By Keith Blankfield
Graffiti on the wall of the closed US embassy in Tehran. © David Holt
On May 8, 2018, US President Donald Trump announced his decision to impose new sanctions on Iran, thus violating the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and jeopardizing the 2015 nuclear nonproliferation agreement between Iran and the West.
Like the many crises of the Trump Administration, this was a self-generated one. Claims by Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu notwithstanding, there was no reason to believe Iran had broken the deal first; both the International Atomic Energy Agency and Israeli intelligence forces believe that Iran has been complying with the restrictions on its nuclear program imposed by JCPOA. Instead, the decision was meant to play to domestic politics, as many Trump decisions are, fulfilling an ill-guided campaign promise while making the President appear tougher on foreign policy.
However, this decision may have reduced America’s leverage irreversibly. On one hand, it vindicates Iranian voices who claim that “there’s a segment of the American political establishment that can never forgive us for kicking the United States out of Iran during the revolution in 1979…They want to see us broken at our knees, in complete surrender.” Breaking a promise after only three years undermines American credibility, a dangerous move as the US enters difficult negotiations with North Korea over many of the same issues.
On the other hand, renewed sanctions require Europe to play ball, which it is unlikely to do. Despite promises that renewed sanctions will push Iran into giving up more, the Iranian economy relies much more heavily on European trade than it does on American. Any economic pressure from the US is toothless without the kind of European cooperation that brought Iran to the negotiating table in 2015.
European powers today seem reluctant to re-impose sanctions. Because of Trump’s unilateral decision to violate the JCPOA despite various European offers to sweeten the deal, Europe now perceives the US as the bad faith actor. It is unlikely to jettison lucrative trade deals to placate seemingly insatiable US demands, and the European Union has even said that it will shield its own companies from US economic retaliation. Furthermore, China is injecting billions into Iran through its “New Silk Road” projects, both reducing Iran’s dependence on Western trade and pushing European countries to compete harder for business opportunities.
It’s also unclear precisely what Trump wants to pressure Iran into doing. The official White House statement includes a laundry list of complaints, only a few of them related to the nuclear deal. Instead, it accuses Iran of “malign activities” in the Middle East, pointing to Iranian ballistic missile development and its support for various proxy forces. These issues, as Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif claims, were purposely left out of the original agreement. Expecting the JCPOA to resolve every single Iran-US conflict would have doomed negotiations to failure.
The point of the pact was not to end all enmity between Iran and America, but to prioritize nuclear nonproliferation over regional political issues. And Iran is unlikely to surrender what it sees as its vital interests, especially without additional concessions from the American side. As Zarif said in his statement on May 3rd, Iran “will neither outsource our security nor will we renegotiate or add on to a deal we have already implemented in good faith.”
Steven Walt points out that the hawk wing of Washington, DC—which predates the Trump administration—refuses to acknowledge “that Iran has regional interests and that its preferences need to be considered when important regional questions are being resolved.” Instead, they prefer a policy of regime change, isolating and attacking the Islamic Republic until it ceases to be. Such a policy has not worked for almost 40 years, and by refusing to accept any concessions short of unconditional surrender, it only incentivizes Iran to push back against any US influence in its near abroad.
Whatever happens next depends on Iran’s domestic politics. Europe has indicated its willingness to keep up its end of the bargain without the United States, but only if Iran sticks to its obligations under JCPOA. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has had to spend tremendous amounts of political capital selling the deal domestically against hardline opposition, and now must admit that the hardliners’ worst predictions have come true. He may continue working with the Europeans while retaliating against the US in a way that does not involve nuclear development, placating domestic hawks without angering Europe. But if the hardliners succeed in pushing Rouhani out of power, or if Rouhani feels enough domestic pressure to leave JCPOA, then Iran may break out of the deal. Rouhani has publicly said that this option is on the table, although doing so would hurt Iran more than it would affect the US.
Either way, we are likely to see an escalation in the various Middle Eastern conflicts where Iran and the US are involved. Recent media coverage has focused on Israeli-Syrian clashes near Damascus and the Golan Heights, but Iranian actions have been most reactive; the cross-border missile attacks began a few days before the American decision to violate JCPOA, when an Israeli airstrike killed eight Iranian servicemen in Syria.
Iran and its allies may attempt to undermine US interests in less outwardly provocative ways. For example, a coalition of militias backed by US special forces is currently mopping up the remnants of ISIS in the Lower Euphrates River Valley. Syrian loyalist and Iranian troops could attack these forces head-on, risking a repeat of the clashes that killed several hundred Russian soldiers. Iran could also bleed US forces under the guise of an insurgency, making it difficult to tell whether attacks on US forces originated from ISIS bitter-enders, Iranian intelligence forces, or local Syrian elements. Such attacks would exploit tensions within NATO, as Turkey has strenuously objected to the forces America has allied itself with in Syria.
Similarly, the US presence in Iraq is vulnerable to Iranian pressure. The collapse of the Iraqi military in 2014 and subsequent war against ISIS spawned hundreds of “Popular Mobilization Units,” many of which are affiliated with or supported by Iran. These forces could attack US troops and economic assets directly. As many of these groups—now political parties as well as militias—are polling well in Iraq’s upcoming parliamentary vote, Iran can encourage anti-American political currents in Iraq as well.
Iran could also egg on the situation in Palestine, which would both threaten US allies and serve as a personal slight to Trump. The US is trying to build an Israeli-Saudi alliance against Iran, and additionally, Trump is anxious to bolster his image by brokering the “ultimate deal” between Israel and the Palestinians. Both of these goals require Arab perceptions of Israel (and Palestinian trust in the US) to improve.
Unrest in Gaza and Jerusalem may suddenly undo those conditions. Israel’s heavy-handed crackdown on protests in Gaza, has earned US support and European condemnation. Because Trump broke with past policy to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, Palestinian leadership has promised a “day of rage” when the new US Embassy opens there. If protests in Jerusalem or Gaza provoke a drastic Israeli reaction, it may harden the Palestinians against a peace deal, make the Saudi Arabian public skeptical of an alliance with Israel, and drive a wedge between Europe and the US. This would also create an internal security crisis for Israel, making it more difficult to confront Iran externally. While these events will mostly be determined by local factors, covert or overt Iranian support could spell the difference between a period of tension and a violent eruption, with few options for recourse for the US.
In other words, the many American policy goals in the Middle East make the US vulnerable to Iranian retaliation. America can bring an incredible amount of force to bear anywhere in the world, but not everywhere at once. Rather than assembling “a broad coalition of nations to deny Iran all paths to a nuclear weapon and to counter the totality of the regime’s malign activities,” Trump has destabilized the Middle East and worsened America’s standing with no identifiable goal in sight.
This decision to violate JCPOA is an example of Trump’s reality TV style of governance. However, the forces pushing against JCPOA predate the Trump administration by decades. Since the end of the Cold War, some US policymakers have had a faith in the omnipotence of Washington, DC that even repeated blunders cannot shake. As long as DC circles hold onto these illusions of invincibility, it will enable the Trumps of the world to believe that they can accomplish anything through bluster. But as that strategy is failing with regards to Iran, it will fare even worse against larger US rivals such as China and Russia.