Trump and the Iran nuclear deal
The Trump administration lacks a coherent policy on Iran. Important members of the cabinet have publicly supported the Iran deal, yet Trump has called it a national embarrassment and has threatened to unilaterally withdraw from it repeatedly. On October 15 he could decertify that Iran is adhering to the nuclear deal, making the deal effectively meaningless. This could potentially create a nuclear armed rogue Iran that would be completely in opposition with the long-term national security interests of the US, Europe and Israel.
Anti-JCPOA protesters in New York City. (Photo: Jim Henderson)
It was always clear that a Republican US president would want to undo the Iran nuclear deal (JCPOA). However, Trump seems to be particularly obsessed by the idea of undoing Obama’s legacy, which appears to be his main motivation in dealing with Iran. In a recent speech at the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) he described the country as a “murderous regime” and the deal as “one of the worst and one-sided transactions the United States has ever entered into.” He continued: “Frankly that deal is an embarrassment to the United States and I don’t think you’ve heard the last of it. Believe me.” Considering Trump’s record this was a fairly diplomatic speech. However, like all of his speeches, it was directed at his supporters and was full of threats towards Iran, North Korea and Venezuela, even threatening genocide against the North Korean people if the regime fails to comply with Trump’s demands.
This could probably be the first time in history that the US’ European allies openly compared a US president’s speech to that of a leader of a “rogue regime”. In fact, Trump even violated Article 2.4 of the UN charter, something usually reserved to North Korean diplomats. Preventive self-defence is not justified by the UN charter. He thought he would be able to impress heads of state and UN ambassadors by pointing out that the US will soon be spending over $700 bn on its military (he didn’t mention the 30% cuts in the State Department budget). All in all, this was a nationalistic speech, regurgitating Trump’s election promises, while desperately attempting to look like a strong president and destroying Obama’s legacy.
Trump’s view on Iran almost completely isolates the country in the world, with the notable exception of Saudi Arabia and the Israeli right-wing. To be fair, his view is far from marginal in the Republican Party and large parts of the Democratic Party (including US Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer). Nevertheless, it is important to note that Trump’s view on Iran doesn’t represent that of all his advisors and cabinet members. Both James Mattis and Rex Tillerson have publicly defended the deal and stressed its importance to America’s national security. On October 3, defence secretary Mattis did so in front of the Senate armed services committee. Secretary of state Tillerson has pointed out on several occasions that he believes in diplomatic solutions and has “made efforts to calm things down”. However, last Sunday morning (October 1) Trump tweeted from his golf course that Tillerson is “wasting his time” negotiating with “Little Rocket Man” and continued that “we’ll do what has to be done”. Considering that Trump has become famous for firing apprentices, it isn’t necessarily reassuring for Iranian officials that the American defence and state secretaries understand the significance of the JCPOA. If Trump continues to undermine his secretary of state publicly, Tillerson might be the next to see himself forced to resign.
Trump’s main case against Iran was that it violates “the spirit of the deal”, an expression that couldn’t be more vague. He accused Iran of building “dangerous missiles” (which, as a sovereign country, it has the right to do so) and claimed that the JCPOA provides a cover for the eventual construction of a nuclear programme, despite monitors confirming that Iran is abiding to the terms of the deal and Trump having waved nuclear related sanctions twice since January. He also accused Iran of being a “big supporter of terrorism”, even though he only mentioned Hizbollah (which is a legitimate criticism) but completely ignored Iran’s fight against ISIS and Al-Qaida. Labelling the country as a supporter of terrorism is not only a gross misstatement of political realities of the Middle East, but also an act of denying history and America’s legacy in the region.
The next deadline for the president to certify that Iran is adhering to the nuclear deal is on October 15. Trump could argue that doing this doesn’t make sense anymore as Iran isn’t abiding to the “spirit of the deal”. Considering his speech at the UN and opposing the Iran deal was one of Trump’s election promises this is isn’t an unlikely possibility. This would force Congress to act - quite similar to the recent revocation of the DACA programme. Congress, which always had a majority opposing appeasement with Iran, could then reimpose sanctions within the next 60 days. In 2015, when Congress initially passed the “Iran deal”, the Republicans were also in the majority. However, Obama threatened to veto any resolution of disapproval by Congress, which would have required a two-third majority in both houses (which the Republicans didn’t control). In other words, with a president opposed to the deal the Republican majority in both houses can easily reimpose sanctions.
Unlike in many European countries (and Japan), there isn’t a strong business lobby for the deal in the US. Due to other US sanctions (e.g. human rights related) American companies cannot operate in Iran and can only do very limited business with Iranian companies, making the deal indeed economically unattractive to the US - in stark contrast to Europe. So withdrawing from the deal makes sense from an American business perspective. Further, many Western officials (especially in the US) are frustrated by Iran’s unchanged neighbourhood policy (e.g. support for Assad, Hizbollah and the Houthis). Many had hoped that the deal would give an incentive to Iran to cooperate in other areas together with the West, even though this was explicitly absent in the deal.
Trump had already sparked speculations of withdrawing from the deal in the beginning of his presidency, but got sidetracked by other issues, such as the “Muslim ban” and the infighting in the White House. However, this did not stop the Trump administration from actively lobbying other countries to cut back trade with Iran and discouraging multinational companies from conducting business in Iran, as many fear that their actions could be punished in the future or their investments would be lost if the situation escalates. While Trump might be talking of Iran violating “the spirit of the deal”, America is actually the one country outright violating the deal, specifically article 29, which states that EU member states and the US shall refrain from any policy specifically intended to directly and adversely affect the normalisation of trade and economic relations with Iran.
Of course the US can’t just unilaterally end the deal. After all, it involves the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) plus Germany and the EU. Rather Trump’s strategy appears to be to undermine the deal and hope Iran will ultimately withdraw. Trump wouldn’t even have to decline to certify the deal or extend the waivers for the nuclear related sanctions (another deadline is coming up in January 2018). Simply threatening to unilaterally withdraw will already have an adversarial impact on Iranian trade relations. Either way, it would make it impossible for Iranian trade relations to ever normalise. Further, frustrated by America’s behaviour, anti-Western forces in Iran and political extremists would only be further strengthened. Moderate forces in the country have invested a lot of political capital into the deal. Trump threatening to withdraw from the deal only reinforces the (oftentimes justified) stereotype of the “ugly American” and the untrustworthy partner. This would encourage Iran to bolster its defence capabilities in case of an American attack - with Trump’s rhetoric it would be difficult for Iranian moderates to oppose this. If Trump fails to certify the deal on October 15 (assuming Congress will reimpose sanctions) and the deal becomes meaningless (i.e. no economic incentives for Iran to adhere to it), moderate forces in Iran would be completely politically isolated. In that case hardliners would have an easy time reintroducing the nuclear programme. This would turn a sometimes difficult partner into a nuclear crisis, comparable to North Korea.
Trump’s claim that a “better deal” could be negotiated after bringing the JCPOA to a collapse is not only outlandish but completely ignorant of the political situation in Iran. Iranian moderate forces would be marginalised and America’s reputation as an unreliable partner would prevent any Iranian politician to invest political capital in a potential deal with the West (any deal would have to include America to make it economically meaningful). This would also have larger consequences for relations between Western countries and other “rogue states”, most importantly North Korea. It would give Kim Jong-un a further incentive (besides, for example, Iraq and Libya) that the US is not to be trusted and the only way to ensure the continuation of his rule is to develop nuclear weapons capable of reaching major US cities to deter a possible American attack, as can be currently observed.
In conclusion, Trump’s Iran policy can be described as naive at best. While some of the criticism on Iran is justified and should be addressed, unilaterally abandoning the deal is simply short-sighted policy. The JCPOA was negotiated separately from Iran's contentious neighbourhood policy or human rights abuses and thus the issues shouldn't be mixed up to criticise the deal. The diplomatic solution to Iran’s nuclear ambition has managed to contain a very serious threat (i.e. war) to the national security of the US, Europe and Israel. Luckily Trump’s cabinet is split on the issue. Moderate voices, such as Mattis or Tillerson, could convince the president of the importance of the deal. Yet Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric will continue to do much damage. If Trump continues to certify the deal, Iran will most likely choose to ignore the contradictory messages coming from the White House and continue to work together with European countries and Japan. Although Tehran might be tempted to strengthen its military capacities (including missile tests) to show its population that Washington’s threats aren’t going completely unheard. Washington's actions will also have wider consequences. Retreating from the nuclear deal (i.e. cooperating with Iran, assuming a new deal will not be negotiated) will strengthen Russia's position in the Middle East and drive Tehran closer to Moscow. It will also have severe consequences on the already strained relationship between European countries and the US. North Korea will most likely be further motivated to invest in its nuclear programme to secure the survival of the current regime. Trump’s rhetoric is proving Pyongyang yet again that America can’t be trusted under any circumstances.