A Familiar Tale of Woe: Trump and the Iran Nuclear Deal
Last week President Trump fulfilled another campaign promise. The move was enthusiastically welcomed by supporters as well as leaders in Tel Aviv, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. In one fell-swoop, he took a major step towards upending President Barack Obama’s flagship foreign policy achievement. Trump unilaterally “withdrew” from the Iran nuclear deal, paving the way to re-impose sanctions on the country. The landmark 2015 deal, known in official circles as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), was crafted to end a decade long impasse over Iran’s nuclear program. Concluded between Iran and the P5+1, the JCPOA placed ample safeguards to guarantee the Islamic Republic had no practicable path towards a nuclear weapon. The JCPOA’s purpose was to bridge the deficit of trust, allowing Iran to pursue its internationally enshrined right as a member of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons to pursue peaceful nuclear energy, while allaying Western fears of a hypothetical race to the bomb. Iran has always insisted that its nuclear program was solely for peaceful purposes and the United States’ own National Intelligence Estimate concluded in 2007 that Iran had abandoned any such aspirations as early as 2003, even if considerable suspicions and questions have remained in the years which followed.
Prior to the JCPOA’s historic conclusion, Iran faced one of the most comprehensive sanctions regimes in modern times. It even proved difficult to procure basic medicines. The prospect of another devastating war in the Middle East loomed large. But the JCPOA testified to the fact that diplomatic successes were indeed possible. During the last stretch of the Obama administration, four decades of embittered Iran and U.S. relations experienced a transient moment of optimism.
The accord achieved far more than sanctions relief. For many, it symbolized the turning of a difficult page and the beginning of a new chapter in which Iran might finally normalize its relations with the US and Europe, and Iranians realize a better life for themselves and their children. Now, this view has come to be seen as naïve and wishful thinking. Trump had long promised to discard the deal unless he could renegotiate a “better” one in its stead, without much indication as to how it might be brought about and on what grounds given Iran’s IAEA certified compliance. Contrary to all of Trump’s bombast, the fact of the matter is that the deal was and, at least for the moment, continues to serve the purpose for which it was painstakingly constructed.
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s Supreme Leader, while clearly skeptical of U.S. intentions, nevertheless empowered the government of Hassan Rouhani to pursue the diplomatic track. Prominent ultra-conservative adversaries of the deal in the judiciary, security apparatus and elsewhere, while highly critical and agitating against Rouhani and his Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mohammad-Javad Zarif, could do little to undercut Iranian compliance with its obligations under the JCPOA. For an international crisis to find itself reignited, it took the short-sighted decision of an ill-experienced and inept president, being cheered on by two outspoken anti-Iran hawks, Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor, John Bolton. Bolton, a leading architect and veteran of the illegal invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003, has similarly demonstrated his implacable commitment to an agenda of “regime change” in Iran, with callous indifference to the catastrophic repercussions it’s bound to unleash.
In the run up to Trump’s announcement, his administration had repeatedly passed sanctions against Iran and Iranian personnel and had sought to scuttle an important deal with Boeing to purchase civilian aircraft and aviation parts. The pledge to deliver 80 aircraft to Iran, with the potential to save many innocent lives, now lies in tatters. More crucially and in clear violation of the JCPOA, Trump had sought to intimidate prospective international investment, which the Rouhani government perceived as essential to revitalizing the flagging economy. Economic frustration and political discontent boiled over in December/January 2018 as protests hit over seventy towns across the country, where Rouhani’s Tehran-centric economic strategy was shown to be neither realistic, nor apprised of growing anger over increasingly severe levels of inequality. The protests were in part due to disappointed expectations, as well as deeper crises of political legitimacy and environmental degradation, which have led to a deterioration of living standards and significant frustrations across the board.
Whether European resolve will suffice to salvage what remains of the deal is uncertain. Initial reactions from European leaders have been encouraging, above all the EU foreign policy chief, Frederica Mogherini who insisted, “This impulse to destroy is not leading us anywhere good…It is not solving any of our problems.” But whether European firms will be willing or able to withstand pressure and threats from the U.S. Treasury Department for long is unclear. Crucially, Russia and China continue to forcefully support the accord.
What is clear is that Trump’s reckless intransigence enacts yet another chapter of distrust and resentment in Iranian-American relations. The litany of grievances is long, from the CIA-MI6 orchestrated coup of 1953, to concerted support for the Shah’s police state, support for Saddam Hussein after he invaded the country and deployed chemical weapons against Iranian forces and civilians, as well as decades of debilitating sanctions and threats of military action by successive U.S. presidents. Many will simply draw the conclusion that the United States is not to be trusted to uphold its commitments, and will not be satisfied until Tehran is once again a pliable client-state firmly within Washington’s sphere of influence.
Finally, Trump has perhaps irreparably undermined the moderate course Rouhani sought to chart and invested enormous amounts of political capital to realize. Just as reformist President Khatami’s gambit of cooperation with the United States in Afghanistan following the American invasion in 2001 later earned the Islamic Republic denunciation as part of George W. Bush’s “axis of evil”, Rouhani’s diplomatic bet on the United States has failed. Meanwhile, his political adversaries encircle the beleaguered Iranian president’s already precarious administration overturning even the humblest of gains he had managed to achieve. Surely any future suggestions of trusting the U.S. to abide by its promises will be met with ridicule for years to come. The future looks bleak, and the risk of open conflict between Iran and the United States and its allies realer than ever.
Eskandar Sadeghi-Boroujerdi is a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow in the Faculty of Oriental Studies at the University of Oxford, Postdoctoral Research Associate at St Cross College, and Series Editor of Radical Histories of the Middle East (Oneworld Publications). His writings have been published in the British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, Iranian Studies, Digest of Middle East Studies, Middle East Journal, Foreign Policy, Jadaliyya, Al Jazeera, Lobelog, Jacobin, The Guardian, among other venues. His forthcoming book Revolution and its Discontents: Political Thought and Reform in Iran will be available in 2019.