good faith with America.

President Trump said that he will impose the highest level of economic sanctions against Iran. Won’t the sanctions strangulate the Iranian people and from a humanitarian perspective, making the daily life difficult for a nation of 80 million, of whom a big majority are under age 30 and students? What about Europe’s possible counter-measures against the United States?

We are taking a unilateral step leaving ourselves isolated and vulnerable to a regeneration of Iran’s nuclear program. We know that Iran will immediately work to reconstitute its nuclear facilities and threaten Israel. Even if you believe there was some Iranian cheating, the reality is that Iran was curtailing the process of enriching uranium and some progress was better than no progress. At least we had some signs that Iran would move towards the peaceful use of nuclear power in return for sanctions relief: exactly the kind of deal we want with North Korea. Now we are less safe in both countries.

We will now become bystanders as European companies like the aerospace industry expand business with Iran and watch as our US manufacturers are locked out of a new market. We are closing off any hope of opening up a relationship with Iran and any hope of reigning in their nuclear ambitions. Iran now is incentivized to make new trouble around the world with a new threat of a nuclear weapons program about to be fully restarted.

In the end, we are confusing our own public and publics overseas at a time when information overload and foreign policy by twitter is leaving citizens unsure what to believe. A recent survey by Pew Research Center finds that over a quarter of Americans have no opinion of the Iran agreement. 40% disapprove. Relatively few Americans (27%) say they have heard “a lot” about the 2015 agreement and those with opinions are less negative today than in September 2015 after it was announced. Now they will hear that we walked away from something they barely understood. And sadly, the President has walked away from the deal because it wasn’t his deal. He only likes to sit at tables that he runs with little regard for the work done before he arrived. That kind of personal aggrandizement squanders national credibility—part of the history of this great nation.

President John F. Kennedy, like many presidents who followed, understood the power of presidential credibility. At the height of the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 Kennedy dispatched emissaries to America’s allies to secure support for the quarantine of Cuba because he sensed a threat that needed action. He designated Dean Acheson, the former secretary of state, to deal with Washington’s most difficult partner — President Charles de Gaulle of France. When Acheson offered to show de Gaulle spy plane imagery to support his claim that the Soviet Union had deployed nuclear missiles 90 miles from American shores, de Gaulle threw up his hands and said he needed no such evidence. “The word of the president of the United States is good enough for me.”

That is no longer the case.

Iran and the United States have not maintained official diplomatic relations since 1979 and this has imposed a huge cost on both countries. Do you think there’s any room for rapprochement and reconciliation in the foreseeable future, especially now that Trump has left the JCPOA?

Reconciliation and rapprochement are always possible but given the presence of voices like John Bolton, I don’t see that happening with Iran anytime soon.

You served in the President Obama administration as the fourth highest-ranking person at the Department of State. What was his policy towards Iran other than the nuclear agreement, which was his landmark foreign policy achievement? Do you think there were other areas in which President Obama made a difference in Iran-U.S. relations after a tumultuous three decades?

The Obama presidency was marked by diplomacy and war as a last resort. The nuclear agreement was important to both sides. Of course, it didn’t mean and doesn’t mean that other Iranian behaviours are acceptable including the stifling of dissent inside the country, actions in Syria, its continued financing of terrorism, etc. But getting a nuclear deal stopped the most dangerous clock from running–the nuclear clock. And that was a foreign policy priority.

Obama achieved many foreign policy victories on an opening to Cuba, a nuclear deal with Iran, close relations with Europe, and a sense of clarity around the world for what America stands for. Now we have confusion and lack of clarity and a void in U.S. leadership.