May 8 was V-E Day marking the surrender of Nazi Germany in 1945 and the end of World War II in Europe. Ironically, with President Donald Trump‘s abrogation and withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, better known as the nuclear deal with Iran, and the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and Germany, V-E Day takes on a different meaning. V-E now can be called Viral Exit Day from the JCPOA.
Make no mistake: Potentially, this unilateral action could be as catastrophic as George W. Bush‘s ill-fated 2003 assault into Iraq over weapons of mass destruction that had longed ceased to exist. The assumption then was that by democratizing Iraq, the geostrategic landscape of the Greater Middle East would be forever changed. It has. And not for the better.
The White House’s assumption, beyond claiming this was the “worst deal ever” and honoring a campaign promise, is that a better agreement can be negotiated by reimposing economic sanctions on Iran. Unspoken is the expectation that sanctions will so damage Iran’s economy that the clerical autocracy may be overthrown. But does anyone in the White House have a sense of history?
During the decade of the Vietnam War from the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in 1964 until the forceful reunification of that divided country under the North in 1975, three American presidents assumed that Hanoi could be compelled by a policy of gradual escalation through bombing to give up its aggression against Saigon. Nearly three decades later, another president assumed that Iraq was ripe for democracy. But imposing Western-style government on countries that have little background or appetite for American-style democracy doe not work unless those states have been virtually destroyed; unconditionally surrendered; and accepted permanent presence by American forces that continues to this day in Germany, Japan and Italy.
Critics of the JCPOA argued that this agreement did not cover Iran’s testing of ballistic missiles or its engagement in regional affairs particularly in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen. However THE fundamental question is whether the purpose of preventing Iran from ever acquiring nuclear weapons was sufficient reason for the agreement. Despite what critics may say or imagine, the JCPOA would achieve this by requiring a permanent inspection regime overseen by the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Some argued that inspectors were not allowed access to all Iranian military bases where secret nuclear weapons facilities could be operating. However, given the extensive infrastructure to enrich bomb-level uranium or reprocessing to manufacture plutonium, these could not be done covertly. And the one Iranian plutonium reactor at Arak has had its core sealed with concrete. With IAEA inspectors on site, Iran could never manufacture the fissile material needed for a nuclear weapon. Of course at some state, Iran could abandon the agreement.
Further, the other signatories to the JCPOA do not have to return to a sanctions regime. The United States has threatened secondary sanctions. But if occurred, at a time when the United States has already declared tariffs on our trading partners, unchecked, this could irreversibly tear apart the Western alliance. And do not think Russia will forgo this opportunity to weaken Western cohesion as well as exploit the chance for further commerce with Iran.
Returning to the second Iraq War, the Bush administration never asked or answered the what next question after Saddam Hussein was toppled. Nor to the years before the war did the United States and others understand that the tight sanctions regime strengthened Saddam’s control over his people as he alone was able to dole out the resources that came from the oil-for-food program designed to prevent starvation of the Iraqis. Tehran understands this.
The administration hopes that the coming summit with North Korea will be such a diplomatic success as to erase the dangers of withdrawing from the JCPOA. We will see. However, the first step should be an announcement of White House plans for what next for Iran and the region. With no Plan B, it will be no surprise if the decision for a viral exit from the JCPOA could be as damaging as attacking Iraq over WMD that did not exist.