Team Trump seems bent on undoing the Iran deal: So what happens next?
Major global disorder lies ahead if the McMaster clique dismantles the Iran deal. In some ways that might be good
We had better brace ourselves for a further descent into global disorder: The next round in the Trump administration’s determined effort to subvert the accord governing Iran’s nuclear programs now seems to be well under way. We have H.R. McMaster, President Trump’s national security adviser, clamoring belligerently for concerted action against the Islamic Republic. And we have the agreement’s European signatories — Britain, France and Germany — in full post-1945 mode, scurrying to accommodate Washington by going back on their word enough to satisfy the Trump White House while contending the pact still works.
There is hope, we read. It can be done, we read. I do not see much and I do not think so. I see more needless risk in a region already teetering at the edge of spreading conflagration after 15 years of American military adventure.
The European plan is to salvage the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, as the nuclear accord is formally known, by writing a second agreement that alters key terms of the first. Alters as in effectively nullifies, I mean. Some readers will be prompted to recall the old Vietnam-era senselessness: “We burned the hamlet to save it.” Stay with the thought. In the best outcome deriving from what is now coursing through the diplomatic traffic, the Western powers are now embarked on a search-and-destroy operation — the Americans frontally, the Europeans with a touch of apology and regret that will matter not at all at the horizon.
Here is the curious thing about the flurry of diplomatic activity in recent days. The four Western signatories are busy as beavers making plans among themselves for what some kind of JCPOA II will look like. So far as one can make out, little attention is paid to the other three parties to the pact — Russia, China and, of course, Iran. None of these is likely to accept any consequential alteration to the original accord. The Iranians are very explicit on this point. I do not conclude the Western powers are either stupid or neglectful. It is more likely they think they can coerce the other signatories to cooperate under threat of anything up to armed hostilities against Iran. I do not see it. If I am correct, we are entering uncharted territory.
If I had to choose a starting date for this effort, I would put it at Feb. 16–18, when officials from scores of nations convened for the Munich Security Conference, an annual affair that is often more than a mere talkfest: Munich has produced significant developments on a number of occasions in the past. The unreported diplomacy was probably in train for months prior to this occasion. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had earlier circulated a memo to U.S. diplomats in Europe advising them to warn the Europeans that the U.S. plan on the way was more or less a take-or-leave proposition. But it was in Munich that the Trump administration began to press its case against “the worst deal ever,” as the president likes to call it.
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I have never gotten over how American liberals took to praising McMaster, along with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, as the moderating voices within the Trump administration. They are anything but — McMaster in particular. This man is a committed war-maker straight out of Stanley Kubrick. With his locked jaw and perennially hostile gaze, he reminds me of the slightly crazed Alexander “I’m in charge here” Haig, President Reagan’s secretary of state. Like Haig, McMaster expresses that most regrettable aspect of the American character — fixedly paranoid in his visions of enemies everywhere, an archangel in his militant pursuit of them in the name of our providential goodness. Go for it, Democrats, “progressives” and those of the “Resistance.”
McMaster has entertained the thought of imperial dominance across the Middle East at least since he served as an officer in the 2003 invasion of Iraq and, one suspects, since his service in the first Gulf War a decade earlier. This has left him with an abiding obsession with Iran’s rise as a regional power — a reality there is no stopping no matter what one may wish. These things are evident if you trace McMaster’s career, his positions and his utterances, but it was in Munich that he pulled the sheet off the work of art.
McMaster said a number of interesting things when he addressed the conference. Here is a good one, a reminder that American officials will say anything anywhere with no trace of irony and still expect faux gravitas to carry the world along: “Unfortunately, respect for sovereignty is under siege around the world,” saith the still-in-uniform lieutenant general. But McMaster’s primary focus was on Iran — or, more precisely, Tehran’s alliances in its opposition to jihadists fighting to install Sunni-nationalist regimes around the region. “What’s particularly concerning is that this network of proxies is becoming more and more capable,” McMaster said. “So the time is now, we think, to act against Iran.”
There is your bedrock statement of the course the Trump administration appears to have settled upon. By now, paying-attention Americans must all be familiar with the sensation of being prepped for new hostilities, and anyone who is not should understand that is what we are now subject to. But it is interesting: McMaster’s “time to act” bit is not in his remarks “as prepared for delivery” and later published by the White House. Food for thought: Do we have a policy renegade here? Did McMaster overstep what had been agreed upon in the administration prior to his departure for Munich? Did he simply get carried away, Haig-like, with his version of messianic fanaticism?
McMaster’s remarks followed Tillerson’s memorandum to diplomats serving in Europe by mere days. In it he outlined three imperatives his envoys were ordered to convey in London, Paris and Berlin:
- An agreement covering Iran’s ballistic missile program. The JCPOA does not address missile development or testing.
- A rewrite of the nuclear accord to allow international inspectors full access to all Iranian military facilities.
- An extension of the schedule written into the JCPOA such that the prohibition on Iran’s production of enriched uranium stretches indefinitely into the future.
There are a few things to say about this set of demands. The first is that the Tillerson memorandum is entirely in keeping with American practice when it signs agreements such as the JCPOA: Negotiate, come to terms, sign and when everyone goes home with an accord commence complaining about matters it does not cover as if these are transgressions. Anyone who follows American diplomacy has seen this pattern or variations of it numerous times. The Obama administration often touted the Iran accord among its most significant achievements. After it was signed, the Treasury Department instantly sent officials to Europe to threaten continental banks with sanctions if they did business with Iran. In large measure this has succeeded in keeping Iran at the periphery of the international finance system, perversely undermining the Obama administration’s right to claim an accomplishment.
“In the absence of a clear commitment from your side to address these issues,” Tillerson instructed American diplomats to tell European counterparts, “the United States will not again waive sanctions in order to stay in the Iran deal.” This is State Department-speak for what McMaster told the Munich conference in Pentagon-speak. All are now on notice: If the administration is not granted its wishes by May 12, Trump will not defer new sanctions against Iran, as he has reluctantly done to date, and the JCPOA will collapse.
Now to comment briefly on Tillerson’s demands one at a time:
- Iran’s missile program is essential to its defense, especially in view of the Israelis’ incessant belligerence and indifference to international law. It has been governed by numerous Security Council resolutions, the most recent of which, UNSC 2231, was signed shortly after the nuclear accord was made final. Barack Obama’s UN envoy, Samantha Power, soon set about arguing that Iran was in violation of 2231, the language of which was negotiated with extreme precision over many days. Power finally desisted for the simple reason that her position was indefensible: Iran is in compliance with 2231 to this day. With this background in mind, Tillerson’s memo on this point can be viewed as a resort to Plan B: Since no one will go along with the fiction that Iran’s missile program is unlawful, let us make it unlawful.
- Many were those — and I among them — who were astonished at how much the Iranians conceded to get the JCPOA signed. Among the accord’s most surprising features was the extent to which Tehran surrendered sovereignty to international inspectors: There is no comparable inspections regime on record. Now the Trump administration proposes further intrusions in this line. All Iranian military facilities open to inspection, probably at any time and without prior notice? I do not see this as more than a provocation intended to guarantee Tehran’s refusal to negotiate new terms.
- The JCPOA’s timelines extend to 2030 — 15 years beyond the date the accord went into effect. This has been a sore point in Washington from the first. To demand now that these expiration dates be eliminated is (1) again doomed to get nowhere in Tehran, where many will view it as another excessive concession, and (2) more or less without meaning, since no one in any of the signatory nations, including Iran, will be in power even in 2030, never mind beyond that date. Trump’s willingness to abrogate the JCPOA three years after it was agreed makes this point all by itself. In my read this demand expresses nothing so much as the pathological obsession with total security that America developed with the rise of Big Science just before World War II and through all the decades since. This has led to trouble time and time again, and now it is likely to lead to more.
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Tillerson’s demands have duly made the rounds in European capitals since he sent his memorandum to his envoys. In my read, the European response to these imperatives and McMaster’s speech suffers from a malady that has been evident since the British overplayed their hand in the 1956 Suez crisis and America began to consolidate 70-odd years of preeminence. I refer to the streak of weakness at the core of Europe’s diplomatic culture since the first postwar leaders came to power. They simply cannot find a voice of their own even when — as often, and as now — the U.S. acts against their interests.
As noted, the Europeans are now scrambling to satisfy the McMaster clique in Washington without wrecking the accord altogether. In Munich, according to a few sparse press reports, European officials convened on the sidelines of the conference with an Iranian official, whom I take to be Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif or, at the very least, someone high in his entourage. The European bid on this occasion was to urge Iran to drop its alliances in resistance to Sunni-nationalist jihadists, notably in Syria. Plainly this was in response to McMaster’s “network of proxies” remarks.
I rate Zarif one of the two ablest diplomats now on the scene. (The other is Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister.) Zarif had already spoken eloquently before the meeting with Europeans. In his remarks to the conference he stressed, as he often does, Iran’s proposal for “a fresh regional security architecture,” about which you have read not one word in the U.S. press. “This is simply recognizing the need to respect the interests of all stakeholders,” Zarif said. “In a quest to create a ‘strong region,’ we need to be realistic and accept our differences.” Zarif then went on to relate the nuclear accord to regional cooperation of the kind Tehran advocates: “Immediately after the conclusion of the JCPOA, Iran sought to use the same approach for the Persian Gulf and proposed to create a ‘Regional Dialogue Forum.’”
Iran wants the JCPOA: This is my simple point. And maybe Zarif is gifted enough to find a square inch on which to compromise still further with the Western powers. He is at least listening at this point, but only listening. He has said nothing, and I have to be honest: I do not see anything he can do with either the U.S. or European approaches that will pass as acceptable in Tehran.
Nor do I think anything should, I ought to add. It is not Iran’s place to capitulate to Washington as it pursues a profoundly unwise strategy.
What are the risks we all assume as the Trump administration proceeds and the Europeans play tagalong? What will the consequences be if my pessimism as to where this is headed proves justified? To put my take-home first, we will be worse off if the Western strategy succeeds than if it fails. But even in the event of failure we will remain in a dangerous new phase of the McMaster grand design.
Closest to home, the already evident breach in trans-Atlantic ties could widen. This is the conventional wisdom. But it assumes the Europeans determine at some point to defend the nuclear accord against Washington’s onslaughts. I can think of little that would be more desirable: Europe ought to take this occasion to stand up, say “No,” and protect the accord as it is. But I doubt they will. One has waited too long for Europe to find its feet and speak for itself independently of Washington. Trans-Atlantic alienation has festered for many years, and there is probably more in the making now. But I do not see a proper breach at this point.
The Israelis are another question. The Netanyahu government railed ceaselessly against the JCPOA even before negotiations began and has not stopped since. If the accord collapses, it will rail again that Iran is once more free to pursue its nuclear capabilities as it may wish. Tehran has long been on record as having no intention of weaponizing its nuclear programs, and there is no evidence to contradict this — one big reason, in my read, it was willing to give up so much to get the accord signed. But this has never mattered to Israel. If the new Western initiative goes as badly as I suspect it will, Israel will be an absolute wild card.
Now we have to consider the Saudis. The aggressive crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, plans to build up to a dozen and a half nuclear reactors as part of the ambitious industrialization program he announced two years ago. While these are intended to generate energy, there are plenty of indications that the option to weaponize is either on Salman’s mind or in a policy paper on his desk. The consequence of shredding the nuclear pact with Iran in this context — the worst kind of Middle East arms race — is obvious.
Readers may recall that I view parity between West and non-West the 21st century’s single most important imperative. Like it or not, here it comes. If we view the new Western undertaking to undermine the 2015 nuclear accord in this context, there is one outcome that is long-term likely and, I would say, well into net-positive territory.
Sanctions and adversarial foreign policies are beginning to leave the sanctioning power more isolated than those sanctioned. The Russians, for instance, announced a year ago that they were prepared to drop out of the global interbank financial system known as SWIFT. It is a radical thought, and Moscow plainly does not want to take such a step, but it is considering it in the face of ongoing sanctions that impede investment flows and bank credits between Russian and European institutions. More immediately to our point, China has said it will open an oil-futures market denominated in yuan by the end of this month. De-dollarization of the global economy remains a long way off, my sources in the financial markets continue to remind me. But the centuries-long era when there were no alternatives to Western markets and capital is without doubt drawing to a close.
The Iran nuclear accord has been key, or potentially key, to many things. It could have been the foundation for productive realignments in the Middle East such that rising regional powers, Iran and Saudi Arabia chief among them, might have accommodated one another in the cause of stability. The pact itself bound the West and three prominent non-Western powers in a cooperative effort that is probably unprecedented. The Obama administration repudiated the former opportunity. Now Trump’s administration appears set to forgo the latter.