The real estate tycoon meets Iran
Some time ago, I intended to purchase a building in New York City. It was a soaring and glittering tower that would bear my name in gold letters. I negotiated and signed a contract to buy it. Then I decided I negotiated a bad deal. The price was too high and the terms were overly generous to the sellers. So I reneged. I pulled out. I walked away. I told the sellers they could pound the pavement outside what was to be known as Israel Tower.
Fine, said the seller, the deal is undone. But wait! How dare they not keep their end of the bargain I skipped out of! Do they not understand that a deal is a deal, even when I withdraw from the deal? I can defy, but they must comply. I can hire people to do things and just not pay them, or pay them a fraction of what was promised. This is the “Art of The Deal.” That is a simplified way of describing the escalating crisis over the Iran nuclear program. America made a deal, withdrew from the deal, and drained Iran of any benefit of the deal. Now we issue bellicose protests and foreboding tweets about Iran announcing violations of the agreement we ditched.
If it sounds impossible in a transaction in the real world, consider that it may be standard operating procedure in the world of Donald Trump. This is New York City real estate, where negotiations are often based on bluff and bluster. This is where walking out of negotiations and threatening never to return to the table is as predictable as returning to the table.
The obvious problem is that we are not discussing glass and steel but centrifuges that could spin uranium to make new weapons. The 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action limited Iran to uranium enrichment levels harmless enough for various types of medical instruments. That created an effective moratorium of up to 15 years on the ability of Iran to enrich to 90 percent, enough to build a nuclear warhead. In return, many, but not all, of the international sanctions on Iran were suspended.
I opposed the deal because I believed that it did not sufficiently address Iranian support of terrorist organizations, its transfer of weapons, and its ballistic missile capabilities. But the deal was reached, and it was working, or at least its nuclear terms were. However, it did not modify conventional Iranian malevolence. The regime has used proxies to attack our troops, supported Hezbollah in Lebanon and Houthis against Saudi Arabia, placed military elements close to the border with Israel in Syria, and much more.
President Trump withdrew us from the deal and levied crippling sanctions on Iran. As a result, the Iranian economy is spiraling. Denied most benefits of the deal, Iran has resorted to its past nuclear posture. It has announced that it exceeded the cap on uranium enrichment. Continued enrichment returns us to a worst case breakout time of about a year. Hawks in and out of the administration, unchastened by the miserable consequences of Iraq, are rattling sabers. It was only the last minute change of heart that Trump had which canceled a retaliatory military strike a few weeks ago.
If it is all a “trumpesque” real estate strategy, as risky as it can get. Trump has roiled Iranian politics by vilifying the more moderate players while strengthening hardliners. President Rouhani and Foreign Minister Zarif assumed enormous political risk in negotiating the deal. At the time, the hardliners said, “You cannot trust America.” Now they are saying, “We told you so!” How can the moderates now come back with new concessions?
It is possible that the Iranians are playing by the “trumpesque” rules. Their declarations could be a blustery attempt to force Europe and others to plug up the draining revenues caused by the United States sanctions. Meanwhile, in North Korea, we continue to puzzle the world by bending over backwards for Kim Jong Un. Iranian leaders may be fanatical, but they are basically rational. Kim is fanatical but also supremely irrational.
Time will tell if the behavior employed by a savvy real estate tycoon to develop golf courses will achieve the shuttering of uranium centrifuges. Friends of mine who know and support Trump often tell me that there is a method to the madness. In the case of Iran, I am praying that is the case.
Steve Israel represented New York in Congress for 16 years and served as the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee from 2011 to 2015. He is now the director of the Institute of Politics and Global Affairs at Cornell University. You can find him on Twitter @RepSteveIsrael.
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