Donald Trump’s long-expected announcement that he would not certify the nuclear agreement with Iran should, in keeping with his aggressive posturing on the issue, have become the catalyst for what he called the “worst deal ever negotiated” being dismantled.
The consequences of that happening would have been that trust in international agreements would have evaporated. Iran would be forced back into isolation, with its reformist government replaced by hardliners going full tilt in developing a nuclear arsenal. North Korea would have sped up its own nuclear and missile programmes, holding that there was no point in negotiations because the US could always renege in the future. Proliferation would continue to spread with Tehran’s neighbours in the Middle East, Turkey and possibly Egypt going down the same nuclear path and Saudi Arabia, which has supposedly already bought the bomb from Pakistan, going on a shopping spree for more.
Yet as things stand now, such a dire scenario can perhaps be avoided. It is true that Mr Trump’s refusal to certify Iranian compliance, based on spurious excuses, has put great strain on the deal and the accusations he made against Iran will further ratchet up tension. But there is a good chance that the agreement will survive and the US President’s actions now may, ironically, be a stabilising factor in the future.
Mr Trump revealed on Friday that he will not be scrapping the agreement. Instead, he will ask Congress to examine whether Iran is abiding by it. Nor has he demanded that Congress re-impose sanctions. He has, instead, asked that it bring in legislation which will trigger them if Tehran is found to be in breach of the terms. Congress has 60 days to decide on measures.
Mr Trump threatened to pull the plug on the whole deal if Congress did not bring in punitive measures. This would have sounded ominous from any other President, but one has to bear in mind that he has made the threat unitarily withdraw the US from the deal repeatedly before along with threats issued on a range of other issues.
Another recurring aspect of his administration, confusion and contradiction, surfaced on the issue of the Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had told journalists at a briefing on Thursday evening that selective sanctions would be used against individual members. Mr Trump stated that he had ordered the US Treasury to sanction the whole Corps. What this actually means remains unclear, as the State Department stressed that it was not designating the organisation a terrorist group.
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Mr Trump has taken his now customary swipe at Barack Obama, blaming him for Iran’s supposed wrongdoings. He will impose sanctions on individuals in the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) but not, importantly, prescribe it a terrorist organisation. He accused Tehran of supporting terrorism and attacked its support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen. These are charges he has made before.
The main reason that Mr Trump was unable to scrap the agreement is that he is isolated on the issue, apart from a few unsavoury allies.
The other five signatories to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) Germany, France, Britain, Russia and China (the P5+1 Group ) all repeatedly stressed that Iran is keeping its side of the bargain. This evening, within minutes of Mr Trump’s address, Federica Mogherini, the EU’s foreign policy head said the deal was “ robust” and that there “ no violations of any of the commitments in the agreement.”
Senior people in Trump’s administration, Mr Tillerson, Defence Secretary General James Mattis and National Security Advisor Lieutenant General HR McMaster have all supported the deal.. Interestingly, these three were hawks on Iran before they arrived at their post and started weighing the evidence.
Republicans in Congress who voted against the agreement when it came in two years ago, as well as Democrats who did so, now believe that it should stay. They have been intensely lobbied into this position by Mr Tillerson, Gen Mattis and Lt Gen McMaster as well as Western diplomats like Sir Kim Darroch and Gerard Araud, the ambassadors of the UK and France. John Kerry, Mr Obama’s Secretary of State who played a key role in securing the agreement, focused on winning over the House Democrats.
Those urging Mr Trump to scrap the deal include Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister. It should be noted, however, that he is at odds on the issue with most Israeli experts in military intelligence, the planning directorate of the Israeli Defence Forces, Mossad, the Foreign Ministry and the Atomic Energy Committee. As the Israeli newspaper, Haaretz, pointed out: “All intelligence bodies dealing with the Iranian issue are united in the opinion that since the agreement was signed in Vienna, Iran has not been caught violating a single clause. Also, the Israeli intelligence community has no evidence that the Iranians have resumed their nuclear project and gone back on their commitments.” Backing for the deal has also come from Ehud Barak, the former prime minister known for his hawkish views on Iran.
Then there are, of course, the Saudis. They are leading a Sunni alliance engaged in bitter sectarian strife against Shia Iran and have vigorously opposed Tehran’s rapprochement with the international community. Mr Trump’s first official foreign visit after getting to the White House was to Riyadh – basically an arms-selling trip for Gulf states – where he castigated Iran for a range of alleged transgressions. But the Saudis are now busily engaged in a prolonged stand-off with the fellow Sunnis of Qatar, one which they show no sign of winning at present, and one which Iran has exploited by getting Qatar on side. Significantly, while Mr Trump tweeted attacks on Qatar in the confrontation with the Saudis, Mr Tillerson and Mr Mattis made a public show of standing by Qatar and have shaped a more nuanced US position.
The Saudis have been expressing displeasure; one prominent example of this was King Salman’s sudden visit to see Vladimir Putin in Moscow, and the Kingdom pointedly placing a large order of S-400 surface-to-air missiles. But the fact is that Saudi influence in Washington is not enough at the moment to totally collapse the nuclear deal.
The domestic alliance urging Mr Trump to scupper the agreement are Steve Bannon and people around him; right-wing Israeli lobbyists; John Bolton, the super hawk and one of the architects of the Iraq invasion and some senior figures in Fox News. Mr Bolton is not a member of the administration; Mr Bannon has been sacked from the White House. With his senior officials disagreeing with him, the US President has been turning to Sean Hannity for advice. But the Fox talk-show host does not appear to have quite the power to shape overall Iran policy.
The Iranians complain that Mr Trump is undermining the agreement. But officials privately acknowledge it could have been a lot worse. They have also been encouraged by the level of support they have received from other P5+1 members including discussions on steps which can be taken if US sanctions do, eventually, come in and Washington walks out of the JCPOA.
But there are potential pitfalls ahead with what happens with the IRGC. Sanctions on Iran’s missile programme would also be fiercely resisted by Tehran, although some officials have indicated that talks may be held on the basis of an international missile treaty. There could also be problems with any attempts to redraw the ‘sunset’ provision under which restrictions on Iran’s nuclear programme is lifted in stages.
There is a growing consensus that these thorny issues can be solved more easily if Mr Trump is no longer put in a position of having to certify Iranian compliance every 90 days. The rule was brought in to ensure that President Obama can overrule a hostile Congress on the issue. The situation now, of course, is very different.
Lt Gen McMaster, according to one account, indicated this to some senators and congressmen, effectively saying that leaving the matter to Congress would mean that if Mr Trump “doesn’t have to see it, he won’t be able to kill it”.
After issuing florid invectives and the threats to tear up the Iran deal for a long time, Donald Trump’s first act on this as President may end up, in the long run, actually helping to save the agreement.