In this edition of The Interview, Fair Observer talks to Barbara Slavin, director of the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council.
Withdrawing from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), popularly known as the Iran nuclear deal, was one of US President Donald Trump’s main campaign promises. He fulfilled this promise on May 8 and sent shockwaves across the world. This is an agreement that was upheld through the UN Security Council Resolution 2231, which the United States itself had voted in favor of under the Obama administration.
Now, Iran-US relations are at a record low. The Trump administration has imposed grueling sanctions against Iran that have started to erode the country’s economy and already devastated its currency, the rial. Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has rejected any talks with the United States to settle differences, and new sanctions will be enforced on November 4.
The Iran nuclear deal, which was the outcome of months of heated talks and active diplomacy, is about to fall apart, but it’s not the only international agreement that President Trump has de-certified. He has already withdrawn from the UN Human Rights Council, departed from UNESCO and made other controversial decisions that give observers of US politics reason to think that he might be a one-term president.
Although his aggressive stance toward Tehran may appeal to congressional hawks who believe Iran should be contained, they appear unappetizing and duplicitous to those who say Trump doesn’t represent the leadership qualities of Barack Obama and is simply trying to overturn his achievements.
Trump’s Iran policies have also infuriated the large community of Iranian-Americans who believe the nullification of the nuclear deal will kill chances of reconciliation between Tehran and Washington after four decades of hostility.
In this edition of The Interview, Fair Observer talks to Barbara Slavin, an American journalist, foreign policy expert and director of the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council, about President Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran deal and its ripple effects.
Kourosh Ziabari: What do you think about Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran deal? Some experts say his decision was mostly driven by his desire to destroy the legacy of Barack Obama. Do you agree?
Barbara Slavin: There were several reasons. He campaigned on a pledge to withdraw, and he likes to say he keeps his campaign promises. He was influenced by major donors such as Sheldon Adelson and other supporters of Israel’s Likud government. And yes, he clearly enjoys destroying — or attempting to destroy — Barack Obama’s achievements. I doubt to this day that Trump is even aware of all of the provisions of the nuclear deal.
Ziabari: The European Union, Russia and China have made it clear that they will continue honoring their commitments under the nuclear deal with Iran. Does this mean the US will be isolated or run into difficulties in its relations with these countries?
Slavin: The US will not have the same success that the Obama administration enjoyed in terms of re-imposing sanctions. However, the mere threat of those sanctions has crashed the Iranian currency and caused severe harm to the Iranian people. That “maximum pressure” appears to be Trump’s chief goal.
Ziabari: US officials have been on errands across the world, loudly discouraging Iran’s oil clients from buying its crude and deterring other countries from doing business with the Iranians. Will these efforts pay off, and will countries such as China, India, South Korea, Turkey and EU member states stop trading with Iran under US pressure?
Slavin: Many European companies have already pulled out of Iran, and Iranian oil exports to Europe will be drastically reduced. The same is true for South Korea and Japan. However, China, India and Turkey will continue to import Iranian energy, and Russia will also be a growing economic partner.
Ziabari: Do you think the US withdrawal will embolden hardliners in Tehran and give them reason to behave more irrationally, both domestically and internationally?
Slavin: All factions in Iran are under extreme pressure because of popular discontent that has deep reasons that go well beyond the US withdrawal from the nuclear deal. I actually think the Iranian government will be cautious and try to retain international support while blaming the Trump administration for aggressive and unilateral actions. We have also seen a coming together of factions behind President [Hassan] Rouhani in the face of US pressure.
Ziabari: Israel was one of few countries that lauded President Trump’s decision to pull out of the nuclear agreement. Why do you think Israel is happy that Washington is not part of the JCPOA anymore?
Slavin: The Netanyahu government is happy, but Israel’s intelligence establishment is worried that Iran will resume its nuclear activities and remain deeply involved in regional conflicts.
I would distinguish Israel’s political leadership from its security establishment, which is not uniformly happy about the US withdrawal. For the government of Bibi Netanyahu, however, the hope is that the return of sanctions will squeeze Iran and force it to reduce its military intervention in Syria. Israel also feels confident that the Trump administration would back it in any confrontation with the Islamic Republic, including military action should Iran accelerate its nuclear program again.
Ziabari: Trump has also withdrawn from a number of international agreements and organizations, including UNESCO, the UN Human Rights Council, the 2015 Paris Agreement and the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Don’t these decisions undermine multilateralism and engaged diplomacy on the global stage?
Slavin: These actions definitely undermine multilateralism and are indicative of what Trump calls his “America First” policies. I would add to your list National Security Adviser John Bolton’s announcement that the US will not cooperate with any investigations of American personnel by the International Criminal Court.
In my view, rejection of multilateral agreements weakens the rule of law internationally and thus undermines US national interests, because the US does better when other countries respect international norms. Unfortunately, the Trump administration does not share this view and seems to think it can prevail outside this framework.
Ziabari: How do you see the future of Iran-US relations? Do you see willingness in Iranians to negotiate with the US directly after the initial steps that were taken under President Barack Obama? Will the Trump administration change course to solve the two countries’ differences through engagement and diplomacy?
Slavin: It’s hard to predict. My hope is that Trump will be a one-term president and that his successor will seek to re-engage with Iran — and vice-versa. Of course, we now have Trump’s offer to meet with President Rouhani without preconditions, but it looks unlikely that politics on both sides — as well as opposition from Israel, Saudi Arabia and the UAE — would let such a meeting go forward. And it’s unclear what concessions the US would offer in return for new Iranian concessions on the nuclear issue or regional matters.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.