Analysis: Trump’s withdrawal from Iran nuclear deal isolates US
US president’s decision to pull out of 2015 multilateral nuclear agreement raises uncertainties in post-JCPOA world.
Washington, DC – US President Donald Trump’s unilateral withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal – a move driven largely by domestic politics – will further isolate the US from its European allies and set in motion ripple effects that could lead to wider proliferation of nuclear weapons and regional tensions in the Middle East, analysts say.
“The reality is that for reasons that have nothing to do with foreign policy, the president just took a highly flawed, but still functional accord, and scrapped it without an alternative,” Aaron David Miller, a Middle East analyst at the Wilson Center, a think-tank in Washington, told Al Jazeera.
“Let’s understand something; get ready to enter the post-JCPOA world with all of the uncertainties that those sets of circumstances are going to carry,” he said.
In Washington, the president’s Republican supporters in Congress voiced support for the move, decrying the so-called JCPOA, or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, as a “bad deal”.
Democrats said Trump’s move would alienate US allies internationally and risk progress that had been made with Iran under the 2015 agreement.
“We should have kept the agreement in place,” Senator Chuck Schumer, the top Democrat in the US Senate told reporters on Capitol Hill.
“Unilateral sanctions don’t work very well and I don’t know where our allies will be after this,” he said.
What is next?
Nuclear non-proliferation experts see two possible scenarios developing from here.
One is that Europe, China and Russia work with Iran to try to preserve the agreement by sustaining economic relations in the face of US sanctions pressure.
The alternative, weapons control experts fear, is that Iran’s leadership is not able to remain in the deal and begins to renew its nuclear programme.
“In some sense, the clock is ticking now,” Tom Z Collina, policy director of the Ploughshares Fund, an anti-nuclear proliferation advocacy group, told Al Jazeera.
“How long can the moderates in Iran hold out and keep the deal viable?” he said. “And if – ultimately – they can’t, then what you’ve got is the worst possible situation where Iran begins to resume its nuclear activities.”
It’s somewhat unlikely that Iran’s leadership can be convinced to re-engage in direct talks with the US after Trump’s undoing of the deal, according to Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, a non-partisan group in Washington that advocates for nuclear weapons reductions.
“Trump believes the fantasy that has been told to him by his National Security Adviser John Bolton and new Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that by trying to re-impose sanctions we can force the Europeans to work with us to renegotiate a completely new agreement with the Iranians that’s better for us and worse for the Iranians,” Kimball told Al Jazeera. “That’s just fantastical thinking.”
Speaking in Brussels, EU High Representative Federica Mogherini, said Europe would work with other parties to preserve the agreement.
“As we have always said, the nuclear deal is not a bilateral agreement and it is not in the hands of any single country to terminate it unilaterally,” Mogherini said in a statement.
“As long as Iran continues to implement its nuclear-related commitments, as it is doing so far, the European Union will remain committed to the continued full and effective implementation of the nuclear deal,” she added.
Iran Foreign Minister Javed Zarif, who negotiated the agreement with former Secretary of State John Kerry, said the US would be violating the deal by seeking to impose sanctions and the only way forward is US compliance, not appeasement.
Zarif said in a tweet he will spearhead a diplomatic effort to examine whether remaining parties to the deal can ensure its full benefits for Iran.
The “outcome will determine our response,” Zarif said.
Former President Barack Obama issued a statement on Trump’s announcement, saying “the decision to put the JCPOA at risk without any Iranian violation of the deal is a serious mistake”.
Obama’s statement was a rare move by a former president to comment directly and critically on actions by a successor.
Trump has prided himself on delivering on campaign promises undoing the Obama legacy.
He campaigned on a promise of tearing up the Iran deal on day one of his administration but was talked out of doing so by former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and former National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster.
Now with Pompeo and Bolton, Trump has surrounded himself with advisers who will support his go-it-alone instincts.
Secretary of Defence James Mattis is on record testifying to Congress that the deal is in the US interest and Iran is complying and remains a voice of reason within the Trump administration.
“It took Trump having to change his entire staff, save Mattis, to get to this point,” Collina said.
“And you saw our best and closest allies having to come to Washington to personally lobby Trump not to do this and he did it anyway and so the only international ally that Trump has on this is Israel Prime Minister Netanyahu,” he added.
“It is disappointing the administration was unable to reach an agreement with our allies, specifically remedy the sunset provisions that allow Tehran to significantly ramp up nuclear enrichment activity less than a decade from now,” Senator Bob Corker, the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee said in a statement.
“However, based on conversations I have had in recent days, it is my sense that the administration will move quickly to work toward a better deal.”
But with Trump in the White House, the US government may not have the political and economic leverage with European allies and competitors China and Russia that would be required to impose unilateral sanctions as Obama did from 2010 to 2015 to bring Iran to the negotiating table.
Those sanctions, enforced by the US Treasury Department, presented foreign banks and corporations with a stark, airtight choice: “You can do business with the US banking system or do business with Iran, but not both”.
“The Europeans, the Asians, a lot of people, are really tired of US sanctions policy just across the board. The last seven, eight years, it’s been a lot of US sanctions,” Kim Wallace, managing director for Eurasia Group and former Obama Treasury Department official, told Al Jazeera.
Leaders of the UK, France and Germany who had travelled to the White House to personally lobby Trump against pulling out of the deal will be less inclined to cooperate because “they feel there was never really an open ear to a different path,” Wallace said.
“Macron wasted his time and Merkel knew it within two minutes of coming over here.”
Follow William Roberts on Twitter: @BillRoberts3