Could America’s unorthodox president’s approach to the Iran nuclear deal actually be gaining traction?
He came into office with no national security or foreign policy experience. In his presidential campaign, he made wild claims about how he would shake up US policy in both areas, previously the province of “the establishment,” whom he derided and excoriated at every opportunity. Almost 16 months into Donald Trump’s presidency, could he be succeeding? Is there a method to his madness?
Consider: Europe’s two principal leaders and global mainstays of the liberal, rules-based international order, French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, visited Washington last week. Their objective, inter alia: to persuade Trump that they had a better idea for dealing with Iran and the matter of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), aka the Iran nuclear accord, than the president’s much-acclaimed proposal to scrap it and start over. They offered up a plan that would never have passed muster in Europe when Trump assumed office in January 2017.
The disruptor-in-chief has succeeded in upsetting the status quo, making him and his peeves the center of attention. It’s an approach any of his business partners, colleagues, employees and adversaries came to know all too well when he was Donald Trump, the real estate mogul. To be sure it may only be said at this point that President Trump has the attention of the P5+1 governments — and no doubt Iran’s as well. But will his “overturn-the-chessboard” approach actually deliver a solution without provoking Iran’s relaunch of its nuclear development program and an unprecedented crisis in the Middle East?
No one should use that term, “unprecedented,” lightly when referring to crises in this perpetually crisis-plagued region. Nevertheless, an Iran that is seen as pursuing nuclear weapons, or even the capability of having them, opens a Pandora’s box of the most vile and venomous possibilities. These are stakes that Donald Trump has never faced before.
Regime Change by Other Means?
European leaders of France, Germany and the UK — parties to the P5+1, along with China, Russia and the US, which negotiated the accord with Iran — now propose addressing many of the issues that Trump and the US claim make the accord “the worst agreement ever.” They acknowledge Trump’s principal concerns about the agreement: the inability to inspect Iran’s military facilities for possible nuclear activities; the limited horizon for prohibited nuclear activities, i.e., 10 to 15 years in some cases; absence of adequate restrictions on Iran’s ballistic missile program, which threatens allies in Israel and most Arab states as well as US installations in the region; and Iran’s well-documented malign activity in the region, such as Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Lebanon, Bahrain and elsewhere, including state sponsorship of terrorist organizations. The US administration has also excoriated Iran’s abysmal human rights record and its threatening behavior toward Israel, which the Europeans also recognize.
Whether all such issues can be addressed either in an entirely new agreement, as Trump proposes, or in some additional or supplementary accord remains questionable, particularly given the Iranian regime’s insistent refusal to renegotiate the JCPOA. As any experienced international negotiator can confirm, wrapping such disparate issues into a single deal primarily intended to accomplish one primary objective — i.e., the elimination of nuclear weapons by one state — is highly problematic. To attempt to do so with Tehran is tantamount to erasing the spots on the Iranian leopard. It would be regime change by diplomacy. Iran’s leadership knows that.
The Trump Way
But the US administration’s argument is rooted in a singular vision of Iran as the primary cause of instability and danger in the Middle East. But going after the challenge of Iran by scorching the nuclear accord, by which Iran is abiding according to the International Atomic Energy Agency and other objective observers, would seem to be a questionable approach. If Iran is the problem — and it certainly is “a” problem — then why relieve it of obligations that so far have successfully curtailed its most threatening activities?
That seems to be the argument of the Europeans, with whom the American negotiators have been meeting for months to craft a possible alternative to an all-out US abrogation of the agreement. Trump has given them until May 12 to come up with a plan. Based on early assessments of the Macron and Merkel visits, it is still a heavy lift for the European and American negotiators.
But isn’t that all part of the Trump madness? Brinkmanship. Create a lot of movement, noise and negative vibes. Send your minions out with foreboding messages — newly installed US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s recent remarks in Saudi Arabia. Trash your opponents — Iranians, Europeans, Democrats, Obama, the media, etc. Set ridiculous deadlines and then press the case, however ludicrous or lucid, to the end for maximum advantage. Then clinch the deal on terms no one would have accepted at the outset. That’s Donald Trump’s foreign policy, aka the “Art of the Deal.” In this case, it may work, though it still appears unlikely.
Europe and America Have Leverage
To be sure, the Europeans and Americans have considerable leverage. The anticipated economic fallout promised by the Iranian leadership after the original deal was concluded in 2015 has not happened. Iran faced widespread protests in December 2017 and January 2018, largely over economic issues like high unemployment, lackluster growth and troubled credit markets. Its currency has fallen by 25% against the US dollar. The nation’s economy needs help, and the West may be the only source. Investment, trade credits, access to hard currency, access to critically needed capital equipment and other goods, and export markets are all cards the West can play to maximum advantage in order to make the adjustments they want to the nuclear accord and even Iran’s behavior. On the other hand, continued sanctions, or even more, remain powerful weapons.
All of this would mean an enormous change of tune for the heretofore revolutionary, resistant Islamic Republic. So, a new or supplementary deal may be a bridge too far. But getting the Europeans and Americans to agree on an approach would be a signature achievement and significant step for the unorthodox US president.
There is also one rather bright spot in the matter. Unlike many of his supporters on the right, such as his new National Security Advisor John Bolton, Trump is not a hardened ideologue on this issue, or any other for that matter. It’s the deal he wants, which he can easily then tout to his supporters as, “better than what my predecessor Obama got.” The Europeans and Iranians would do well to understand that. All that’s needed is something better than “Obama’s deal.”
For now, at least on this issue, the Trump approach may be getting some traction. The risk, however, is if his approach fails, the region and the world may face a new kind of crisis that Donald Trump’s heralded inexperience would easily exacerbate.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.