Last week, after 15 months of threatening to do so, President Trump withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA or the Iran Deal). He was following through with one of his top campaign promises.
Without getting into the weeds of the jargon filled 150-plus page multilateral agreement, the deal does three major things. First, it bound Iran to limits on plutonium or uranium enrichment to well below levels needed for weaponization and forced Iran to sign on to a binding resolution to never pursue nuclear weapons. Second, those two things above were backed up by a rigorous inspections and monitoring regime that could almost instantaneously detect Iranian non-compliance. And third, it gave Iran economic incentives based on continued compliance with the JCPOA—which it has done since implementation day, January 16, 2016.
The President wasn’t incorrect, however, to point out other pressing issues related to Iran—their ballistic missile program and support for militant groups in the region. But those issues weren’t part of the JCPOA and they will certainly be exacerbated by Trump’s withdrawal. If he had he used Iran’s compliance with the JCPOA and the trust building mechanisms therein, it’s far more likely he could have reached some sort of resolution addressing one or both of the issues above.
Instead, Trump faces three key implications stemming from his decision to back out of the Iran deal. First, Iran isn’t likely to trust the US again anytime soon. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and his Foreign Minister Javad Zarif no longer have the political capital to suggest bilateral (or even multilateral) talks with the US. The hardliners now have the upper hand, which means there will be no new talks involving the US until after the next Presidential elections in 2021. But even then, it will be tough to get any sort of agreement right away. If the pattern holds, the next Iranian president will likely be from the right of the Iranian political spectrum and less inclined to view negotiations positively.
Trump has also alienated our European allies. After being told to fix the issues above, our friends in Europe proceeded to hammer out possible solutions. Once they came to a workable proposal to send the Iranians, Trump had already decided he’d unilaterally pull out of the Iran deal by not meeting US obligations under the JCPOA. European business could now be subject to secondary sanctions, meaning they could be cut off from the US markets if they do business in Iran. Unsurprisingly, Trump has already sent a mixed message on the issue. This weekend he tweeted his support for Chinese cell phone manufacturer ZTE. They had been cut out of the US marketplace due to violating US sanctions prohibiting trade with Iran and North Korea.
And finally, Trump has made Middle East stability all the more difficult to achieve. Not only did he withdraw from the Iran Deal, signaling to our war drum beating allies–Israel and Saudi Arabia–that we’d countenance attacks on Iranian interests in the region, he also alienated a major stakeholder with proxies in nearly every regional flash point. Resolving those conflicts, at a minimum, requires engaging an Iran that doesn’t view negotiations with the US as hopeless. I’m afraid that’s no longer the case.
Moving forward, I’m not optimistic that the Trump administration will be able to achieve any measure of success with Iran. Reports coming out of negotiations with North Korea suggest some sort of plan that falls well sort of denuclearization and instead focuses on chemical and biological weapons and dismantling ICBM (missiles that can reach the US) in exchange for partial US withdrawal from South Korea, sanctions relief, and little to no inspections or monitoring. In layman’s terms, North Korea, after breaking nearly every international agreement, is getting a deal which is far more lenient than the JCPOA.
Iran will be watching. At a minimum, they won’t accept anything less than what we give the North Koreans. Unfortunately, the lesson they’ll likely learn will be one that tells them to pursue nuclear weapons, because that’s the only way to ensure they get what they want—security. Hopefully, they choose another path.
Trump’s decision to withdraw from the agreement is akin to giving up a functioning automobile simply because it wasn’t yours first. Sure, the car may not be the color you want, but you can neither achieve your goals without it, nor can you afford a new one.
The bottom line is Trump let the cat out of the bag and there no sure way of getting it back. In doing so, he’s managed to alienate our allies and send mixed signals to our partners and adversaries. This doesn’t bode well for global security or American hegemony.