Will Trump cancel Iran deal or practice the Art of the Deal?

by Mohammed Nuruzzaman | (Informed Comment) | – –

US President-elect Donald Trump’s bluster about the Iran nuclear deal has created a lot of confusions and uncertainties about the fate of the deal. The anti-deal statements he made during and after the race to the White House election campaign ranged from direct threats to “tear up” the deal to renegotiate it, making it clear that he would not accept the nuclear deal with Iran, officially dubbed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), as it is. In reactions, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has said that the deal was not a bilateral agreement with one side being able to ditch it. He averred that Iran had options “if the USA unwisely decides to move away from its obligations under the agreement”.

Euronews: ”
What will Trump’s presidency mean for the Iran nuclear deal?”

Iran–US tensions over the JCPOA, not to speak of their brewing hostilities after the 1979 Islamic revolution, have remained high, since the deal was concluded in mid-July 2015. As I have argued elsewhere, the deal was more a marriage of convenience between Iran and the US, less a political and diplomatic accord to address the long standing strategic divergences between the two countries. Iranian leaders agreed to scale back their nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief, while the thorny issues of Iran’s claimed pre-eminence in the Persian Gulf neighborhood, America’s unqualified support to Iran’s Gulf adversaries or recognition of Tehran’s strategic interests in Iraq, Syria and ties to Hezbollah remained unaddressed. Symptoms of adversarial relations, despite hope for “a reset the button”, soon resurfaced. The imposition of new sanctions by the US in October last year over Iran’s testing of suspected nuclear capable ballistic missiles, the US Supreme Court’s order to seize Iranian assets in US banks, Iran’s detention of ten American sailors who strayed into Iranian territorial waters last January etc., largely derailed the expected bonhomie in post-deal Iran–US relations.

President Trump’s threats to sabotage the deal may not be that hollow, in view of America’s past record of violations of international agreements and treaties. In the last one and-a-half decades, the US has walked away or partially pulled out of nearly a dozen bilateral or multilateral agreements or pacts, including the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM), the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), and the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) being some notable examples. President George W. Bush’s administration withdrew from the 1972 ABM Treaty with the Soviet Union, citing national security reasons; the NPT mandates the nuclear-weapon-states not to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear states but the Bush administration insisted it retained the option to nuke non-nuclear states; the US and four other signatories (Britain, France, Germany, and Japan) have breached certain provisions of the CTBT by building or supplying materials to build laser fusion facilities to conduct lab-based thermonuclear explosions, which are not sanctioned by the CTBT. A 2003 report entitled “Rule of Power or Rule of Law”, sponsored by the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research and the Lawyers’ Committee on Nuclear Policy, charged the U.S. with drifting away from rule of law to rule of power, as Washington abides by or violates global security-related treaties and agreements based on its perceptions of self-interests. Prior to launching the invasion of Iraq, President Bush was on record as ditching on international law: “I don’t care what the international lawyers say, we are going to kick some ass”. He was responding touchily to the legal obstacles to his plan to invade Iraq and topple the Saddam Hussein regime.

The nuclear deal with Iran appears more vulnerable to unilateral US actions as it is neither a lawful treaty nor a major agreement ratified by the US Senate; the deal is simply a US (and also Iranian) political commitment to honor the JCPOA as long as both parties maintain their trust in it. The deal has, however, an international dimension – it was enshrined in a UN Security Council Resolution and its major signatories (China, France, Russia, UK plus Germany) so far remain committed to defend it, either because of their growing business interests in Iran or because of too high risks to bury it altogether.

There is a series of US domestic and international factors that militate against the deal. That President Trump is an Islamophobe and, by implications, an Iranophobe is an open secret. In a bit of ominous signal, he is selecting like-minded people to fill his foreign and security policy cabinet. On top of that, a host of lobbies and institutes, including the Israel lobbies and the so-called Foundation for the Defense of Democracies have renewed their efforts to kill the deal finally, after failing to scuttle nuclear negotiations between the Obama administration and Iran. The House Republican Israel Caucus has recently introduced and authorized a new bill to extend the 1996 Iran Sanctions Act, due to expire by the end of the year, for another ten years. The House has also passed a resolution to block the sale of Boeing and Air Bus civilian aircrafts to Iran. Added to this anti-deal domestic frenzy is the issue of America’s perceived and real decline in the Middle East, which the Trump administration hopes to reverse, at least psychologically, by dealing harshly with Iran. There hardly exist any viable options for Washington to force Russia to reduce its role in Syria while Iran remains a relatively soft target to turn the heat on.

Whatever the reasons are, the Iran deal melodrama looks set to unfold in the coming weeks and months. House and Senate Republicans, if not the Democrats, are expected to line up behind President Trump to put the deal in the line of fire. Similarly, the Iranian hard-liners who opposed the deal with the “Great Satan” but nonetheless accepted it due to the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s blessings for it are happy to see Trump’s anti-deal tirade. Their mouthpiece Kayhan International, a newspaper close to the Supreme Leader, called Trump “a shredder of the JCPOA, an agreement which had zero benefit for Iran”. This much echoed the Supreme Leader’s statement made last July concerning a possible breach of the deal by the US: “We will not violate the JCPOA, but if the opposite side violates it…if they tear up the JCPOA, we will burn it”. The Revolutionary Guards sees Trump’s electoral victory as a welcome step to corner the Iranian moderate political forces united under President Hassan Rouhani and former President Hashemi Rafsanjani, who swept to power in the June 2013 presidential election and further consolidated their hold onto power through the February 2016 parliamentary elections.

The unfolding American threats to the deal under the Trump administration, and Iranian hard-liners’ reactions to that, present three possible scenarios. Given President Trump’s highly negative views on the deal and domestic pressures created by the pro-Israel lobbies, the first scenario may be a total rejection of the deal by the US, whatever may be the costs incurred in the process. That means a return to the old-style hostility and confrontation with Iran par excellence. This option is replete with high risks and uncertainties since the Trump administration is highly unlikely to draw the support of even its close European allies, let alone that of China and Russia – America’s contemporary peer-competitors. But a ‘go alone’ policy by the new freaky president cannot be totally ruled out.

The second scenario may hinge on seeking some changes to the deal, what Walid Phares, Trump’s electoral campaign advisor on the Middle East, told the BBC radio on November 11. This would involve some changes the US would seek to make to the agreement – the restoration of some issues or the change of some issues (most probably a demand to ban Iran’s ballistic missile program) to exclusively favor America’s and Israeli security interests. Iran’s stand on such a possibility is revulsive, however. Ali Shamkhani, Secretary of Iran’s National Security Council, has recently said, apparently to oppose Walid Phares’ disclosure, that “They (US leaders) cannot sit in glass palaces saying they would [either] tear up the JCPOA or renegotiate it.” This is a totally no-option for the Revolutionary Guards who defines and views ballistic missiles as effective deterrents against American or Israeli aggressions. At the same time, a complete refusal by Iran to renegotiate the deal, which sounds rational from Iranian viewpoint, may push the US down the road to adopt the first scenario as a possible option.

The third scenario – sticking to the post-deal status quo is more favorable to Iran. The Rouhani administration negotiated the deal by defying powerful conservative opponents and remains committed to observing the terms and conditions of the deal. If President Trump opts to walk away from the deal, he can do so at the risk of getting global flak but Iran stands to reap benefits from such actions: Iran will continue to hold the global moral ground, and would be free to do business with European and Asian partners, despite continued unilateral US sanctions which the nuclear deal was not meant to dismantle. Whether the Trump administration ditches the deal or not, Washington can no longer force Iran to return to a pre-deal situation of international economic isolation. Still, some reckless or even accidental military actions by either the US or Iran may seriously destabilize the whole Middle East region.

Mohammed Nuruzzaman is Associate Professor of International Relations, Gulf University for science and Technology, West Mishref, Kuwait; E-mail: nuruzzaman.m@gust.edu.kw ; Research Webpage

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Related video added by Juan Cole:

Euronews: ”
What will Trump’s presidency mean for the Iran nuclear deal?”

7 Responses

  1. This is the best recent analysis I have read on the subject. I still wonder how much of the US policy on this matter is tied up with the anti-colonial revolutions after WW2 which shifted the center of political and economic “gravity” from Europe-America towards Asia which is still the nexus of oil production. An Iran completely free of economic shackles might well add more power to the current “Asian duo” of China, and India with Russia in support. Better to keep Iran limping along based on spurious accusations. Trump seems to be sensitive to the shift of economic power Asia-ward as evidenced by his views on China. Hence he is likely to pursue an Iran policy which keeps Iran hogtied as well as possible. “Make America Great Again”. My translation: stop the Asian economic shift and, if possible, reverse it.
    The policy which denies Iran to have its own missiles may backfire badly. That kind of policy after WW1 against Germany (no tanks, etc.) was great political fodder for Hitler and other right-wing politicians and much of the German nation. It will empower the anti-Western politicians and groups in Iran…

    • Trump has no tools to stop the rise of Asia. It’s already propping up the $ to keep its own goods cheap in the US. So he could collapse the $ as a trade barrier, but what happens when Wal-Mart doubles the price on everything on its shelves because no one in America will make substitutes? And of course, what if everyone starts dumping their US Treasuries anyway?

      The worst part of US and especially White resentment of Asia is that it’s based on the premise that White workers are inherently and naturally “better” than Asians, and that punitive measures will magically turn the clock back 50 years. The very people who voted for Trump are the people most resistant to technology and education. At this very moment, China is turning its low-wage but literate workforce into a mid-wage but highly skilled workforce, people who know more about modern technology than those aforementioned Americans who erase more and more of their own knowledge as they pursue their insane ideology.

      Yet Americans will claim that they are right and better, and will expect to keep getting paid White man’s money for what is becoming Pakistani women’s work. They will be fed a million lies and conspiracy theories to explain this failure, and someone will be served up as the scapegoat, at home or abroad.

      • Like your thinking, super, this & the following.
        In NZ it’s well known that Asians beat the locals hollow on Maths & also with the propensity for hard work!
        The big difference I felt between Sander’s idea on US jobs & Trump’s was that Sanders knew co-op. with China was necessary while Trump seemed to think he could just shut them out & all would be well. MEANWHILE how were US citz on low wages going to survive without Chinese imports?
        & Trump seems to think he & Vlad the Lad will become bosom buddies – but does he think Putin will suddenly disavow Iran & China? Dreaming. China is the face of tomorrow, I’m afraid the US is becoming more & more yesterday except in weapons.
        Entirely due to their rapacious & warlike hubris.
        As seen from the toenail of the world, grin!

        • Actually, USA weapons are no better and in the case of the F-35, much, much worse than the weapons available form many other non-USA sources.

      • The Chinese “middle class” is estimated to be half to three-quarters the size of the ENTIRE USA POPULATION! Also the Chinese “middle class” is growing at an extremely fast rate while the USA is doing everything it can to SHRINK the USA “middle class” as fast as possible.

        That is, if the USA fell off the edge of the earth, China would survive economically. The USA market is just a secondary market to Chinese companies these days. Asia is about 60% of the entire potential consumer market and the USA is less than 5%.

        While the Chinese government is well aware of the dangers of automation and how it will effect society, and is planning on ways to deal with it, the USA completely fails to understand this MAJOR problem.

        Basically China has 5000 years of experience with governance whereas the USA has been screwing things up for less than 300 years.

        The USA can not win this battle.

  2. I so want to see how Trump handles his first major dispute with Iran’s ally Putin. Putin may only have helped him dig up dirt on Clinton to weaken the American political system, not because he wanted Trump to win. But now one of them will have to back down from his commitment, because Iran’s joining Russia in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.

  3. Trump is simply playing to his base with statements regarding the “deal” with Iran. Unfortunately Trump hasn’t understood that the USA is not the world. Its one country. If Trump decides to not honour the agreement there are a lot of other countries which will. Trump does not understand his country is not that far from being just another 2 world country, sort of like Russia, big military but the people live in poverty.

    If Trump doesn’t want to “play” according to the rules, other countries may simply ignore him and go ahead with life. In a short time China will over take the U.S.A. as the major world power. Trump ought to realize that most of U.S.A.s debt is held by China. If he tries to default, he may be in for a big surprise. Some of those politicians in China are a lot tougher than Trump and they and Iran know a B.S. artist when they see one.

    When Trump says he wants a better deal with Iran or Cuba what he really means he wants to build hotels in their country and he wants the land for free. I’d suggest the other countries simply call his bluff.

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