Having junked one agreement, can the US President forge another?
For someone so frequently denounced as a liar, Donald Trump keeps an awful lot of promises. In the 2016 election campaign, he promised that he would take the United States out of the ‘terrible’ Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the ‘Iran deal’. Last October, he insisted that the Iran deal be renegotiated. In January, he warned that he was recertifying the deal in its original form for the last time, and again called for its renegotiation. On Tuesday, he kept his word.
The despair with which this decision was met — especially by Britain, who sent Boris Johnson to plead on Fox News for the President to change his mind — seems to overlook an important point. The deal isn’t working. Not because Obama’s deal was ‘terrible’ to start with, though it did have gaps wide enough for an intercontinental ballistic missile, but because it simply hasn’t worked as intended. The deal has turned out to be strategically counterproductive not just to American interests, but those of America’s regional and European allies. And, Trump now adds, to the interests of the Iranian people themselves.
The idea was that Iran would desist from its nuclear activities and be a better global citizen. In return, embargoes would be lifted and trade would surge. The latter half of this has come to pass, with Iran’s oil exports doubling. But much of the wealth has been used to finance Iranian military adventures — which is one of the reasons why Trump called the deal a ‘great embarrassment’ and ‘defective at its core’. At the ‘point of maximum leverage’ in the Vienna negotiations of 2014, the Obama administration and its European allies demanded the minimum of Iranian compliance. Clearly, the former secretary of state John Kerry had not read The Art of the Deal.
The deal did stop most of Iran’s high-grade uranium production, and extended the ‘breakout times’ required to raise it to weapons grade and get it onto a missile. No restrictions were placed on Iran’s development of ballistic missiles. The inspectors were not granted access to military sites. No limits were placed on Iran’s subversion of states across the region — a loophole it has gleefully exploited. Then there’s the ten-year ‘sunset clauses’ on Iran’s production of weapons-grade uranium — an acknowledgement that Iran is pausing its weapons programme, rather than dismantling it as South Africa did in 1989. So this deal left Iran on what Benjamin Netanyahu has called a ‘glide path’ to a nuclear weapon. Even Obama admitted that when the deal ran out, ‘at that point, the breakout times would have shrunk almost to zero’.
But if the deal had been better for American interests, the Iranians wouldn’t have agreed to it. And did the Americans really have maximum leverage in Vienna? The Obama administration was desperate to extricate America from the Middle East. The deal was about getting out of the region at all costs, and bringing the Iranians into the region at the lowest price possible.
The cost to the Americans was the suspension of sanctions, and a payment of $1.7 billion. Perhaps this would have looked less like a bribe if the Americans hadn’t delivered it in cash, and as quietly as possible. The price for Iran was the reduction and suspension of elements of its nuclear programme, and assent to a partial inspections regime.
The Obama administration spun the deal faster than a centrifuge. Their pitch was that lifting sanctions would boost Iran’s economy, and that the nuclear deal would create a ten- to 15-year window for integrating Iran into the international order. None of this has happened since 2015. Iran’s economy and currency remain weak. Rouhani, the supposed ‘moderate’, shows no signs of moderation. Nor do the Republican Guards who, owning about half of Iran’s businesses, are the biggest beneficiaries of the lifting of sanctions. And no one knows how much of that $1.7 billion in cash has gone to Iran’s ‘proxies’ across the region. What’s more certain is that, while the Iranian state has benefited from the deal, the Iranian people have not: by some estimates, household incomes are 15 per cent lower than a decade ago, rising only marginally after the deal. That in part explains why Iranians continue to take to the streets to protest against the regime.
Trump has now bet the diplomatic house that he will be able to stoke that popular resentment to build a better deal or perhaps overthrow the ayatollahs in Tehran — and that this will strengthen, rather than destroy, the moderates in the regime. It’s one hell of a gamble.
When the deal was struck three years ago, the Americans and Europeans thought they were buying a nuclear deal—overpriced, perhaps, but still worth having. It increasingly became clear that western powers have been ‘upsold’, and forced to accept a much more expensive item that they do not want: an Iranian hegemony in the Middle East. Iran, rather than being integrated into the family of nations, is forcibly integrating the Arabs into a Persian empire. This emergent reality renders the deal almost superfluous. With seven years left, Iran has driven the Middle East to the edge of a multi–fronted war. And the deal has become Iran’s economic and diplomatic shield against the consequences of its aggression.
That aggression has exacerbated the Syrian civil war, and started a proxy war with Saudi Arabia in Yemen. It is on the verge of sparking a two-front war with Israel in Lebanon and Syria. Since 2011, Israel has limited its involvement in the Syrian civil war to enforcing strategic ‘red lines’ by air strikes. As Iran deepens its presence in Syria and intensifies its missile shipments to Hezbollah, the pace and force of Israeli strikes has accelerated.
The Israelis are on high alert, expecting retaliatory border infiltrations and missile barrages by Iranian proxies. A couple of weeks ago, defence minister Avigdor Leiberman said that if Iran bombed Tel Aviv, Israel would bomb Tehran. On Monday, Israel’s energy minister Yuval Steinitz suggested that if the missiles were launched in Syria, then Bashar Assad’s ‘blood will be forfeit’.
By leaving the Iran deal, Trump restores some wild-card leverage to the United States as it tries to regain its regional footing. And by stripping Iran of the deal’s protection, he exposes Iran to a US-Russian carve-up of Syria, either before or after the Israelis have levelled Iran’s Syrian bases. On Wednesday, Netanyahu went to Moscow. Is there a deal on the cards, which stabilises Syria and separates Iran and Israel?
Putin wants Assad to stay in power in Syria. Israel prefers Assad to the Islamist alternative, and Russian influence in Syria to the Al-Quds Force at the foot of the Golan Heights. Trump could probably work with all of this. Everyone has made a desert of Syria. Everyone could now call it peace.
Everyone, that is, except the Iranians. On Tuesday, Trump invited them to renegotiate. The sanctions won’t take effect for 90 to 180 days, so there is still time. Given the surreal developments on the North Korean front, anything is possible. It is more likely, however, that the Iranians, aware that the American and European public want nothing more to do with the Middle East, will test whether America and its allies really are, as Trump said, ‘unified in our understanding’. Are the Europeans genuinely committed to a ‘real, comprehensive and lasting solution to the Iranian nuclear threat’, with all the risks that entails, including getting dragged into a regional war by an American president who has yet to articulate a replacement Iran strategy?
As before, Iran will aim to split the United States from its European allies, and call the West’s military bluff by proxy attacks on its allies. The British, French and Germans all tried to convince Trump to save the deal. All failed. The French and the Iranians have floated the possibility of continuing with the deal, as if nothing has changed. But if American sanctions are restored, that will be impossible for any European company with an American account. Which way will the Europeans, having so vigorously defended the deal against Trump’s impulses in recent weeks, jump now?