Iran has been a topic that is very high on the Trump Administration’s foreign policy agenda. In President Donald Trump’s speech to the United Nations General Assembly, he was not satisfied with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which was an agreement between Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany that was ratified in July of 2015, that created a new path for negotiations to not only crack down on Iran’s nuclear capabilities, but to further integrate them with the world.
In addition, President Trump’s speech hinted at the United States pulling out of the deal even though every country including the US has certified that Iran has been complying with the agreement. It will be very interesting to see how the US will handle its foreign policy towards Iran, and how the world will respond if the US does pull out of the JCPOA. So far, there are signals from Tehran that they are sticking by the deal and they will continue to stick with it even if the US pulls out.
Throughout the campaign and his presidency, Trump has threatened to pull out of the JCPOA. It seems clear that President Trump is looking for a way out of the deal, and he even hinted that something will come soon. That thing is the October 15 deadline in which President Trump needs to certify to Congress that Iran is living up to its commitment to the nuclear deal. From the perspective of many senior officials in Washington, not only does President Trump need to analyze that Iran is complying with the deal, which it is, but they also have to analyze the deal as a framework that is favorable to securing U.S interests in the region, and to continue using sanctions relief in the totality of the US-Iran relationship. Within the Beltway, we hear that the Iranians are not living up to the ‘spirit’ of the deal, but what does that mean? President Trump is someone trying to find a way out of the JCPOA that will not only isolate the United States within the global community, but a US withdrawal from the agreement can create loopholes in its relationships with the Europeans, the Chinese, and the Russians.
During his speech, President Trump made an unprecedented move by calling out Iran as “an economically depleted rogue state whose chief exports are violence, bloodshed, and chaos”.i He even called the Iran deal one of the “worst and most one-sided transactions the United States has ever entered into” and an embarrassment to the United States.ii This is very harsh language from Donald Trump, but we have to remember that the United States is not the only signatory to the July 14th framework, but Iran and the p5+1 also unanimously agreed to abide by the deal. If the United States pulls out of the deal, it will be their fault and they will be bearing the cost of destroying the deal, a deal that had strong support from not only the permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany, but from the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), an organization that consists of a majority of the global community who recognizes Iran’s right to a nuclear weapon as a signatory of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
The JCPOA has very strong international support, but it is not about picking a fight with Tehran. Instead, the US pulling out of the deal will be picking a fight with the Europeans, the Chinese, and the Russians who were all involved in the lengthy negotiations, and the exhausting process of ratifying a deal that is fair for the global community. The JCPOA was more of an achievement than an embarrassment because we had an international conflict that was on the verge of becoming a military confrontation being resolved peacefully without a single shot or angry tweet by President Trump being fired.
Another significance of the deal is the fact that usually, we see diplomacy coming in after military confrontations, but this deal achieved diplomatic efforts that prevented a conflict. The United States will also be isolating itself, but will the deal itself survive if the US pulls out? If the US does pull out and starts reimposing sanctions on other countries possibly European firms who are mindful of their trade with Iran, European businesses could be potential targets for US sanctions.
As the world’s most influential superpower, the United States passes laws for the entire world, and it punishes other countries from doing business with Iran, and it also excludes other countries from financial transactions in the international financial system. The United States would not sanction its own companies, but it could target companies from other western powers who do business in Iran, and if other western powers cannot be protected, the Iranians will not get the economic benefit of being compliant with the deal. If the Iranians don’t get the economic benefits of being in compliance, they will stop being compliant with the deal.
It is true that we have to wait until October to see how Congress will respond to Iran’s compliance with the JCPOA, but government officials in Washington cannot pretend to say that Iran is not in compliance. The ultimate authority which determines that Iran is in compliance is the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and it has issued eight reports pointing out that Iran is abiding by the nuclear agreement. Many people within the Trump Administration like to say that Iran is in violation of this or that, but where are those violations, and why has the IAEA not been able to point out Iran’s violations of the agreement? If the Iranians were violating the so-called spirit of the deal, why can’t President Trump explain what the spirit of the Iran deal is? From the American perspective, Trump objects Iran’s regional policies, but we cannot allow the geopolitics of the Middle East to be one dimension of engaging Iran with the world. The United States is simply getting out of the deal for reasons that are unclear and preposterous that it shifts the blame onto the Iranians.
The rumors of a US-Iran confrontation are so far-fledged that nobody benefits, and a confrontation between the US and Iran will never happen. According to international consensus, the JCPOA was a great achievement of diplomacy that allows Iran to engage and negotiate with the west that can create a framework towards a possible normalization of relations.
The fact that the Iran deal diffused the United States from another ‘invasion of Iraq’ moment was remarkable and the JCPOA should be a role model for carrying out diplomacy in a way that has diplomatic options rather than just military options. Even French Prime Minister Emmanuel Macron supports multilateralism within the JCPOA, and he disagrees with Trump’s position on the deal. The deal went through a unanimous agreement within the UN Security Council and Germany along with Iran, and the deal went through a clearance from the US legislature.
If the JCPOA were to be criticized, it should be taken to the IAEA, and it should not be left to Congress to show that Iran is or is not complying with the agreement. However, there are two countries in the world that do not want to see a diplomatic settlement with Iran. The countries acting behind the scenes are two of the United States’ closest partners in the region that receive billions of dollars in western arms, and cause chaos in the region, they include Israel and Saudi Arabia. The agendas coming from Tel Aviv and Riyadh are pushing Trump to create a conflict with Iran, but the US should be smart enough to not reach the boiling point of military confrontation. The Middle East has enough problems and a war with Iran will only cause more instability in the region.
After Trump’s disturbing speech at the United Nations, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif tweeted that “Trump’s ignorant hate speech belongs in medieval times-not the 21st Century UN -unworthy of a reply. Fake empathy for Iranians fools no one.”iii Hopefully, there is engagement between Iran and the United States because the tensions will not be resolved unless there is diplomacy, but there are several different factors to be worried about. First, the atmosphere for negotiations to continue are souring and it is going to be much more difficult for the United States to step up to the plate as a leader because it lacks the credibility and the trustworthiness of being an effective negotiating partner for the Europeans, the Chinese, and the Russians.
Washington’s credibility in the nuclear deal is extremely important and a president that constantly behaves like he did in his first U.N speech to threaten to withdraw from the agreement does not inject a lot of confidence in continuing the negotiations. And finally, the competence coming from the US government to engage in such complex dialogue diplomatically with anyone, whether its nations we don’t like or we are partners with is very worrying especially when it boils down to the JCPOA issue. A withdrawal from the JCPOA deal will only hurt US interests in the Middle East, isolate the United States as a trust broker around the world, and whether the United States does or does not like the Iranian government, Washington must accept Iran as a regional player that will always have a seat at the negotiating table on global issues.
i. Politico Staff, “Full text: Trump’s U.N speech transcript” September 19, 2017 Politico http://www.politico.com/story/2017/09/19/trump-un-speech-2017-full-text-transcript-242879
ii. Politico Staff, “Full text: Trump’s U.N speech transcript” September 19, 2017 Politico http://www.politico.com/story/2017/09/19/trump-un-speech-2017-full-text-transcript-242879
iii. Javad Zarif, September 19, 2017 Twitter https://twitter.com/JZarif/status/910205888677470208