Washington – Speaking at a fundraiser in New Jersey over the weekend, U.S. President Donald Trump predicted that he would have a new nuclear deal within four weeks if re-elected in November. In one sense, this is typical bluster from a president who has recently mused that his face should be carved on Mount Rushmore. At the same time, it highlights both a risk about a second Trump term and a truth about the Iranian regime his administration has pressured since taking office.
First, consider the risk. Trump has always explained his maximum pressure campaign as an effort to coerce Tehran to submit to better terms. By itself, there is nothing wrong with that. The 2015 nuclear deal forged by Trump’s predecessor was weak. Key limitations on the technology and scale of Iran’s enrichment program expired over time.
And Trump’s campaign has steadily increased pressure on the regime. The remaining loopholes in U.S. sanctions against Iran have been closed, and Iran’s most important general has been killed. Meanwhile, the United States is planning to introduce a U.N. Security Council resolution to extend an arms embargo on Iran set to expire in October.
But Trump is also prone to flattery, and has expressed desperation for a diplomatic win. As former National Security Adviser John Bolton wrote in his memoir this year, the president was interested in “making a deal he could characterize as a huge success, even if it was badly flawed.”
Now consider the truth about the Iranian regime. Veterans of former President Barack Obama’s administration and America’s European allies have been scathing about Trump’s maximum pressure policy. In part they defend the 2015 deal, but they also say Trump’s current policy is not the way to get a better deal with Iran.
Nonetheless, this is exactly the approach that Obama took against Iran — although he did not call it a “maximum pressure” campaign. After discovering a hidden uranium enrichment facility in 2009, the administration and Congress increased sanctions over time in a gambit to bring the Iranians to negotiations. When the first preliminary deal was struck in 2013, only some of those sanctions were lifted. Economic warfare was waged to get a better deal.
Presidential elections are, of course, a binary choice. If you are worried about what kind of deal Trump may negotiate with Iran, then you might also be concerned that former Vice President Joe Biden would simply re-enter the one that Trump exited.
But Biden has been more cautious than one might expect. The Biden campaign has not pledged, for example, to re-enter the deal unconditionally. “If Iran moves back into compliance with its nuclear obligations,” Biden told The New York Times last spring, the U.S. would re-enter the 2015 agreement. He also added that this would be a “starting point to work alongside our allies in Europe and other world powers to extend the deal’s nuclear constraints.”
For voters who have supported Trump’s tough line on Iran, this presents a dilemma. Who would make a better deal with Iran: a mercurial president who has shown little interest in details and policy, or a former vice president whose administration negotiated a weak one in the first place? Put another way: Do you go with the devil you know, or the devil you once knew?
Eli Lake is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering national security and foreign policy. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast.