I do not know Rex Tillerson, the well-regarded former chief of Exxon Mobil, who United States President Donald Trump made Secretary of State. But I do know that if, as Foreign Secretary, I had ever been treated as he was last week by his boss, I would have quit on the spot. Shortly after Tillerson had told reporters that the US has two or three “lines of communication” with North Korea — a completely sensible and correct statement to make — Trump sent out tweets rebuking him for even mentioning diplomacy with Pyongyang. Tillerson then spoke of carrying on in his job, while failing to deny that he had earlier called the President a “moron”. It is a serious mistake for Trump to undermine his own secretary of state and seemingly rule out all peacefully agreed solutions to the crisis with North Korea.
It will not be possible to stop the proliferation of nuclear weapons simply by threatening war. Yet, he now appears to be on the verge of compounding that error by an action which, at a single stroke, will weaken America, splinter his allies and give Kim Jong-un every incentive to fulfil his nuclear ambitions.
In the coming days, Trump seems set to announce that he will no longer certify that Iran is complying with the nuclear deal that the country had signed in 2015 with six world powers, including Britain and America. Under this agreement — the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) — the Iranians agreed to dismantle or scale down their nuclear programme in return for the lifting of sanctions. On the campaign trail, Trump exploited his opposition to the agreement, saying it was “the worst deal ever”. Many other Republicans in the US opposed the deal because they wanted a tougher one, and believe it has serious weaknesses in that it expires in 2025 and allows Iran to continue developing missiles and fomenting unrest in the Middle East.
Like all negotiated compromises, the JCPOA does have weaknesses. It also has great strengths, however. It stopped for years to come Iran’s possession of nuclear weapons, along with the consequent threats of a nuclear arms race, a war with Israel or America, and a major world crisis involving immense economic damage and disruption. As someone who was involved in its negotiation in the early stages, I can testify that it was also the best deal available in the circumstances.
Since coming to power in January, Trump has had a major problem over this issue, because every 90 days, the President needs to certify the Iranians are in compliance. He wants to be able to live up to his rhetoric and say they are not keeping the agreement, but the awkward truth for him is that they are faithfully sticking to it, as certified by the International Atomic Energy Agency. It is now rumoured that he will this week withhold his certification, asking Congress to delay re-imposing those sanctions that the US has lifted, but essentially passing future decisions on that over to the legislature.
Apparently a technical way has been found for him to take this action without America immediately leaving the agreement. The trouble is that this could easily lead to the unravelling of the whole deal, which will clearly lack the support of the US president and will be at the mercy of members of the Congress running for election and each trying to show they are tough on Iran.
The main reason such a decision would be so mistaken, even if there are no immediate consequences, is that it will reinforce the idea that the word of America cannot be trusted; an agreement solemnly entered into by one president can be steadily eroded by the next one. The effects of that will be long term and profound, and will strengthen the hand of the many hardliners in Tehran.
This deal was done only because the thoughtful Iranian President Hassan Rouhani took over from the crazy ranting of his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He has had to overcome strong internal opposition to the nuclear deal, promising economic benefits to his people. If it is ditched in stages by Trump, the hardliners will be stronger in arguing that Iran should be more aggressive in its region, give preference to Russian and Chinese trade rather than with the West, and prepare to resume its development of nuclear technology.
Thousands of miles away in Pyongyang, the North Korean leadership will draw the conclusion that any guarantees or assurances that Washington might give in the future will be worth little, and that they are right to think that possession of ballistic nuclear missiles is vital. Trump doesn’t seem to care that this is the signal sent to North Korea as he rejects any diplomatic effort there anyway, but it clearly undermines his own efforts to get North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to back down. This would be the impact on America’s enemies. But the effect on its allies will be just as significant.
In pushing Iran into a deal, the US had the solid support of Britain, France and Germany. Strong resolutions were carried in the United Nations Security Council. Even Russia and China played a helpful role, often behind the scenes. A move by Trump against the deal would leave that broad coalition badly damaged, with key allies unwilling to agree with the president of the US on an international issue of fundamental importance.
Such disagreement will leave the US administration in a weak position to ever achieve a better agreement with Iran. It will be cheered on by countries that have never been happy with the agreement, but were also getting desperately worried when there wasn’t one. At a time when western nations are under threat from terrorism, internal political turbulence and slower growth than their competitors, the forthcoming decision by Trump will further fragment and divide them. Since a good deal of America’s power flows from its strong alliances, weakening them will only bring a weaker America. Trump’s decision thus threatens to be a major but slow-burning error.
In his own mind, he presumably thinks he is standing up to dictators and nuclear proliferators, but moving away from deals faithfully entered into is not the way to go about that. Even the US needs trust, reason and world opinion on its side. We will find out in the next few days if the US president really understands that.
— The Telegraph Group Limited, London, 2017
William Hague is the former UK foreign secretary and a former leader of the Conservative Party.