Republicans applauded President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw the U.S. from the Iran nuclear deal Wednesday, while Democrats warned that reneging on that agreement could complicate efforts to reach a similar multi-lateral compromise with North Korea over its nuclear weapons program.
“I didn’t think it was a good deal then,” said Rep. David Valadao, R-Calif., of the Obama-era agreement. “I don’t think it’s a good deal now.”
Trump had long been critical of the agreement reached by President Barack Obama with Iran, Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and China. Under the deal, Iran agreed to halt nuclear activities in exchange for relief from economic sanctions and submitted to inspections to verify its compliance.
Opponents of the agreement complained that it did nothing to address Iran’s other disruptive behavior in the region or its ballistic missile program and that key provisions would eventually sunset, potentially allowing Iran to restart its weapons program in a decade.
Obama administration officials and European leaders who urged Trump to continue supporting the deal say it was always intended to focus narrowly on the nuclear issue and it would significantly set back Iran’s progress toward a nuclear weapon if the regime did attempt to revive its program. Without a deal, they fear Iran’s activities could go undetected and unchecked.
After reluctantly signing off on waivers of sanctions several times in the first year of his presidency, Trump announced Tuesday he would no longer do so, meaning sanctions could be phased back in over the next six months in violation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
“So we have terminated a terrible, terrible deal that should have never, ever been made,” Trump said at a Cabinet meeting Wednesday. “And we will be putting on among the strongest sanctions that we’ve ever put on a country. And they’re going into effect very shortly. They’re mostly constituted and drawn already and we’ll just have to see what happens.”
According to Republicans, Trump fulfilled a campaign promise to unravel an agreement that was not keeping America safe and he is now firmly positioned to negotiate a better one.
“It’s all about making sure we have an Iranian nuclear deal that stops them from getting nuclear weapons,” said Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C.
Rep. John Faso, R-N.Y., said maintaining U.S. credibility abroad is important, but the JCPOA has failed to modify Iran’s dangerous behavior in places like Lebanon and Syria.
“I don’t think the deal was good right from the get-go and I think the president has to weigh the ramifications with our allies and with others,” he said. "I think it’s a close call at this point, but I think he made the right decision."
As President Trump prepares for what would be a historic meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to discuss denuclearization, Democrats believe the Iran decision will cast a shadow over those negotiations and cause Kim to doubt that the U.S. can be trusted.
“If, from one administration to another administration, America can determine whether or not it wants to stay an agreement or not, I wonder what terms the North Korean leader is going to try to exact in terms of us attempting to denuclearize North Korea,” said Rep. Jim Costa, D-Calif.
According to Rep. Don Beyer, D-Va., Trump appears to have made real progress in diplomatic negotiations with Kim, as illustrated by the release of three American hostages by Kim’s regime on Wednesday.
“It is ironic, though, if we’re going to make a nuclear deal with North Korea, if they really are going to denuclearize in the years to come, we’re going to have to have systems set up to trust and verify,” Beyer said, “and that’s exactly what we’re tearing down in Iran right now.”
The Trump administration has argued the inspections allowed under the JCPOA were insufficient. In the absence of evidence that Iran is violating the deal, though, Democrats say withdrawing from the deal without cause sends the wrong message to Pyongyang.
“It’s a terrible signal to North Korea that we won’t stand by our treaty commitments,” Beyer said.
However, Republicans stress that the JCPOA was not a treaty, which would have required the approval of two-thirds of the Senate. It was an agreement Obama administration officials reached with the full knowledge that a future president could easily dismiss it.
“Because this was not a ratified treaty in the way normal treaties would go through the Senate, it was always ambiguous…,” Meadows said. “Each administration has the autonomy to do what they believe is best.”
After meeting with Kim Jong Un in North Korea Wednesday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told reporters the date and location are set for Trump and Kim’s summit, and details may be announced early next week. It will be a one-day event, with the possibility of extending into a second if needed.
Republicans cast Trump walking away from the Iran deal as a sign of strength that will demonstrate to the North Koreans this administration is serious about denuclearization.
“I think the reality is that they have no reason to believe Trump will sign a fake agreement that won’t result in real change,” said Rep. Warren Davidson, R-Ky. “I think they know Trump will expect actual meaningful results from an agreement, and I think if there’s a treaty, this president will submit it to Congress.”
Pointing to past agreements intended to prevent North Korea from developing nuclear weapons that failed to do so, Meadows suggested the Obama administration repeated those mistakes with the Iran deal.
“It almost guaranteed they would be the next North Korea,” he said.
Trump said Wednesday that he expects Iran will eventually return to the negotiating table, and Republicans remain hopeful that a more advantageous agreement can be reached.
“Everybody can say this was the best deal we could ever have,” Meadows said. “That’s simply not the case. We find that bad deals lead to bad future behavior.”
However, if a better deal was ever possible, Rep. Kurt Schrader, D-Ore., warned that Trump walking away from the existing agreement may have wiped out any chance of that.
“If I’m Iran, I’m not going to trust anything this president does,” he said.