On Tuesday, from the Diplomatic Room of the White House, President Donald Trump announced that the United States would withdraw from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, better known as the Iran nuclear deal, which waived multinational sanctions on Iran in exchange for strict controls on Tehran’s nuclear program. Listing a litany of destabilizing actions by the Iranian regime, including sponsorship of terrorism, support to armed proxies, the development of ballistic missiles and “plundering the wealth of its own people,” Trump declared that no action is “more dangerous” than Iran’s “pursuit of nuclear weapons—and the means of delivering them.” The 2015 agreement, Trump insisted, “lifted crippling economic sanctions on Iran in exchange for very weak limits on the regime’s nuclear activity—and no limits at all on its other malign behavior.”
“We cannot prevent an Iranian nuclear bomb under the decaying and rotten structure of the current agreement,” he added.
Withdrawing the U.S. from the Iran agreement has long been advocated by organizations on America’s political right, like the Heritage Foundation and the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, as well as the leaders of Iran’s regional enemies, particularly Israel and Saudi Arabia. But commentators across the American political spectrum vociferously opposed Trump’s decision. It’s not often that the editorial board of The New York Times and “paleoconservative” Patrick Buchanan share a position.
It will be years before the full repercussions of Trump’s decision are clear—whether it will contain Iran’s regional aggression and nuclear program, or stoke them. But it is possible to dissect the logic of it now, and it is not reassuring. Like every strategy, this one is based on assumptions, which in this case are questionable at best and dangerously flawed at worst.
One of Trump’s assumptions is that the parties that negotiated the 2015 agreement with Iran—the United States, the United Kingdom, Russia, France, China, Germany and the European Union—could have wrangled greater restrictions on Iran’s regional activities and restricted Tehran’s nuclear program beyond the 13 years stipulated in the agreement. There is no way to know whether this is true. The Iranian regime was under immense internal pressure and needed sanctions relief, but there are few indications that it might have given up more than it did. Like many strategic assumptions, this one is based more on faith than tangible evidence.
A second assumption is that the United States can now ratchet up the pressure on Iran and compel the sort of far-reaching concessions that the Obama administration could not or would not. This seems highly questionable since it would require the cooperation of many nations to be effective and hinge on Iran surrendering what it clearly considers essential to its vital national interests. As the Vietnam War shows, even a weaker nation fighting for its vital national interests is unlikely to buckle under American pressure.
It is difficult to see how pulling out of the Iran deal advances America’s national interests or puts America first.
Supporters of Trump’s approach sometimes suggest that the real goal is not to compel greater concessions from Iran, but to weaken it so much that the regime falls. While it is true that many Iranians, particularly younger ones, deeply dislike their theocratic rulers, there is no real reason to believe that regime change is imminent or, even if it occurred, that the replacement would be better for the United States. Again, this position is based more on faith than evidence.
A third assumption is that the United States can either pressure other nations into reviving and strengthening sanctions on Iran or squeeze concessions out of Tehran on its own. This too is questionable. While the Trump administration may be able to get some cooperation from European nations by denying companies that do business with Iran access to the U.S. market, Russia and Turkey are unlikely to go along. Put differently, it will be nearly impossible to match the unified front that pushed Iran toward the 2015 deal.
Even within the United States, support for Trump’s approach may crumble if American jobs are lost due to canceled Iranian contracts from major companies like Boeing and as global oil prices increase. The economic costs of withdrawing from the Iran agreement should be felt by the U.S. midterm elections later this year, contributing to the problems the Republican Party already faces, and those costs could continue to rise by the 2020 presidential race.
Finally, Trump’s approach to Iran assumes that withdrawing from the nuclear deal will not have adverse effects outside the Middle East. In reality, North Korea is likely to conclude that it cannot count on the United States adhering to any agreement that limits its nuclear program, thus making it less open to a serious deal with the Trump administration.
In the short term, the Iran nuclear agreement may limp along without the United States. For now, Iran has indicated that it will continue to stick to the restrictions. But America’s withdrawal, which reflects domestic politics more than any sort of coherent Middle East strategy, may, as Micah Zenko put it, rupture relations with key allies, increasing the chances of U.S. military action once it becomes clear that Iran is not going to allow greater restrictions on its nuclear program than the ones in the deal. That, in turn, would fuel a growing perception of America’s unreliability and decrease U.S. influence both in the Middle East and globally.
It is difficult to see how pulling out of the Iran deal advances America’s national interests or puts America first. Ultimately, the only real winners may be Iran’s two most steadfast enemies: Israel and Saudi Arabia.
By Steven Metz
WORLD POLITICS REVIEW