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Who Wins and Who Loses in Trump’s Iran Strategy?

On Friday, October 13, Trump declared that he will not re-validate the nuclear deal with Iran; nor will he break with it entirely.

Amelia Robles

October 18, 2017
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Image from the Huffington Post

What is the Iran Deal?

The Iran Deal, known officially as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), was signed in July 2015 by the U.S., the other of the countries of the so-called P5+1 (the United Kingdom, Russia, France, China and Germany) and the European Union. It’s purpose was to limit Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for the gradual lifting of economic sanctions imposed on the country by Western powers.

The agreement put limitations on Iran’s nuclear energy program, including its uranium stockpiling. Iran is required to reduce the number of centrifuges that will permit it to enrich uranium – from 19,000 to 6,000 — and is barred from accumulating more than 300 kg of enriched uranium. According to the deal, Iran would be subjected to a regime of inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency for the next 15 years. Every 90 days, the president of the U.S. must certify to Congress that the provisions of the deal are being met. If the president does not certify this, a 60-day countdown is triggered, at the end of which Congress can re-impose sanctions.

The deal saw the re-establishment of diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Iran, for the first time since the 1979 Revolution. Previous sanctions cost Iran more than $160 billion in oil revenue from 2012 to 2016. Based on the terms of the agreement, Iran would gain access to more than $100 billion in assets frozen abroad, and was able to continue selling oil on global markets and trading in the global financial system.

Winners and Losers

The deal marked a rare consensus between global powers — China, Russia, Germany, and the EU coming together under U.S. leadership to pressure Iran. Jake Sullivan, one of the U.S. negotiators, said “It was the whole world versus Iran.” The deal was seen as mutually beneficial for both the U.S. and Iran, allowing the latter to legitimize its nuclear program (despite limitations), and the former to secure the cooperation of the Irani regime to combat the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and the Taliban in Afghanistan. This changed the geopolitical structure that dominated the Middle East for nearly four decades.

Obama considered it one of his crowning achievements in the realm of foreign policy, demonstrating his strategy of “soft imperialism” based on global coalitions. In his 2016 State of the Union, Obama said the Iran deal was based on a “global coalition, with sanctions and principled diplomacy, to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran” and helped avoid another war.

Russia also benefited from the deal, with Putin resuming the sale of weapons to Iran after the sanctions were lifted and receiving enriched uranium that Iran was not able to store within its own territory.

Not everyone, however, supported the deal. Because Iran has historically been the main rival of the Saudi monarchy, Saudi Arabia stood to lose in the deal. With the signing of the deal, the monarchy feared that the normalization of relations between the United States and Iran would compromise its own influence in the region.

The ultra-rightist Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was also opposed to the deal to prevent Iran from being strengthened as a regional heavyweight actor with access to nuclear arms, potentially a direct threat to the security of the State of Israel. While the re-establishment of relations between the U.S. and Iran was opposed by Israeli defense experts, Trump’s refusal to re-certify the agreement, along with the recent withdrawal of the U.S. from UNESCO on the grounds of the organization’s supposed anti-Israel bias, can be seen as a closer turn to its ally Israel.

What did Trump decide?

Throughout the campaign, candidate Trump spoke out against the Iran deal, calling it an “embarrassment” and one of the “worst deals” that the U.S. ever entered. Yet, Trump certified the deal twice since coming into office, leading some to believe that the Republican establishment could reign in the president. While Republicans opposed the agreement under Obama, many have joined the ranks of its proponents. General Mattis, Rex Tillerson, and the majority of the establishment, for example, have urged Trump to continue the deal.

Trump began his speech on the nuclear deal by the Islamic Republic of Iran as part of the Axis of Evil, along with North Korea, recalling the revolution of ’79, the Iranian hostage crisis in the U.S. embassy, and insinuating an agreement between Iran and North Korea, among other arguments.

While Trump also claimed that Iran had broken parts of the pact, Federica Mogherini, the EU’s foreign policy chief, said that the Middle Eastern nation had not violated any parts of the agreement, and maintained that Trump cannot renegotiate the deal unilaterally.

In an apparent effort to negotiate with members of his administration who want to continue the agreement, Trump refused to certify that the deal was in the national interest of the U.S. but which did not undo the agreement. Ultimately, Trump passed the burden onto Congress to decide whether or not to renew sanctions on Iran.

The International Reaction

With this announcement, Trump effectively distanced himself from the European powers, including the U.K., Germany, and France, whose leaders had urged the U.S. to maintain certification of the nuclear deal to guarantee the unity of the alliance that was negotiated with the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Germany’s Minister of Foreign Relations, Sigmar Gabriel warned that whatever move Trump made to put the agreement to rest would bring Europeans to a “common position with Russia and China” against the U.S.

Immediately after his speech, Trump received the backing of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (who had already congratulated him on Thursday after the U.S. left UNESCO). On the other hand, the U.K., France, and Germany released an announcement in which they declared their continued support for the nuclear deal. In the statement signed by British Prime Minister Theresa May, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and French President Emmanuel Macron, they voiced their concern over the “possible implications” of Washington’s decision not review Iran’s compliance.
“Our governments are committed to maintaining the JCPOA,” the announcement asserted. “The nuclear deal was the culmination of 13 years of diplomacy, and this important step in achieving the nuclear deal with Iran must not be redirected towards military ends.” They remind readers that the agreement received unanimous support of the Security Council of the U.N.. May, Merkel, and Macron asked the Trump Administration and the U.S. Congress to consider the implications for the security of the U.S. and its allies “before taking any step that can shake the JCPOA, such as reintroducing sanctions on Iran.”

Trump’s decision has important repercussions for the U.S.’s relationship with China as well. The Global Times, a state-backed Chinese newspaper, stated, “If America would overturn a pact it made to the rest of the world, solely because of a transition in government, how can it retain the reputation of a great power?” This is particularly important as Trump attempts to enlist China’s support in corralling North Korea.

The Financial Times goes further, arguing that Trump’s policy on Iran has “emboldened” North Korea. Roula Khalaf argues, “If you are Mr. Kim, you would conclude that you have been right all along; the U.S. cannot be trusted, even when it puts its name to an international agreement.”

What will Congress decide?

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson as well as Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis were among those who argued for maintaining the deal, and were, until Friday, the counterweight that kept Trump renewing it every trimester. That counterweight seems to have come to an end, and has led to public conflicts like the supposed disagreement between Trump and Tillerson on topics of foreign policy, in which Tillerson allegedly called Trump a “moron.” In fact, the Washington Post reported that Trump threw a fit upon realizing that Mattis and Tillerson wanted him to continue the Obama-era nuclear deal.

Now the issue will shift to Congress where it has 60 days to decide on possible sanctions on Iran. Trump said that, “In the event we are not able to reach a solution working with Congress and our allies…then the agreement will be terminated.” However, enacting new legislation on Iran would require 60 Senate votes, with at least eight Democratic votes —an unlikely scenario given that Senate Democrats opposed Trump’s decision to not re-certify.

The Logic of Imperialism

Trump has harnessed nationalist and xenophobic discourse in his statements on the deal, insisting that Iran is the part of the Axis of Evil. He invokes the threat of “radical Islamic terrorism,” which has been used to persecute Muslims in the U.S. and abroad, particularly to support the Muslim travel ban.

Meanwhile, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani asserted on Friday that Iran will maintain the multinational nuclear agreement, and continue to expand its ballistic missile program despite U.S. pressure.

The openly imperialist rhetoric and policy advanced by President Trump will inevitably lead to more global conflicts. With this action, Trump opens up another battle front for his administration that is battered by criticism about his attitude towards the devastation in Puerto Rico, the crisis with North Korea and the Russia investigation.

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