Generally speaking, there’s not a whole lot of dissension within the Republican presidential field over what to do regarding Iran. Each and every single candidate opposes the multilateral diplomatic framework the United States and five other countries worked out with the Iranians over their nuclear program, and they all favor as an alternative a more hardline posture that will eventually result in an undefined, amorphous “better deal.” Where they differ is in what they propose to do with the current Iran agreement, which is poised to go into effect despite opposition from the Republican-controlled Congress. These differences matter, in that they demonstrate to a certain degree which candidates are paying homage to reality and which ones are slinging straight nonsense.
That brings us to Donald Trump. On foreign policy issues, Trump has, to borrow one of his signature phrases, tremendous problems. He frequently has no idea what he’s talking about, like when Hugh Hewitt asked him about Iran’s Quds Force and Trump began praising the Kurds who are fighting ISIS in Iraq. Other times he argues passionately for insane policy ideas, such as his longstanding insistence that we send troops to [insert Middle Eastern country] and seize its oil fields.
Trump has a special interest in the Iran negotiations, given that he prides himself on his deal-making prowess (Trump’s attorney/spokesman describes him as the “best negotiator in the history of this world”). He thinks the Iran deal is garbage, like the rest of the Republican field, but what would he do about it? Here’s what Trump told the Washington Post, as noted by Greg Sargent:
“Iran is gonna be an absolute terror, and it’s horrible that we have to live with it. Nevertheless, we have a contract. We lost the power of sanctions because all of these other folks, these other countries that are with us are gone now, and by the way, making money…everybody is involved now with Iran selling themselves. We’re probably going to be the only ones that won’t be selling them anything….
“I will make that agreement so tough. And if they break it, they will have hell to pay….Politically, and certainly for the nomination, I would love to tell you that I’m gonna rip up this contract, I’m going to be the toughest guy in the world. But you know what? Life doesn’t work that way.”
Much of this is just typical Trumpian bluster: he’ll be “so tough,” he’ll make Iran pay, and Iran will be so awed by Trump’s majesty that they’ll unilaterally disarm. Sandwiched between those layers of bullshit, though, is an important point: Trump, as president, wouldn’t unilaterally back out of the Iran deal because he thinks it would counterproductive and unrealistic. And Trump is right: blowing up the Iran nuclear agreement would be a diplomatic nightmare, a setback in international efforts to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions, and an embarrassment for the U.S. And that means Donald Trump – Donald Freaking Trump – is more of a realist on Iran than most of the Republican presidential field.
Contrast Trump’s remarks with those of Marco Rubio, who is one of the more hawkish Republican candidates and who also presents himself as an expert on national security issues. Rubio’s plan is to withdraw from the Iran agreement on the first day of his presidency and then, in his words, put “crushing” sanctions on Iran. That’s a nonsensical argument – sanctions only become “crushing” when the international community is behind them. By unilaterally withdrawing from the Iran framework, Rubio will have alienated all the major powers he’d need to give his sanctions teeth. He’ll also have provided Iran with an excuse to resume its nuclear weapons program and blame the breakdown of diplomacy on the U.S. When challenged on his plan’s utter lack of logic, Rubio incoherently explained that he’d go it alone if he had to because “we have to look out for our own national security concerns.”
Rubio’s confusion is shared by Scott Walker, who also plans to withdraw from the Iran agreement (and maybe start bombing) the moment he’s done reciting the oath of office. Walker’s alternative to diplomacy is to “place crippling economic sanctions against Iran” and then “convince our allies to do the same,” which, again, is a completely backwards description of how sanctions work.
These two are establishment Republican favorites and real contenders for the 2016 Republican nomination, and they’re making less sense on Iran than the guy who doesn’t know the difference between Hezbollah and Hamas.