Trump’s Iran Deal Violation, A Region On The Brink, And What Happens Next
Donald Trump is leading the world into a major crisis, one solely of his own making
On Tuesday, President Trump decided to undo a decade’s worth of diplomacy and withdraw the US from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the agreement intended to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. He did this in typical Trumpian fashion: without much precedent, against the wishes of the US’ most trusted allies and his most competent advisers, and with no clear plan to replace what he is endeavoring to destroy. The withdrawal will have wide-ranging implications on peace in the region, nuclear proliferation in general, and how US foreign policy is viewed by others for the rest of Trump’s time in office.
The JCPOA: A Brief History
In order to understand the importance of the JCPOA, it’s important to recall the events preceding it. In the early 2000s, intelligence reports alleged that Iran had been developing a clandestine nuclear program, in violation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which prevents the spread of nuclear weapons. Though Iran has repeatedly professed they were expanding their nuclear program for scientific and energy purposes only, the nature of their program (using military facilities, for example) and their refusal to submit to proper monitoring measures suggested otherwise.
Despite more than a decade of sanctions and trade embargoes, Iran continued ramping up uranium enrichment efforts. They were doing so at a fast pace by Obama’s second term, using secretive underground facilities that made military strikes difficult. Before the deal, it is estimated Iran possessed around 8,000 pounds of uranium (enough for seven warheads) and were close to building a potential site for mining plutonium at Arak. Experts put their ability to create a nuclear warhead at anywhere between a few years to mere months. The capabilities of their ballistic missile technology suggested such a warhead could be able to reach Israel, and potentially Europe. The US tried various approaches to slowing down Iranian progress, including a cyber attack with the so-called Stuxnet worm. The Israeli military even had preparations for military strikes on Iran in place in 2014, a move that would have triggered a regional, if not global, war.
After numerous standoffs and failed rounds of talks, the Obama administration was able to get Iran–after Hassan Rouhani, Iran’s moderate president, came to power–to the negotiating table in Vienna that same year. Along with the other four permanent members of the UN Security Council (the UK, France, Russia, and China) and Germany, they were able to craft the JCPOA in 2015.
What Does The JCPOA Do?
Generally speaking, the agreement reduces Iran’s nuclear material and suspends its potential for uranium production and enrichment. In return, they are granted sanctions relief from the West. Since the inception of the deal, Iran reduced its stockpile of uranium by 95 percent, dismantled two-thirds of its centrifuges used for enrichment, and rendered inoperable the planned Arak reactor that was to be used for plutonium mining.
The entire process is monitored by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN’s nuclear watchdog. Under JCPOA, the IAEA oversaw the destruction of nuclear material and rendered the planned Arak site inoperable. They also monitor live video streams of Iran’s two remaining nuclear facilities, safeguard all dismantled centrifuges, and analyze samples from Iran, all in an effort to ensure the country does not backtrack. Taken together, such measures represent the toughest nuclear monitoring regime ever imposed on any country.
Of course, like every deal, the JCPOA is not perfect. It’s a framework with an expiration date, with most restrictions to be phased out between 10 to 15 years after the deal’s inception. There are also limits to the reach of international monitors; they can’t access military sites, for example. The deal also does not eliminate Iran’s potential for uranium enrichment, meaning they could theoretically restart their program soon after the deal expires.
Despite this, the deal has, by all accounts, been working according to plan. The IAEA has confirmed, nine separate times, that Iran has complied with all facets of the JCPOA. Even General James Mattis, Trump’s own Defense Secretary, has attested to the deal’s effectiveness.
In return for their compliance on the deal, Western countries gradually lifted embargoes and sanctions imposed on Iran. This was done not just to prompt Iran to follow the rules, but to incentivize them to dump their nuclear ambitions all together through increased national output from trade and investment. This was just starting to bear fruit; for example, exports to the EU increased by almost 350% in 2016 alone. Major Western companies began exploring investing in Iran, in industries from tourism to car making. Even more importantly, Iran gained access to international banking and over $100 billion of cash from oil sales they were unable to repatriate due to sanctions imposed by the US in 2012.
Why the Trump Administration Opposed The JCPOA? (And Why They’re Wrong)
Despite the JCPOA’s success in limiting Iran’s nuclear capabilities, Trump vowed to withdraw from the deal since beginning his run for office. As President, he repeatedly lambasted it, reiterating some of the shortcomings mentioned above, and inventing some of his own.
In order to make the deal seem like a failure, the White House cast it as something it is not (with some success, given the outcome.) In tweets and speeches, including the one yesterday, Trump repeatedly pointed out that the deal has not stopped Iran from sponsoring anti-American terrorist proxies in the Middle East. Other complaints included a false assertion that Iran was being given money to abide by the deal (they were just allowed to repatriate frozen funds); that Iran’s ballistic missile program was not covered by the deal; and also that Iran just plain can’t be trusted, no matter what the IAEA and intelligence reports say. This last claim was a favorite refrain of Trump’s recently appointed national security adviser, John Bolton, a man who has championed military action against Iran in a manner that borders on gleeful.
The Trump administration’s claims appeared to be further bolstered last week by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In a televised appearance, though one that was put on solely for Trump’s benefit, Mr. Netanyahu revealed a trove of documents captured by Israeli intelligence that asserted that Iran lied about the nature of its program prior to the JCPOA. However, the relevance of this intelligence was not clear, given that the very purpose of negotiating the JCPOA was because the West suspected Iran’s nuclear weapon ambitions. Nor did Mr. Netanyahu provide any evidence that Iran was violating the JCPOA in any way. Still, the appearance of evidence seems to have been enough for Mr. Trump.
Some of Trump’s claims aren’t necessarily incorrect. Iran has indeed been sponsoring terrorist groups all over the Middle East, and they have continued the development of ballistic missiles. But the JCPOA does not address these issues. It is solely an agreement to limit Iran’s nuclear capabilities, and it has been successful in doing that.
The JCPOA does not prevent the US and other Western countries from doing more to rein in Iran’s proxies; they just have not done so. Trump likes to talk tough, but in fact, has done little to beat back Iran-backed militias in Syria and Yemen. Hizbullah, another Iran-backed group, claimed a majority in Lebanon’s parliament the day before Trump’s speech. Also, by eliminating financial benefits to Iran, Trump takes away the biggest incentive for them to cooperate with Western demands. In other words, Iran will likely continue to try to aid these groups one way or another.
Trump and Netanyahu’s opposition to the deal also fails to yield any sensible alternative. European leaders have admitted that the deal is not perfect in their pleading with Trump not to violate it, and were open to tweaks. However, the JCPOA’s opponents seem to be under the illusion a more comprehensive deal will materialize if they pull the plug. This is a dangerous, and senseless, gamble, all the more so because Trump’s violation threatens to undo the only mechanism (IAEA monitoring) that has been able to verify Iran’s actions.
What Happens Now?
Trump promised new, and perhaps tougher, sanctions on Iran. He has given foreign companies and countries up to six months to wrap up operations in the country before falling afoul of US banking and business regulations. He is betting on these sanctions bringing Iran quickly to the table, though he has no plan on what he will do if this doesn’t happen.
Trump and Bolton have made no secret that they are pursuing outright regime change in the country. In a three-page white paper circulated to national security officials, the administration is hoping to assist the Iranian public in toppling its theocratic government. This “plan” is as fantastical as it is short-sighted. Though many Iranians do not support their current regime, they are also not enamored with the US, and especially not its current leader. As before, sanctions leveled by the US will hit regular people in Iran the hardest. They will not soon forget that.
Israel, for its part, seems poised to respond to Iranian intransigence aggressively. Bombs were dropped in the Syrian capital of Damascus on the day of Trump’s announcement. Iran has responded in kind, sending rockets into the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights from Syrian territory held by their proxies. More attacks from both sides will follow.
President Rouhani has naturally responded angrily to Trump’s transgression. He claims Iran can return to its uranium production activities in weeks, and that American sanctions can be mitigated eventually. The leaders of the three European signatories to the deal–Theresa May of the UK, Emmanuel Macron of France, and Angela Merkel of Germany–are scrambling to ensure Iran stays in the deal. Both sides stand to lose a lot if the deal falls apart. However, the Europeans do not have much leverage with the US out. Despite huge increases, the EU only accounts for 6 percent of trade with Iran. That may not be enough to entice Iran into staying.
Indeed, Mr. Rouhani may find it hard to continue the deal even if he wanted to. Hardliners in the government have long mistrusted America’s promises. Trump just proved their misgivings were correct, and they are not happy about it (see video below). Already facing allegations of corruption in his cabinet, simmering unrest, and a slumping currency, Mr. Rouhani will be hard-pressed to muster the trust needed to continue the deal domestically.
Hardline Iranian lawmakers burn the US flag and chant ‘death to America’ after Donald Trump scraps the nuclear deal pic.twitter.com/YHiix6J81f
— The Independent (@Independent) May 9, 2018
Russia and China will be key to any hopes of preventing the deal’s demise. Both countries have remained committed to the deal, and last week issued a joint statement urging all sides to maintain their obligations to it. Neither country will likely join Trump in levying sanctions against Iran, as they already have vested interests in continuing their activities with the country.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has reportedly called for a summit between Russia and the US to discuss Trump’s decision. Putin will be keen to exploit the situation, casting Russia as a follower of international norms (unlike the US) in order to downplay allegations of wrongdoing leveled against them. Russia has also been fostering stronger ties with Iran for several years. They jointly back the Syrian government of Bashar Assad. The two countries also oppose American intervention in the region. On the other hand, President Putin might prefer to sit back and see how things play out, content with the rise in oil prices the threat of sanctions brings, at least in the short term.
China’s response is even more difficult to predict. They have traditionally shied away from playing an active role in major negotiations, aside from occasionally countering Western interventionism. While they are major importers of Iranian oil, they were previously able to dodge sanctions by selling Iran commodities in lieu of cash, and could easily do so again. However, they may opt to project more influence this time around. President Xi Jinping, fresh from essentially crowning himself ruler for life, has become more keen to exert China’s clout abroad. China holds a lot more economic leverage with Iran than the West, accounting for about a quarter of Iran’s trade balance. An increase in tensions could hamper China’s grand ambitions in the region, including its new Silk Road initiative. This prospect could be enough to get Mr. Xi to join the European effort to preserve the deal.
This Goes Beyond The Iran Deal Itself
In withdrawing from the deal, Trump has fulfilled a campaign promise but achieved little else. Worse, he has put America and the rest of the world in a much more precarious place. He has signaled to the rest of the world that US commitments are not to be trusted, which will render further diplomatic endeavors with any country all the more difficult.
Chief among them is talks with North Korea. The Trump administration believes their aggressive rhetoric brought North Koreans to the negotiating table, and believe this will happen with Tehran as well. Fat chance. Withdrawing from the JCPOA only makes the regime of Kim Jong Un all the more distrustful of dialogue with the US, putting a legitimate resolution out of reach. They will doubtless seek assurances more binding than the Iran deal, which would be politically impossible for the US government to accept. Any positive momentum produced by both sides up until now is fast eroding just as talks are approaching.
The violation of the JCPOA also endangers arms control the world over. If Iran renews its commitment to make a nuclear bomb, it may prompt other countries to seek to do so as well or to expand their arsenals. Saudi Arabia, Iran’s regional rival, is already mulling to begin their own nuclear program if Iran restarts theirs.
Rogue states such as North Korea and Iran are also not the only nuclear threats the world is facing. A renewal of the START treaty, a major nuclear arms deal between the US and Russia also looms large. The potential for productive talks on this issue between Mssrs. Trump and Putin is not likely, given the precedent Trump has set with his decision on Tuesday. Both Trump and Putin both also see nukes as a sign of national power, making reducing their numbers hard as it is. Worse yet, Trump reportedly doesn’t even know what the deal entails. Needless to say, there is a serious potential for a renewed nuclear conflict.
In reneging on the JCPOA, Trump may have thought that he could treat Iran as one of the contractors he ripped off as a businessman. His failure to understand that his actions can have deadly consequences has now made the world a much more dangerous place. The biggest threat to peace does not reside in Tehran or Pyongyang, but in the White House.