Remember all those warnings not to normalize Donald Trump’s presidency? Well, it looks as though when it comes to Iran, the presidency has started to normalize Trump.
On Tuesday evening, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson certified that Iran was in compliance with the nuclear bargain negotiated by Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, and five other powers. We are a long way from Trump’s campaign rhetoric, when he said that deal was the worst deal in the history of deal-making.
From the perspective of the Washington establishment, the decision to certify Iran’s compliance was not hard. The nuclear agreement required America and its allies to lift sanctions and unfreeze assets up front, whereas Iran’s deliverables — limits on enriched uranium, access for international inspectors, and other restrictions on its program — were doled out over its lifespan. Even most Iran hawks did not see the wisdom in blowing up the nuclear agreement they opposed, if only because at least now Iran was forced to be transparent about its nuclear activities and the international sanctions on Iran were already lifted.
All of that said, Tillerson’s certification decision was contentious within the Trump administration. U.S. officials familiar with the interagency process tell me the White House and State Department fought throughout the day on Tuesday over the language of Tillerson’s statement to accompany his notice to Congress certifying Iran’s compliance with what is known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
Tillerson won that battle. His two-paragraph letter to House Speaker Paul Ryan acknowledged a Trump administration review of Iran policy. It also said, “Iran remains a leading state sponsor of terror through many platforms and methods.” But Iran experts at the White House and inside the intelligence community wanted to go further.
Two U.S. officials involved in the process told me analysts at the White House wanted Tillerson to mention in his statement Iran’s support for Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, the Tehran regime’s continued detention of political opposition figures and human rights abuses, its missile proliferation and its support for Houthi separatists in Yemen. In the end, Tillerson asserted the State Department’s authority over the certification process and issued the toned-down statement.
All of this is important in the context of Trump’s first 90 days. When the president came into office, Iran was in the crosshairs. Trump’s first national security adviser, retired Lt. General Michael Flynn, addressed the White House press corps in early February to put Iran “on notice.” Mike Pompeo, who was one of the sharpest critics of Iran when he was a member of the House, was selected as Trump’s CIA director. It was not even clear the U.S. would remain a party to the agreement back in January, particularly since that agreement was never ratified by the Senate as a treaty.
Much of that bluster is now gone. Nonetheless, a senior National Security Council official told me Tuesday evening that Iran was still on notice and that the jury was still out on Iran, considering its broader destabilizing behavior in the region. That jury, for now, is the interagency review of Iran policy, as Tillerson noted in his letter to Ryan.
Until a new policy is ironed out on Iran, there are a few hints that Trump will be tougher than Obama. For example, last week the Treasury Department sanctioned Sohrab Soleimani, the brother of the commander of Iran’s deadly Quds Force, Qassem Soleimani. The brother was sanctioned for abusing prisoners and other human rights violations. This marks a contrast to the final years of the Obama administration, when the sanctions process was largely put on hold during the negotiations over the nuclear deal and in its aftermath. Iran has already complained that the Treasury Department’s action against Soleimani violated the spirit of the nuclear accord.
Other possible changes on Iran policy include new rules of engagement for U.S. vessels in the Persian Gulf as well as a reassessment of U.S. policy towards Iranian-backed militias fighting the Islamic State in Iraq.
Given the tensions over the statement issued Tuesday evening inside the Trump administration, there is no certainty on how any of these matters will be resolved. But the fact that the process is driving policy is itself a sign of progress.
Gone are the days when a few senior Trump White House aides drafted an executive order banning the travel of foreign nationals from many Muslim majority countries, without consulting much of the government. It’s all following a familiar Washington pattern. Cabinet secretaries protect their bureaucratic turf. Leaks are aimed to advance a position in the inter-agency process. Bureaucrats debate the merits of public statements.
And yes, Trump’s style remains unique. After all, what other president tells his Chinese counterpart, over “the most beautiful chocolate cake you’ve ever seen,” that 59 Tomahawk missiles were just fired at a Syrian air base?
But the process by which his government makes and implements policy is starting to look normal.
Eli Lake is a Bloomberg View columnist. Readers may email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.