10 May 2018
The Iran Deal
Trump’s biggest gamble.
By Neil Tidmarsh
So President Trump has rolled the dice and we can see where they’ve fallen. Is anyone surprised? No, not really. He was a critic of Obama’s deal to freeze Iran’s nuclear enrichment programme even before he was a presidential candidate, and he’s been promising to dump it ever since he entered politics (what does surprise us perhaps is the novelty of an elected leader actually fulfilling his election pledges).
What happens now? Does this move necessarily land us on a snake, or could it possibly put a foot on a ladder? There are three possible scenarios. Let’s consider the best one first and the worst one last:
First. Iran returns to the negotiating table. Together with the USA and the other signatories – Germany, France, the UK, Russia and China – a new deal is reached which covers not just the issue of nuclear enrichment but the other problems which concern Trump and his fellow critics of the old deal: inadequate inspection of Iran’s nuclear facilities; the time limit on the freeze on Iran’s non-military nuclear program; Iran’s continued testing of ballistic missiles; its sponsorship of militants and terrorists throughout the Middle East; and the expansion of Iranian military power and political influence into Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen.
A deal which addresses these problems would satisfy Trump and the USA, and give the president a major success to eclipse what was Obama’s big bid for the history books. It would satisfy the USA’s Middle Eastern allies – Saudi Arabia and Israel – by containing their rival and bitter enemy. It would satisfy the USA’s European allies as they could then continue to capitalise on the opening of Iranian markets. Iran would be delighted to have even more of the crippling economic sanctions against it lifted, and to avoid the old ones being reinstated and new ones imposed. Everyone else would be satisfied because it would move us away from further aggressive confrontation and possible nuclear escalation in the Middle East.
Would Iran be prepared to bargain away its growing influence and power in the region? Probably not – but the USA’s promise to re-impose the old sanctions and impose new ones is a powerful threat. Iranian expansionism must already be proving prohibitively expensive for Tehran (even with the relaxation of sanctions which the deal’s critics claim is funding it), with economic and social consequences which could be internally catastrophic (remember the widespread and violent protests against poverty, unemployment and corruption which rocked the country last year?).
Second. Iran continues to observe the deal, ignoring the USA but hoping that the other signatories will continue to honour it, ie that they will not re-impose the old sanctions or impose the new ones demanded by the USA and will continue to do business with Tehran. President Rouhani’s immediate reaction was to say that he would be opening talks with Europe, Russia and China to try to persuade them to continue to trade with his country in spite of the USA’s withdrawal.
France, Germany and the UK have all said that they remain committed to the deal, but the US has told European companies to “wind down” their business in Iran within the next six months, or risk being subject to US sanctions themselves.
Third. Iran abandons the deal, too, and resumes its nuclear-enrichment program. Tehran has always insisted that its programme was civilian and not military, but nobody has ever really believed that. Indeed, it has announced that it would only need 48 hours to begin producing uranium enriched to a purity of 20%, which is much higher than the percentage needed for nuclear energy. It’s still less than the 90% needed to fuel a nuclear weapon, but other parties in the region would be unlikely to let it get that far. Israel has sworn that it would never permit Iran to become a nuclear-armed power, and Saudi Arabia has said that it would develop its own nuclear weapons if Iran resumed its program. Perhaps Trump believes that such action is the only possible solution to the perceived problem, a suspicion that his recent appointment of two anti-Iran hawks – Mike Pompeo as secretary of state and John Bolton as national security adviser – does little to deny.
A foretaste of such conflict came less than two hours after Trump’s announcement: airstrikes hit Iranian military targets in Syria, and reports that Israeli jets had been responsible were neither confirmed nor denied by Israel; Israel did, however, say that its military intelligence had detected troop movements in the area which appeared to be preparations for a missile attack against Israel, just before the strikes.
So, which of the three scenarios is the most likely to develop? Only time will tell. Time, also, is bound to throw up new and less predictable possibilities. The above is based on existing circumstances, which are sure to change in the weeks and months to come.
What effect will Trump’s declaration have on the internal politics of Iran, for instance? Surely it will weaken President Rouhani’s position, and strengthen his opponents, the anti-Western hardliners who have always been opposed to the deal and hold him responsible for it? Surely it will foster a counter-productive anti-USA sentiment which will unite the country behind them?
And what effect will it have on the USA’s standing in the world? The deal was signed by five other countries and was endorsed by the UN and the EU. The USA’s withdrawal could leave it very isolated indeed. And by supporting his Middle Eastern allies, Trump has risked alienating his European allies. And what sort of signals does it send to North Korea as Kim Jong-un prepares to meet Trump to negotiate a nuclear-free Korea? Trump declared that his decision proves that “When I make promises, I keep them”, but will others see it as proof that the USA cannot be trusted to stand by any deal it signs? Does it project the USA as a strong and resolute power which has to be taken seriously, or one which is unpredictable and contradictory?
President Trump has made his gamble; now the dice are in other hands.