NEW YORK CITY — As President Trump prepared to give his address at the United Nations on Tuesday morning, United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI), a decade-old, bipartisan, non-governmental organization, was opening its annual summit just down the road. The line-up for the event at New York City’s Roosevelt Hotel was full of heavy hitters. David Petraeus, Jeb Bush, John Bolton, Bill Richardson, and Joseph Lieberman were just a few of the political celebrities in attendance.
In his opening remarks, Lieberman, UANI’s chairman, praised the Trump administration’s Iran dispositions, calling it a “sea change” from the deal-at-any-cost Obama administration. Leiberman called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), or Iran deal, a waste of leverage, suggesting Obama had given away the farm for little in return.
Not surprisingly, given UANI’s mission to keep Iran from achieving nuclear arms, this would not be the last attack on the JCPOA. Speaker after speaker from both parties, including early and vociferous opponents of President Trump, trashed the deal while urging the president to take a harder line in regard to Iran.
America’s Agenda Shouldn’t Put America First
The first panel discussion featured Petraeus and Prince Turki Al Faisal bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud, chairman of the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies. Neither man pulled his punches. Petreus and Al Faisal both warned against focusing all of our efforts on anti-terrorism while casting a blind eye to the actions of regional governments, including Iran and Syria.
According to Petraeus, Muslim-nation partners like Saudi Arabia are essential because “this is more of a clash within Islam than a clash between Islam and the West.” But while a coalition is needed, the retired general also made clear that America with its intelligence and military capabilities was obviously still the essential actor.
Al Faisal warned that Iran is boasting about its ambitions and accomplishments and that the growth of its power in the region, especially in Syria, will blow back on the United States, Russia, and rest of the world. In a telling moment, Petraeus, after insisting he is non-political and doesn’t even vote, praised the Trump administration’s April missile attack on Syria following the former’s use of chemical weapons. He called the action “measured and proportional,” and it was impossible not to see it as a rebuke of Obama’s refusal to back up his own red line on chemical weapons in Syria.
The second panel focused more directly on president Trump’s foreign policy regarding Iran and the related threat from North Korea. Former governors Bush and Richardson both expressed the need for international cooperation and skepticism about the president’s “America first,” rhetoric, which Bush said can operate as a code for isolationism and even bigotry. Bush did, however, urge that we should follow what the administration is doing, not what Trump says or tweets. On that front, both Richardson and Bush expressed encouragement.
The Democrat and veteran diplomat Richardson leveled harsh criticism on the JPOCA, saying “we should have gotten a better deal.” Neither of the former governors supported leaving the deal, but both spoke favorably about using it as leverage and possibly expanding sanctions within its framework. Specifically, Bush suggested expanding sanctions to cover the entirety of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, not just selected members.
Talk of Not Certifying Iran’s Compliance with the Deal
As attendees settled in for an elegant lunch in the hotel’s Terrace ballroom, reaction to the president’s speech began coming in. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tweeted that the speech was the boldest and most courageous he has heard at the United Nations in 30 years. Trump’s tough talk was welcomed by the next set of panelists, who tackled the legislative outlook on Iran as the audience sipped coffee and enjoyed mini lemon tarts.
Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) was joined by his fellow Republican, Rep. Ron DeSantis (R-FL), and former Democratic congressman Steve Israel. All three voted against the Iran deal and none have changed their minds about it. Kirk recalled a meeting he and Israel had with a leading Iranian official who apparently spent the first 45 minutes denying the Holocaust. When Kirk called him out on it, the official insisted he was instructed to do so. The point of the story seemed to be that Iran is not to be trusted.
Kirk responded to the president’s address by saying that it seemed to him to indicate that Trump is not planning to certify that Iran is in compliance with the nuclear deal. This would allow Congress and the president to respond with any number of minor or major sanctions. DiSantos said the fact that Obama or any Democrat is not president might open the door for some Democrats in Congress to support the president in decertifying Iran’s compliance. Israel agreed that without pressure from a Democratic president, some Democrats who had been pressured by the White House under Obama could have a change of heart.
Relief at Promises of Aggression
At times the summit felt like a festival of neo-conservatism. There was evidence of palpable relief that President Trump is showing he’s willing to be more aggressive on foreign policy than his predecessor was. That aggressive attitude could not have been assumed based on the president’s campaign rhetoric, but was clearly welcomed by the participants and attendees.
The general attitude towards Trump seemed to be something along the lines of “atta-boy,” and one got the sense it was a direct appeal to a president fond of “atta-boys.” The UINA, which lobbied hard against the JPOCA only to see it signed anyway, had a fresh new hop in its step.
While the threat of a nuclear Iran is still serious and deeply troubling, the panelists all indicated that the Trump administration is taking a stronger and more effective approach to restraining Iranian nuclear ambitions. Even regular Trump critics like Bush and Israel seemed relieved that Trump, not Obama, resides in the White House, at least in regard to Iran.
Is this goodwill something the president can parlay into a bipartisan political and foreign policy victory? Only time will tell, but on this day in New York City, the prospect for such a victory seemed bright.