On Iran, is Trump the most reasonable Republican candidate?

If Mr Trump’s star falls back to earth, we’ll have another Republican front-runner who has vowed to ditch the Iran deal with no plan B, writes Ali Gharib

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. Mike Brantley / Reuters
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The real estate developer turned reality television star Donald Trump came storming into the American presidential race as an insurgent this summer. And he acted like it. The famously coiffed fast-talker garnered attention and took his place atop the polls with xenophobia, racist dog-whistling and even conspiracy theories.

Political analysts are already examining the effect of Mr Trump’s surprise surge: his positions, however offensive, were causing the Republican presidential primary race to veer sharply to the right.

It came as a surprise, then, that Mr Trump seemed to strike the most nuanced tone of any of the candidates on the nuclear deal with Iran.

“I’ve heard a lot of people say, ‘We’re going to rip up the deal,” Mr Trump said on a television talk show last week. “I’m really good at looking at a contract and finding things within a contract... I would police that contract so tough that they don’t have a chance. As bad as that contract is, I will be so tough on that contract.”

Despite the obvious hostility to the deal – Mr Trump had previously said the accord was “terrible” for the United States – he succeeded in drawing a line between himself and his fellow Republican candidates: a lot of them have promised to simply rip the deal up.

Of the Republican field, only former Florida governor Jeb Bush has even come close to reaching Mr Trump’s level of nuance – he said he would review the deal once he got full intelligence briefings as president.

None of the Republican candidates, however, have offered serious alternatives to the deal struck in Vienna. While, surprisingly, none has yet vowed to attack Iran, their notion of ripping up the deal would serve to put the United States back on the path to confrontation.

And yet Mr Trump’s logic for not ripping up the deal – on day one or week one – is impeccable.

For one, Mr Trump rightly pointed out that by the time he or any other Republican is sworn into office, a year-and-a-half from now, Iran will already have received some of its relief, most notably the release of billions of dollars of frozen funds.

Mr Trump has also expressed certainty that Iran will violate the terms of the agreement. That would be the only way to reimpose sanctions because the international community, whose cooperation is required to make the financial penalties effective, must recognise that Iran is at fault.

None of Mr Trump’s Republican competition has offered any counter-narrative of why these two reasons to, as Mr Trump put it, “police” the deal rather than abrogate it don’t stand.

So how is it that Mr Trump, who has spent his campaign yanking Republicans to the right, strikes the most reasonable tone on just this one issue?

It may be that he’s simply seeking to separate himself from the rest of the field: if everyone is swimming one way, Mr Trump can be sure to go the other. Or it could be that all the good polling news and media attention caused Mr Trump to reflect more seriously on adopting reasonable policies.

One thing Mr Trump’s tack is not sure to accomplish is smoothing his path to the Republican presidential nomination. For six years, Republicans have openly vowed to attack any of Barack Obama’s accomplishments for little more reason than that they are Barack Obama’s accomplishments.

To not fight to undo a signal achievement of Mr Obama’s foreign policy seems, at this point in Washington’s polarised politics, to be downright un-Republican.

With polling showing conservatives and self-identified Republicans opposing the Iran deal in huge majorities, one wonders if Mr Trump can get the party’s grass roots behind his insurgent candidacy.

Whatever the Republican electorate does, though, we who must live through the next 15 months of this presidential race should take a deep breath and savour this moment: the most outlandish candidate in a Republican field crowded with outlandish candidates just offered up the most sound foreign policy argument made yet in the race.

If Mr Trump’s star falls back to earth – as many analysts think it will – we’ll have another Republican front-runner who has vowed to ditch the Iran deal with no plan B.

Watching the primaries is bad enough. Watching a war launched against Iran within a few years would be a lot worse.

Ali Gharib is an independent journalist

On Twitter: @Ali_Gharib