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Stasa Salacanin

Trump vs the Iran nuclear deal

Given Trump’s unpredictability, there are concerns that he could imperil the nuclear deal [Getty]

Date of publication: 6 February, 2017

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Could the Iranian nuclear deal be the next victim in the line of Trump’s new measures, asks Stasa Salacanin.
Hardly a day goes by without another controversy surrounding President Trump’s actions. From pulling out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, railing against China, or signing executive order banning Muslim refugees from entering the US.

So could the Iranian nuclear deal or more precisely Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), be the next victim in the line of Trump’s new measures?

The deal, regardless of how imperfect it may seem, presents the best solution concerning all the divergent interests of the parties involved. And it has been codified (institutionalised) by UN Security Council resolution, ensuring it as much international legitimacy as possible.

However, given Trump’s unpredictability, there are growing concerns that he and his newly gathered band of hardliners, such as National Security adviser Michael Flynn, or Defence Secretary James Mattis, could take actions that could imperil the nuclear deal.

He had mentioned this possibility on several occasions during his election campaign. Last March, for example, he told American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) that his “no. 1 priority is to dismantle the disastrous deal with Iran.”

Given Trump’s unpredictability, there are growing concerns that he and his newly gathered band of hardliners could take actions that could imperil the nuclear deal

Easier said than done

Opinions on this vary greatly, but, since dealing with the short tempered “new kid on the block” in the past two weeks already proved that he will not be restrictive in his policy u-turns, any surprise on this topic should not be excluded.

James M. Acton, Co-Director of Nuclear Policy Programme at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, believes so.

“I don’t know what Donald Trump will do about the Iran deal – and I doubt he does either,” he commented for The New Arab.

“It appears that his advisers and cabinet nominees are split on this issue, and they will need some time to develop a plan. I wouldn’t be surprised by any outcome ranging from unilaterally scrapping the deal to abiding by it.”

But it is also true that nullifying the agreement is easier said than done. Assuming Tehran remains compliant with the JCPOA’s terms; no one expects the Europeans or Asians to re-impose nuclear sanctions on Iran.

Of course, with a Republican-controlled House and Senate next year, “Trump may have an easy time signing legislation to slow down the JCPOA’s implementation, or imposing new sanctions for missile tests, terrorism, or human rights. But in an increasingly multipolar world that long ago stopped marching to Washington’s tune, America cannot shove policy prescriptions down other nations’ throats,” Daniel Wagner, founder and CEO of Country Risk Solutions, a cross-border risk advisory firm based in Connecticut (USA), told The New Arab.

Indeed, Donald Trump's administration has imposed sanctions on Iran following its recent ballistic missile test, on Friday, February 4. The sanctions target 13 people and 12 companies.

Earlier, President Trump tweeted: "Iran is playing with fire - they don't appreciate how 'kind' President Obama was to them. Not me!"

This could lead to a new serious confrontation between two countries. But according to Wagner, although Trump and some of his Republican allies may believe that isolating the Islamic Republic serves the US national interest, Washington would, according to him, undoubtedly find itself isolated in its new policy, given how many major countries want to further unfreeze their economic relations with Iran.

Trump tweeted: Iran is playing with fire - they don't appreciate how 'kind' President Obama was to them. Not me!

This is especially true for Europe, as nuclear deal agreement has triggered a proper business gold rush due to the huge and untapped Iranian market, while national governments have been quick to organise business trips and meeting the key Iranian political decision makers.

Even France, which had the toughest stance toward Iran during negotiation process, has quickly restored trade ties. Airbus, Total, Peugeot and Renault have all signed deals with Iran. Therefore, European diplomats have been clear that, if the US walks away from the deal or provoke actions that may cause a new crisis, EU won't feel obliged to put European sanctions back in place.

European diplomats have been clear that, if the US walks away from the deal or provoke actions that may cause a new crisis, EU won't feel obliged to put European sanctions back in place

Can Europe save the deal?

So will the Europeans be the last defenders of the Iranian nuclear deal?

Dr Gawdat Bahgat, professor of National Security Affairs at the National Defense University's Near East South Asia Centre for Strategic Study from Washington DC, said that many European leaders and President Trump's close advisers have strongly recommended against such action. He therefore believes President Trump is unlikely to withdraw from the deal.

“Instead, he is likely to take initiatives to increase pressure on Iran. It is like a couple who do not like each other but none of them want to be the one who initiates the divorce,” he told The New Arab. 

According to Mark Hibbs, Germany-based senior fellow in Carnegie’s Nuclear Policy Programme , Trump may not care much whether the Europeans in the group – Germany and France – plead with him not to kill it.

“But he should listen to the UK, a bridge country to Europe with a longstanding special relationship with America that Trump will want to preserve. Prime Minister May will tell the President that Iran is a threat – but also that the way to keep Iran bottled up is to make sure that the Iran agreement is rigorously enforced,” he told The New Arab.

He added that if Trump kills the Iran agreement, he will thrust the UK, France, and Germany into the arms of Russia and China, which also want to have the Iran agreement remain on track. “They would all have a common interest against the American President in that case,” he noted.

If Trump kills the Iran agreement, he will thrust the UK, France, and Germany into the arms of Russia and China, which also want to have the Iran agreement remain on track

But the devil is in the details. First of all, Europeans have anything but close relations with Russia at the moment.

Secondly, EU can be hardly described as a cohesive block, so it is rather doubtful if Europe would jointly stand up against US in this case.

European common foreign and security policy has always been one of the weakest spots of the Union despite the fact that EU's engagement during negotiation process has been very important, making Iranian nuclear deal one of very few foreign policy victories.

Also, the Union is presently facing huge challenges such as immigration issue and the rise of nationalist anti-establishment movements. Some of these openly sympathise with Donald Trump’s ideals.

It is worth mentioning that 2017 is set to become a crucial year for Europe with a string of high-stake elections in France, Germany, the Netherlands (and perhaps Italy), as well as in Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovenia, and Portugal. The election outcomes could bring even greater uncertainty to the bloc in the year to come.

Last but not least, in the last several decades Europeans hardly ever openly opposed US’ geopolitical decisions, even when they violated EU’s interests. Although killing the deal would be clearly against European interests, it is rather unclear how far Europe will go in defending the Iran's nuclear deal and whether it would sacrifice the alliance with Washington for the sake of Iran.

Reza Marashi, Research Director at National Iranian American Council, told Huffington Post there were two options that Europe may consider if Trump decide to crush the deal: first, it could establish an office in Brussels and the capitals of all 27 EU capitals tasked with long-term planning of alternative international banking and financial options outside the existing US-controlled infrastructure; or, it could consider announcing the formation of a joint EU bank with no ties to the US financial system.

Such a bank might serve as the clearing house for transactions with countries that Washington seeks to isolate in ways that damage core European interests. But this is also easier said than done as it would take a lot of time, effort and goodwill, not to mention that this would seriously undermine transatlantic relations that are still of utmost importance for European security.

However, Dr Bahgat does not believe that European leaders will have to choose between US and Iran as the notion that “you are with us or with the terrorists” are over.

The World vs Trump

After all, Europe will not be alone in this battle as there are other players in the international community that Trump's administration has to deal with. According to Wagner any effort to undermine the JCPOA could complicate America’s alliances with other major economic powerhouses, including India, Japan, and South Korea, which were not part of the P5+1, but have much to gain commercially from continuation of the JCPOA.

Moreover, Washington’s GCC allies, which despite their initial reservations about the JCPOA’s geopolitical ramifications, have their own reasons to pressure the US to not unravel it entirely.

Instead, Wagner noted, the Saudis, Kuwaitis and Emiratis would prefer to see the Trump administration renegotiate the nuclear deal to place greater pressure on Iran, which many in the GCC view as the top threat to the Gulf Arab sheikhdoms’ security.

The Saudis, Kuwaitis and Emiratis would prefer to see the Trump administration renegotiate the nuclear deal to place greater pressure on Iran

On the other hand, Wagner recalls that Oman and Qatar, which supported a peaceful settlement to the standoff over Iran’s nuclear programme from an early stage, have openly advocated for approaching Tehran diplomatically.

They called for engaging in a dialogue with Iran, while exploring opportunities to deepen trade relations with Iran across numerous sectors and incorporating the Islamic Republic into the Gulf’s regional security landscape as a full-fledged partner in initiatives to counter Islamic State and other problems.

As key allies of Washington and hosts of US military installations, Trump must take Muscat’s and Doha’s interests vis-à-vis Iran into consideration.

Hibbs notes that Trump should pay attention to what hardliners in Israel have been saying since his election, namely, that the best way forward is not to terminate the agreement, but to insist on implementation to the letter. 

“Many Israelis instinctively know that if their ally America pulls out of the agreement, they will have to rely on Europeans, Chinese, and Russians to hold Iran to account – for suspicious Israelis this is not a very palatable prospect.

"With Trump heeding isolationists in the US, the Israelis cannot count on the US working with Israel to try to end Iran's threat by military means," he concluded.

So, no matter how much repudiation Trump may feel about the Iranian nuclear deal, it seems that the new President will have to live with it, or turn the entire globe against himself.


Stasa Salacanin is a freelance journalist who has written extensively on Middle Eastern affairs, trade and political relations, Syria and Yemen, terrorism and defence.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.

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