Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, a man who keeps his cards close to his vest, has garnered controversy for not following in the footsteps of his predecessors at the State Department.
His critics usually attack him for not making himself available to reporters on his plane while he heads to meetings and not speaking to the press after he completes those meetings. The State Department still hasn’t gotten around to appointing a permanent spokesman, relying instead on an Obama-era holdover to pick up the slack.
So it came as a mild surprise when Tillerson made a short press availability yesterday to talk about Iran. But that’s where the good news ends and the weirdness begins. Tillerson’s press conference was a strange affair. There really didn’t seem to be any purpose other than to assure everybody that the Trump administration views Iran as the devil. Just like former national security advisor Mike Flynn in February, Tillerson had a direct and not-so-subtle message to the Iranians: “You are still on notice.”
The entire press conference was literally held for the sole purpose of reiterating that Tehran is a troublemaker in the Middle East, America’s principal adversary in the region, a meddler in Arab affairs, a sponsor of international terrorism, with contempt for the Security Council by carrying out ballistic missile tests, and a human rights abuser. Oh, and the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action that was negotiated by the previous administration is falling far short of achieving the goal of a nuclear-free Iran. And for that reason, “we are going to review completely the JCPOA itself,” Tillerson says.
Reviews are good. The last thing the federal government needs, particularly in the realm of foreign policy, is to shun flexibility. If a policy isn’t producing the intended effects, it should be modified or scrapped completely. But that isn’t the case with the Iranian nuclear agreement. The deal that Trump bashed as the worst agreement the United States has ever negotiated is actually holding up well, keeping Iran about a year away from breakout status and providing the International Atomic Energy Agency with the most thorough access to Iran’s nuclear infrastructure that the agency has ever had.
However much Republicans despise the Iran deal, it remains the difference between an internationally supervised and limited Iranian nuclear program and a fully unfettered and unmonitored nuclear program. If the choice is between a less-than-ideal JCPOA that the Iranians are complying with — Secretary Tillerson himself just certified their compliance this week — and an Iran that is completely unencumbered to produce enriched uranium, then it’s not much of a choice at all. For a businessman like Donald Trump who should value common sense, the question he needs to answer is a relatively simple one: which scenario gives the U.S. the best returns on its investment?
The Trump administration should absolutely conduct an inter-agency review of its Iran policy. But they shouldn’t tinker with the JCPOA. That deal has forced Tehran to ship 98 percent of its enriched uranium stockpile out of the country, put two thirds of its centrifuge machines in lock-up, and allow the IAEA to monitor its facilities. Like it or not, that’s a lot better than the alternative.