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Interview: What Does Trump's Change In Iran Policy Portend For Region?

Although he did not pull out of the nuclear deal, U.S. President Donald Trump slammed Tehran for what he says are violations of the "spirit" of the accord, in part for its continued testing of ballistic missiles and its support for extremists in the Middle East.

U.S. President Donald Trump's announcement to "decertify" Iran on its compliance with the landmark 2015 nuclear accord, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), has sent ripples throughout the Middle East and Europe, raising questions on everything from U.S. obligations to international agreements to whether Tehran will respond with more covert activity in the region.

Mara Karlin, who served at the Pentagon under five U.S. secretaries of defense and was involved in policy planning and strategy for multiple Middle Eastern issues, spoke with RFE/RL about the potential consequences of Trump's policy shift.

RFE/RL: Is there anything surprising in this shift in policy by the Trump administration?

Mara Karlin: It seems as though we went through this giant hullabaloo, where the president was threatening to tear up this deal, per his political promises throughout the election and afterward. And instead what he's choosing to do is really defer his power to Congress.

So the Washington story is this is a diminution of executive power. The Europe story is the European allies have been really put through the ringer for not terribly much. And the Iran story is that there's a lot of bluster with not a lot of change.

RFE/RL: Is there anything particularly troubling, what we know about the policy changes?

Karlin: There's a lot of unknown. As an American, I find the weakness in the executive power to be a little bit worrisome. What's also troubling is we don't know what it will look like to take these kind of vague steps toward the Iranian [Islamic] Revolutionary Guards Corps that have been announced. How active will they be; how will the Iranians respond? It's conceivable that they then call the U.S. military a terrorist organization and they take active steps against them. The unfortunate piece here is that this entire issue has just become so highly politicized over these last few months rather than taken as a serious deliberation of a policy matter.

RFE/RL: Iran has already telegraphed some of its responses in anticipation to the change in policy. What else can we expect from Tehran?

Karlin: I think what we can expect from Tehran, and others frankly around the world, is a questioning of U.S. willingness to actually stick with its agreement. I think we can probably expect a continuation of Iranian bad behavior and meddling across the region, which has only increased in recent years. And I think we can probably expect the Iranians to pretty severely criticize the administration, since there had been this hullabaloo expected and not much really coming out of it.

RFE/RL: And where the Europeans are concerned?

Karlin: The Europeans obviously were in on the entire effort to bring together the nuclear deal with the Americans over the last few years, and I think saw themselves as equal partners. And it's curious how, when you look at what's come out of this administration, they've argued so much of these decisions have been in consultation with close allies but our European counterparts would really not agree with that whatsoever. The discussion and dialogue in recent weeks to blow up the deal has in many ways required the Europeans to stand up and quite vociferously and arguably uncharacteristically argue their views in the hopes of trying to preserve the deal, and they probably didn't feel like equal partners in the past weeks.

RFE/RL: One of the arguments of the JCPOA is that it amounts to a treaty yet Congress was not involved; that is, Congress didn't vote on the original deal. So could you make the argument that Trump is in some ways operating properly under the U.S. Constitution where Barack Obama didn't?

Karlin: I think Congress absolutely has a voice and role on this critical issue of national security import, but the way that should happen is with dialogue and with collaboration. And instead what you have seen is really just a deferral of power.

So the president is effectively saying that it's Congress that should make the decisions on the things like sanctions, when really he has the ability to do so. Had you had over the last few months close collaboration with Congress, you could have gotten past that initial, and somewhat valid, criticism that Congress wasn't sufficiently integrated in this effort on the nuclear deal when it first came together and instead could have had them work together on actually an area that they actually agree on: that is, how to deal with Iranian bad behavior around the region.

RFE/RL: One of the other central criticisms of the JCPOA is that it only dealt with the nuclear issue, and ignored other "bad behavior" like Hizballah, militias in the Middle East, and the ballistic-missile tests. How valid is that criticism?

Karlin: It is accurate JCPOA doesn't address these issues, and yet it is also somewhat irrelevant. There are two buckets of challenges that the international community has faced with regards to Iran in recent years. One has been the nuclear piece. And one has been this bad behavior across the region. It would have been impossible to get concurrence on the bad-behavior piece.

And I think you see that pretty clearly in terms of, just using Hezbollah as an example, how the American government and the European governments have very different approaches toward Hezbollah, in terms of interactions with Hezbollah. So If you had tried to pull together an agreement, that looked at both of these sets of challenges. it would have never come to fruition. You could have never had had agreement at that period of time that would have dealt with both the terrorism issue and the nuclear issue.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity