Trump is about to kill the Iran deal — and what lies ahead could be catastrophe
Next act of decaying American empire: Abandoning a deal that promised a new beginning in the Middle East
Here comes the next act in the Theater of Desperation that Washington has made of American foreign policy. Unless President Trump changes his ever-changing mind, the administration will abandon the accord governing Iran’s nuclear programs next weekend, assuming the White House holds to its schedule. Congress will then be authorized to reimpose the sanctions that had been in place before the agreement went into effect in early 2016.
This is stupid enough. If you ever wonder how a decaying empire behaves and do not feel like plowing through Gibbons’ history of Rome’s decline and fall, the next little while is your moment. Erratically, you will find. Irrationally. Desperately in its fury to preserve the primacy that cannot be preserved.
But pitiful is to follow stupid, erratic, irrational and desperate.
Washington had five partners in the 2013–15 negotiations with Iran: Britain, France, Germany, China and Russia. It will betray all of them — as well as Iran, of course — when it walks out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, as the pact is formally known. The European powers on this list will then acquiesce to Trump’s wishes and begin to negotiate a new agreement with the Trump administration. This is pitiful. The French, British and German leadership should be ashamed of themselves for this display of cowardice and unhygienic dependence.
Let’s play “What is wrong with this picture?” I win. For one thing, Iran has no intention of entering into new talks so as to open the JCPOA for modification or replacement. Mohammad Javad Zarif made this rippingly plain in a statement distributed by video Thursday. “Let me make it absolutely clear once and for all,” Iran’s foreign minister said. “We will neither outsource our security, nor will we renegotiate or add on to a deal we have already implemented in good faith.” The usually composed Zarif seems in a state of controlled apoplexy, if there is such a thing, and I do not blame him.
Second point: The other signatories in the P5+1 group, China and Russia, have already announced they will stand foursquare behind the Iranians. Sound foreign ministries are usually going to leave room for negotiation as a matter of principle, but I do not see the Iranians, Chinese or Russians going anywhere near the preposterous terms Washington and the Europeans now seem intent on putting on paper. I will return to these terms shortly.
What are we watching here? There are a couple of executive summaries readers may find useful.
One, the Iran accord now takes shape as a confrontation between West and non–West. We are likely to see a lot of this in coming years, as half a millennium of Western preeminence draws to a close before our eyes. But the Iran accord could have been something special in precisely this respect — a model of global cooperation on which much more was to be built. The Iranians and Russians were very clear about their aspirations on this point. Now a pact once full of a certain kind of promise will mark another step in the consolidation of a non–Western bloc that has China, Russia and Iran as charter members. The gathering density of their ties seems to be a secret only in Washington.
Two, Washington is about to do what it often does when circumstances require it to enter into a diplomatic process: It negotiates, it signs an agreement, it commences complaining about things the agreement does not cover and then it abandons the agreement. You have seen this before, readers, although some may not be aware of it, for the press plays an especially pernicious role in this progression: By the time Washington abrogates its responsibilities, you have read all about why the other side cannot be trusted, why the other side is at fault and why the U.S. is the aggrieved party.
There must be many possible outcomes in these weird circumstances — weird because there is simply no logic to them. Maybe in history the Western powers have acted this irrationally, but I cannot think of such an occasion in my lifetime.
Staying short of predictions, then, in my view the very best that can come of this is another round of what Americans do best when the State Department rather than the Pentagon is running the show: We will now see just what coercive diplomacy is made of. This is if we are fortunate. If luck is against us, we will soon be talking about the chances of a very dangerous open conflict.
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To be honest, I thought the main defect of the Iran accord as signed was that Iran gave away too much. The inspections regime is offensive — the most intrusive on record. Having to ship all inventories of enriched uranium out of the country and reimport supplies as needed was an insult to Iran’s sovereignty, about which the nation is rightfully sensitive. “The sanctions did their work,” a source replied when I told him I was surprised Tehran had accepted the accord’s terms. When the Obama administration started chiseling back on its commitment to lift sanctions, there seemed a danger of provoking a Versailles syndrome, but the Iranians have proven too intelligent to let this happen.
If I am not predicting much, I will predict this: Zarif is not bluffing. Apart from declining to reopen the pact, Tehran cannot possibly accept the terms likely to be the core of it:
- Iran’s ballistic missile program is covered by U.N. resolutions, which Tehran abides by. This program is essential to Iran’s self-defenses — especially given Saudi Arabia’s newly aggressive posture and Israel’s incessant belligerence. Remember when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu complained publicly that Iranian missiles would make an Israeli attack more difficult? This sums it up neatly. Now Trump wants to include limits on missile development in whatever form a JCPOA II may take.
- Trump identifies Iran’s regional activities as “terrorism” and wants a new deal to prohibit them. He singles out Syria and Yemen and then mentions “other parts of the Middle East.” This is tantamount to saying Iran cannot have a security policy in its near-abroad. It is in Syria at the Assad government’s invitation (unlike the U.S.), and is there to counter Sunni nationalist militias backed by Saudi Arabia and intent on toppling a secular government. It went into Iraq with similar motives, to the benefit of the U.S. not least. Iran’s role in Yemen was minor and did not constitute a confrontation with the Saudis until the latter made it into one. Once again, Zarif has said many times that Iran favors a regional security pact through which sectarian and sovereign conflicts can be settled peacefully.
- Trump wants to extend the expiration clauses in the JCPOA, which now run in stages to 2025 and 2030, indefinitely. I have never seen the point in pressing these conditions, given that Tehran demonstrably did not have, was not developing and did not want nuclear weapons well prior to the accord. Who is going to be around a dozen years and more from now, in any case? How is this enforceable? At the very least, indefinite commitments are another imposition on Iranian sovereignty — another step too far.
It is flatly impossible any of these stipulations will go anywhere once some new accord emerges from the hothouse of discussion among the Western powers and into the clear light of the world as it is in 2018. The Europeans are on record supporting the first two of Trump’s new conditions and hesitating on the third. At best the Europeans will trim Trump’s lawn around the edges and let it go at that, in my read.
This endeavor, in short, has confrontation written all over it.
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So many things are lost, so many opportunities, as the Iran accord, for all its unfairness to Iranians, tips over. As I have followed this question for many years, it is one of those foreign policy disasters that bring true sadness into my study.
As previously noted in this space, the moment Iran and the Western powers agreed to negotiate, in the autumn of 2013, there was a future Middle East beckoning and a Middle East destined to slip into the past. Relations across the region were bound to change. The U.S. could break its unhealthy dependence on the Saudis as an oil supplier and one-half of its policy framework in the region. Israel, with a prime minister other than the egregiously violent Netanyahu, could reach an accommodation with Iran. Washington would have more leverage to encourage something at least approximating a just settlement of the Israel–Palestine conflict. The nuclear accord was a stone thrown into a pond, and the ripples outward would be many.
None of this has come to pass. Washington chose the disorderly past instead of the sustainable future. This goes back to the Obama administration, poor as Trump’s judgments have been. Even as John Kerry negotiated with the Iranians, Obama’s secretary of state stressed repeatedly that an accord would change no other dimension of the U.S. position toward Iran. I judged this an idiotic waste of opportunity at the time, but now look: Saudi Arabia and Israel, once adversaries but forming the twin pillars of U.S. policy in the region, are now in an increasingly open alliance against the Iranians. It is the reassertion of the past in a surprising new form.
I conclude with a few remarks about the Europeans. Here again, waste and loss.
The three European powers party to the Iran accord articulated an independent voice for the first time in decades during the negotiating period and for a time afterward. They made a difference, as did the Russians on a number of important occasions. This lent the JCPOA significance quite beyond its specific intent. Europe could have become what it ought to have been long earlier: an independent pole, an alternative perspective, a balance within the Atlantic community.
Straight off the top, the Europeans could have exerted formidable pressure on Washington to stay in the Iran agreement. Six against one, counting the Iranians: It is impossible to measure how effective European resistance to the Trump administration might have been, but the chance of success is not the true issue: Resistance was simply right. Consider the Asians and the Trans Pacific Partnership in this connection: The U.S. left, Asians proceeded, and now he U.S. seems to want back in.
In effect, Trump’s Washington has called the Europeans’ bluff, and we watch as they fold their hand to shrink back into impotence. Let us now destroy the Iran pact in order to save it: This is the European position and there is no mileage whatsoever in it. They are effectively signing on as adjutants in Washington’s next round of coercive diplomacy. Given the Iranian stance and the support it has from Russia and China, that diplomacy will be plenty coercive this time, if I read matters correctly.
Europe’s loss at its own hands extends outward from here. It just chose between West and non–West in either/or fashion, but it did not have to. If European leaders were smarter than they seem to be, they would understand their future lies in a kind of productive, beneficial ambiguity: They are Western, of course, but many of their most promising prospects derive from their position at the flank of the Eurasian landmass — a terminus for China’s Belt and Road project, among other things. Equally, Europe must reach a settlement with its periphery — North Africa and the Middle East — with an urgency the U.S. has no idea about. It just took a step in the wrong direction.
Iranians will lose, and lose big, if things continue in their current direction. So will Americans, So will Europeans. So will Chinese and so will Russians. So will everybody. Judgments made in desperation are rarely sound, and this is how Washington makes many of them these days.