May 9, 2018
Yesterday President Trump announced that he is terminating United States’ participation in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran and re-imposing sanctions lifted under the deal.
From the very beginning of his presidency Mr. Trump has denigrated his predecessor, past administrations and their achievements. His principal target has been the Iran nuclear deal. He has said that the deal is one of the worst and most one-sided transactions the United States has ever entered into; that it has failed to address Tehran’s growing missile capability and expanding influence in the Middle East. He has called it “insane”. Such public criticism of one’s predecessors particularly in high office is bad enough but the language he has used must have offended the other four other permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany as well. Because what it means is that they were either duped or devious. CNN’s headline “World holds breath for Trump’s Iran deal decision” and others which said “European allies are on edge” must have delighted him. However, by withdrawing from the JCPOA before seeing the outcome of his summit with Kim Jong-un, Mr. Trump has put himself on the spot. And how all of this relates to his internal troubles is worth thinking about.
The Iran deal extends break-out time for a bomb from 2-3 months to one year; reduces Iran stockpiles of enriched uranium; reduces the number of installed centrifuges by two-thirds; prevents Iran from producing weapons grade plutonium; places Iran’s nuclear activities under monitoring and verification. And so far, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has consistently confirmed Iran’s “continued adherence” to its JCPOA commitments. Whether President Trump would ever come even come close to that with the North Korea remains to be seen.
The deal’s most notable second critic has been PM Netanyahu. Some of his earlier criticism could also be attributed to President Obama’s more nuanced policy on Palestine. With Iraq and Syria conveniently out of the way, PM Netanyahu now wishes Iran to be pushed further into a corner no matter what the price. His “Iran Lied” act was pure theatre. Who would ever believe that a country has a nuclear program but remains one hundred percent disinterested in its military dimension. This is what the non-proliferation regime and IAEA supervision is about. Mr. Netanyahu and President Trump have not only heaped scorn on the nuclear deal but also underlined Iran’s “malign activities across the region” particularly in Syria. The sad truth is Syrian conflict, aggravated through external meddling by major and regional powers, support given to proxies, shifting alliances between regional players as well as different opposition groups and terrorists has never been about the future of the Syrian people. It has been about local, regional and global supremacy. There was nothing high-minded about any of the external interventions. Iran simply played its cards better and with more determination than others.
President Trump called Iran a state-sponsor of terrorism and mentioned its support for its support for Hizballah, Hamas, the Taliban, and al-Qa’ida. His salvoes on the last two are sure to boomerang.
European leaders struggling to retain the nuclear deal have been saying that although the deal may not be perfect it is a step forward which can be followed up. President Trump, however, seems to believe that once the JCPOA is scrapped Iran would have no other choice that coming to the table. His position reflects disregard for pacta sunt servanda (agreements must be honored), the oldest principle of international law.
China’s and Russia’s reaction to Mr. Trump’s decision on the JCPOA will be negative. And the position to be taken by the EU will reflect its level of maturity, its ability to close ranks and take a courageous stand independent of an erratic US President. Beyond the damage done by US’ withdrawal from the JCPOA, sanctions on foreign companies dealing with Iran will likely become an issue and the P4+1 would have to take a principled stand. Russia has for years tried driving wedges between Washington and its European allies. Who knows, maybe in the end Iran would prove more successful on that score also.
Experience gained in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya shows that while external military interventions can bring about regime change, their capacity for nation-building is strictly limited, let alone bringing stability and promoting democracy. President Obama promised to withdraw forces from Afghanistan but the Taliban with its contentious roots doesn’t allow that. The beginnings of ISIS can be traced back to the invasion of Iraq. It was able to emerge as a force to be reckoned with and despite years of investment and training Iraqi army units failed to resist its assault. In other words, while radical ideologies may always have been in store, external military interventions have enabled them to come forward as a serious threat to international security.
Not that President Trump cares, but democratic evolution requires higher levels of enlightened education and energy from within. In the absence of both, Middle East turmoil can last for decades and decades. President Obama was determined to refrain from another military intervention in the Middle East. He put the emphasis on multilateralism, diplomacy and international legitimacy. President Trump on the one hand appears reluctant to commit more troops to areas of conflict but on the other hand he is more inclined to emphasize American military power, going back perhaps to what his predecessor called the “Washington playbook”. Engaging in another regime change project would throw the Middle East into further chaos and dangerously impact Western security. Migration will explode.
It is generally agreed that while withdrawing from the JCPOA President Trump has no plan B. So, what he said yesterday on North Korea may also apply the to the future of the Iran nuclear deal:
“We’ll see how it all works out. Maybe it will, maybe it won’t.”