All the signals coming from the White House point to Trump being inclined to abandon the accord, despite attempts by Merkel and Macron to dissuade him…
The deadline is fast approaching for US President Donald Trump to decide whether to stick with the Iran nuclear deal that was signed by his predecessor in office, and under which Iran is committed to limit its sensitive nuclear activities in exchange for relief from international sanctions, or to withdraw from that agreement and re-impose penalties on the Islamic Republic of Iran.
And all the signals coming out of the White House indicate that the US president is now inclined to abandon the accord.
The nuclear accord, also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – which was agreed to by Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (US, UK, France, China and Russia) plus Germany, and was then approved by the Council – committed Iran to limit the size of its stockpile of enriched uranium, which can be used to make nuclear weapons, for 15 years, and the number of centrifuges installed to enrich uranium for 10 years. The Iranians also agreed not to produce plutonium suitable for a nuclear bomb.
In early 2016, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) certified that Iran had fulfilled its key commitments, giving a green light for the implementation of the JCPOA.
But then in the same year, President Barack Obama, who regarded the Iran deal as the crowning foreign policy achievement of his presidency, concluded his second term in office and was replaced by a fierce opponent of the agreement. And the result was “Tehran, we have a problem!”
President Trump has blasted the Iran nuclear deal before and after the 2016 presidential election as “insane”, “ridiculous” and “worst ever” and as a symbol of the “incompetence” and the kind of diplomacy of appeasement allegedly practised by President Obama. And he threatened to withdraw the United States from it on his first day in office.
In addition to complaining that the deal only limited Iran’s nuclear activities for a fixed period, President Trump insisted that it had failed to stop the development of Iran’s ballistic missiles.
Moreover, he also criticised former President Obama for providing Iran with a financial package of US$400 million plus US$1.3 billion in interest, money that purportedly was partial payment of an outstanding claim by Iran for US military equipment that was never delivered. President Trump described it as a windfall for Iran that would be used “as a slush fund for weapons, terror and oppression” across the Middle East.
But President Trump’s criticism of President Obama’s policy toward Iran went beyond the nuclear deal. As he and other critics saw it, President Obama was pursuing an overall new Middle East strategy under which Washington launched diplomatic rapprochement with the regional Shiite powerhouse of Iran, and started to distance itself from its traditional allies in the region, the Jewish state of Israel and the leading Arab-Sunni states, Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
Indeed, the leaders of Israel and Saudi Arabia have claimed that Iran was posing a threat to their national security through its alliances with other Shiite governments and movements in the region, and as part of an effort to dominate the Middle East, and asserted that the JCPOA would not deter Tehran from developing nuclear weapons that could eventually endanger their own existence.
President Trump and his top aides were intent on reversing that policy, by reaffirming the alliances with Israel and Saudi Arabia, the two destinations for President Trump’s first foreign trips, and by collaborating with the Jewish and Arab-Sunni states in trying to contain their Shiite adversary, starting with the annulment of the nuclear deal with Iran.
And while President Trump refrained from withdrawing from the nuclear deal during his first week in office, he has twice refused to certify to Congress that Iran was complying with the agreement.
And although he declined to re-impose nuclear-related sanctions, he warned in January this year that the United States would withdraw from the deal on May 12, the next deadline for waiving sanctions on Iran, unless Congress and the European allies fixed the flaws of the agreement.
The Americans and the Europeans have recently been holding talks on ways to fix the deal, including the signing of a side agreement that would commit them to withdraw from the accord if and when Iran violates it.
But there are no indications that the two sides would be able to reach an agreement before May 12, which explains why French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel flew to Washington last week, joining in a last-minute plea to Mr Trump not to rescind the nuclear accord.
During a meeting at the White House and an address to US Congress last Wednesday, President Macron defended the Iran pact but said that “a more comprehensive deal” that would address President Trump’s concerns was possible in the context of the “existing framework”.
But apparently he failed to change President Trump’s attitude toward the deal. “My view is that he will get rid of this deal on his own, for domestic reasons,” French President Macron told reporters.
In response, President Trump said last week he was open to “a new deal”, provided it was strong enough, raising some hopes that the President Macron would be able to sell to the Iranians the idea of re-negotiating the agreement and expanding it to include its critics’ substantive concerns.
That is unlikely to happen, and from the point of view of supporters of the deal, the best-case scenario would be for President Trump to announce on May 12 that the United States is withdrawing from the nuclear deal without asking Congress to re-impose the sanctions on Iran that were lifted by the accord, and thus leaving open the possibility of negotiating a new deal in the future.
In any case, a decision by President Trump to re-impose sanctions on Iran would face strong international opposition. China and Russia will block any new UN economic sanctions, while the Europeans will continue to protect their companies’ trade and investment ties with the Iranians.
And then there is the worst-case-scenario. Forget economic sanctions, and consider that President Trump now has two foreign policy advisors – National Security Adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo – who have been long-time advocates of regime change in Tehran and at the minimum, of the use of military power to destroy Iran’s nuclear sites.
And like President Trump, Mr Bolton and Secretary Pompeo are also strong supporters of Israel who have maintained close personal ties with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has disapproved of the nuclear deal with Iran, and even called publicly on lawmakers in Washington to reject it. On Monday, during a press conference in Tel Aviv, Mr Netanyahu charged that the Iranians have already violated the deal signed in 2016.
Israel’s leaders have also made it clear that they would use military action to prevent Iran from establishing permanent military presence in neighbouring Syria, and have already launched airstrikes against Iranian military bases in Syria, that seemed to have enjoyed the blessing of the Trump administration.
If Israel decides to continue with this policy and perhaps even to attack the nuclear sites in Iran, that is bound to ignite a regional military conflict that – in addition to Israel and Iran – could probably draw in Syria, the pro-Iran Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Arab Gulf states, and force the United States to intervene.
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Leon Hadar is a global affairs analyst who holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from American University. He is a journalist and blogger, whose writings have appeared in The Huffington Post, National Interest, Chronicles, Reason, and Haaretz. He also serves as the Singapore Bureau Chief for the Business Times. Hadar is a contributing editor to The American Conservative. He was a Mideast policy analyst at the CATO Institute, where he routinely criticized American foreign policy in the Mideast. Further, Hadar authored two popular books on U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, “Quagmire: America in the Middle East” (1992) and “Sandstorm: Policy Failure in the Middle East” (2005).