On October 13, President Donald Trump fired a robust salvo at Iran, calling its leadership a “rogue regime” and blaming it for “sponsorship of terrorism and continued aggression in the Middle East and around the world”. Trump now announced that he would not certify the nuclear deal, which is required under US law every three months.
However, he has placed the onus of further action on the US Congress: within sixty days, Congress must decide not to take any action or, alternatively, re-impose sanctions lifted earlier when the agreement was signed in January 2016, thus placing the US in violation of the nuclear agreement. Perhaps, anticipating difficulties in Congress, Trump has warned that, unless the deal was re-negotiated, “our participation can be cancelled by me, as president, at any time."
The Iran strategy
The comprehensive Iran strategy Trump set out includes: neutralising Iran’s “destabilising influence” and its “subversive activities” and ending its missile development. The “malign activities” of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) have been addressed by naming it a terrorist organisation. But, this has been done by the treasury department rather than the state department, perhaps to avoid retaliatory action by IRGC elements against US forces which are operating in close proximity in Iraq and Syria.
The official Iranian response has referred to the de-certification as a “strategic mistake” and evidence of “rogue behaviour”. It has accused the US of promoting regional conflicts and having hegemonic designs. The nuclear agreement, it concludes, is a “valid international instrument” and an “outstanding achievement in contemporary diplomacy”.
First responses to the Trump initiative have been negative. The EU foreign policy head, Federica Moghereni, has said that the agreement “does not belong to any single country and it is not up to any single country to terminate it.” In a joint statement, the leaders of Britain, France, and Germany have said that “preserving the agreement is in our shared national security interest.” The IAEA director general, Yukiya Amano, has refuted Trump’s allegation that Iran had prevented IAEA weapons inspectors from entering military bases, saying: “So far, the IAEA has had access to all locations it needed to visit.”
Given that there is near-unanimity among Trump’s officials and foreign leaders that Iran is fully complying with the agreement, observers are puzzled as to why Trump has chosen to jeopardise the agreement to shape his anti-Iran strategy. They note that concerns the US has regarding various aspects of Iran’s conduct and actions lie outside the deal and should have been addressed through separate policies after building support among allies.
By endangering the agreement, Trump has rallied his allies against him, even as he has undermined the US’s own credibility as a reliable interlocutor in the international arena. This is likely to adversely impact diplomatic efforts to address nuclear issues with North Korea.
There are other inexplicable aspects of the Trump approach. First, if Trump thought the deal was so harmful for US interests, he could have himself walked away from it, without reference to Congress, where the outcome is unclear. Again, if Iran is viewed as such an untrustworthy partner in international discourse, what credibility can be attached to the complementary deals with it that Trump is seeking on the missiles issue and Iran’s “hegemonic” designs in West Asia?
West Asia more dangerous
Former secretary of state John Kerry has criticised Trump for his “reckless abandonment of facts in favour of ego and ideology”. Iran expert Trita Parsi has suggested: “It's all about Obama. He really does seem to hate everything that has Obama's name on it.” It is likely that Trump is also pandering to his core constituency, particularly his hard rightwing donors, who are consumed with a deep-seated animosity for Iran.
Whatever the impulses behind Trump’s decision, West Asia, already amidst serious armed conflict in Syria and Yemen and a sectarian stand-off between Iran and Saudi Arabia, has become much more dangerous. If the nuclear deal fails, Iran could revive its nuclear programme which, even if peaceful, would ignite the fears of its enemies, Israel and Saudi Arabia.
The latter are already fuelling Trump’s anti-Iran bellicosity and, with rightwing allies in the US, are deliberating provoking a crisis that could lead to a pre-emptive assault on the Islamic Republic. Iran on its part has mobilised its own allies, Syria, Iraq and Turkey, and, with its battle-hardened militia, Hezbollah and the Peoples’ Mobilisation Units from Iraq, is well-placed to defend itself.
While the kingdom and Israel rejoice as the nuclear agreement is in danger of floating into oblivion, they would do well to recall the Arab saying: “A prudent enemy is better than an ignorant friend.”
(The author, a former diplomat, holds the Ram Sathe Chair for International Studies, Symbiosis International University, Pune.)