Of Penguins And A Nuclear Iran: Will Trump Scrap "The Deal"?

Netanyahu: "Penguins have no difficulty recognizing that some things are black and white."

Trump: "I have decided...I'll let you know."

Rouhani: "Iran's defense capacities are only a deterrent."

President Trump has been notoriously hard to read when it comes to high stakes foreign policy issues. On Wednesday he told the media, "I have decided" concerning whether he'll scrap the Iran nuclear deal, though not actually indicating what he's decided. But will the US really unilaterally pull out? Like with Trump's backing off of regime change in Syria even after bombing the country last April, will Trump's bark be harsher than his bite on the Iran nuclear deal?"

In his UN General Assembly speech on Tuesday Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had little to say on the Palestinian issue but as was expected blasted the Iran nuclear deal. President Trump, speaking earlier that morning, reiterated his words that the UN-backed deal is "an embarrassment" while echoing Bush's "axis of evil" rhetoric, calling out Iran as a "rogue nation" along with North Korea and Venezuela. Multiple observers reported a visibly elated Netanyahu, who in his address seized on the momentum to say of Trump's speech that, "none were bolder, none more courageous and forthright than the one delivered by President Trump today," and added, “together we can seize the opportunities for peace, and together we can confront the great dangers of Iran.”

Trump hinted as he's done many times before that the six nation brokered deal negotiated under Obama, would be nixed. Trump said of Iran, “We cannot let a murderous regime continue these destabilizing activities while building dangerous missiles, and we cannot abide by an agreement if it provides cover for the eventual construction of a nuclear program,” and continued further with,  “I don’t think you’ve heard the last of it, believe me.”  

Spoof image of the Israeli Prime Minister's presentation at the UN which went viral inside both Iran and Israel soon after he made reference to penguins in the speech: "You laugh, but penguins have no difficulty recognizing that some things are black and white, are right and wrong." Via Twitter

Trump went so far as to invoke rhetoric which sounded like a call for regime change: “The entire world understands that the good people of Iran want change, and, other than the vast military power of the United States, that Iran's people are what their leaders fear the most,” he said. “This is what causes the regime to restrict internet access, tear down satellite dishes, shoot unarmed student protesters and imprison political reformers.”

The president added further that, “It is far past time for the nations of the world to confront another reckless regime, one that speaks openly of mass murder, vowing ‘death to America,’ destruction to Israel, and ruin to many nations and leaders in this room.” Trump issued a litany of other nefarious Iranian actions in the region including support for Hezbollah, enabling Assad's survival, and fueling the crisis in Yemen.

But despite the bellicose rhetoric, common among all presidents of the past decades regarding Iran, it doesn't appear that much immediate action will be taken to revoke the deal. US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley told CBS early on Wednesday that Trump’s words were "not a clear signal that he wants to withdraw, but it is a clear signal he is not happy with the deal, and that the United States is not safer because of it.” Like with Syria of late, it may be that Trump's bark on Iran is much harsher than his bite. 

The Israeli Prime Minister for his part, and in usual fashion during his typically colorful UN speeches, used over the top and at times comedic language to present a scenario of Iran-sponsored doom and gloom in the region should the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) deal be maintained. After highlighting UN "absurdities" when it comes to Israel, which he defined as its generally pro-Palestinian stance and softness on Syria when it comes to the Golan, Netanyahu painted a picture of the world that has already embraced Israel's "exceptional" abilities from fighting terrorism to technological innovation. But he then implied that the Iran deal ought to be a "black and white" while employing some interesting imagery:

After 70 years, the world is embracing Israel, and Israel is embracing the world. One year. Six continents. Now, it’s true. I haven’t yet visited Antarctica, but one day I want to go there too because I’ve heard that penguins are also enthusiastic supporters of Israel. You laugh, but penguins have no difficulty recognizing that some things are black and white, are right and wrong.

Though Israel's stance has always been firmly against any deal perceived as soft on Iran, some Israeli officials see Netanyahu's recent rhetoric as going too far while in actuality lacking any coherent or substantive policy vision. However, one particular item which did catch the attention of both allies and enemies was the odd penguin reference. An image spoof of Netanyahu's 2012 UN speech wherein he held up a cartoon-like bomb began going viral on social media Tuesday in both Israel and Iran. 

Netanyahu maintained Israel's position that the nuclear deal “doesn’t block Iran’s path to the bomb, but actually paves it” while calling perceived Iranian nuclear ambitions a “dark shadow” which Iran's rulers will use "to destroy my country”. He challenged the international brokers of the deal with, “Change it, or cancel it. Fix it, or nix it... Nixing the deal means restoring massive pressure on Iran, including crippling sanctions, until Iran fully dismantles its nuclear weapons capability.”

But it is likely that President Trump is attempting to walk a fine line (despite his hawkish tone) between satisfying the aggressive lobbying attempts of Netanyahu along with the generally pro-Israel conservative base in America on the one hand, while being unwilling to unilaterally pull out of the deal on the other. The international powers backing the deal include the United Kingdom, Russia, France, China, and Germany - all of which are set to meet separately on the sidelines of the General Assembly to assess progress. Recent nuclear inspections found no evidence of Iranian violations of the agreement. It is further likely that the White House sees North Korea as the greater pressing issue, and collapsing the Iran deal would signal to North Korea that any possible future negotiations with the US would prove futile.

Tehran has repeatedly affirmed its position that the existing terms of the JCPOA are non-negotiable, especially after Congress passed controversial legislation requiring Iran to limit missile testing and other activities which are not actually stipulated as part of the original deal. Iranian President Rouhani warned early this week that US abandonment of the deal would come at a "high cost" to Washington. 

On Wednesday Rouhani reacted fiercely to Trump's Tuesday speech in his own address to the UN, calling Trump a "rogue newcomer" bringing "ugly, ignorant words". Furthermore, the timing of the General Assembly meeting is sensitive - Trump must tell Congress by October 15 whether or not he plans to abide by the deal. No matter if Trump's intentions have at any point been more cautious and based in realpolitik, we are in for a whole new round of barbs traded between world leaders, and this alone could shift Trump's thinking, assuming this is still possible. At least by mid-October we will all know the deal's fate.