Trump’s Iran policies are in a cul-de-sac
With the nuclear agreement proving successful, it's a good time to encourage Tehran's cooperation elsewhere in the region
“Now, as the world marks the two-year anniversary of the adoption of the nuclear agreement with Iran, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the threat of an Iranian nuclear weapon is more remote than it has been in decades … Iran’s nuclear program has been defanged and all its pathways to a bomb blocked… Two years later, the results are in, and they show the effort has been a clear success.”
At first glance, the above might seem a triumphalist narrative by the former US President Barack Obama – or his Secretary of State John Kerry. But, they actually happen to be excerpts from an opinion piece in Foreign Policy magazine on Thursday, penned by Carmi Gillon, formerly the director of Israel’s General Security Service, the Shin Bet, whose responsibility it was to counter the possibility of Iran developing a nuclear weapon.
While it is too much to expect the Trump administration or a large section of America’s political elites to show the moral courage and honesty that the erstwhile Israeli spymaster has shown, it is nonetheless soothing to the nerves that the US State Department will “very likely” notify Congress on Monday that Iran is complying with the JCPOA.
President Donald Trump could have fulfilled by now his campaign pledge to “rip up” what he called “the worst deal ever”. But he hasn’t. Instead, he is walking a fine line.
On one hand, he has acquiesced with the lifting of nuclear-related sanctions while, on the other hand, he is desperately keen to maintain and even reinforce the sanctions regime on different grounds – relating it to Iran’s missile program or its human right record and regional policies.
Trump did not stop Iran’s big multi-billion dollar landmark deal to buy aircraft from Boeing. Nor did he try to prevail upon French President Emmanuel Macron to stop oil major Total from concluding a mega deal with Iran to develop the South Pars gas fields.
To be sure, the Trump administration can draw vicarious satisfaction that Iran’s nuclear program has been contained and is under strict international scrutiny and yet Tehran is unable to receive ‘peace dividends’ in terms of substantial economic benefits.
There is no scope to renegotiate the JCPOA to bring non-nuclear issues within its ambit. Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani outlined this point when he said in May that the deal is multilateral and irreversible, as it would be tantamount to “saying we should turn a shirt back to cotton.”
The European Union stance largely concurs with the Iranian view. Russia and China are strong supporters of the JCPOA. Thus, the US is pretty much on its own if it undercuts or derails the JCPOA, an option that exists only in principle.
Quite obviously, although normalization of relations between the US and Iran is not on the cards, that does not prevent Trump administration officials from attending the meetings of the monitoring mechanism of ‘world powers’ on the implementation of the JCPOA, where US and Iranian representatives come face to face on a regular basis.
The point is, even the JCPOA’s most trenchant critics admit grudgingly that the deal has had a positive impact. Gillon wrote:
“In Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, after leading a vociferous international campaign against the agreement, now remains mostly silent on the subject. And while the majority of my colleagues in the Israeli military and intelligence communities supported the deal once it was reached, many of those who had major reservations now acknowledge that it has had a positive impact on Israel’s security and must be fully maintained by the United States and the other signatory nations.”
All in all, therefore, the Trump administration is coming to recognize it must implement the JCPOA, no matter the outcome of the National Security Council-led review of the deal that is evaluating whether the suspension of sanctions against Iran under the agreement is ‘vital to the national security interests of the United States’.
Anything else will be motiveless spite. The big question is whether the Trump administration sees the writing on the wall? Of course, it is capable of showing realism – the hint of a rethink on the Paris agreement on climate change or the belated articulation of commitment to Article 5 of the NATO charter are recent examples.
Meanwhile, the Trump administration’s project to isolate Iran by creating an ‘Arab NATO’ and by creating an Arab-Israeli alliance against it is unlikely to take off. The rift between Qatar and the boycotting states creates a new quandary in regional politics.
Washington helplessly watches the unraveling of the Gulf Cooperation Council as contradictions in Saudi Arabia’s regional leadership grow in ways no one imagined possible until a month ago.
Iran’s cooperation is badly needed if the crisis in Syria and Iraq (and Yemen and Bahrain) is to be effectively managed. In Syria, the Trump administration outsources to Moscow the responsibility of bringing Iran on board. But it is not an option in the other three theatres.
The sooner realism prevails, the better. A beginning could be made on Monday when Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif will be in New York to attend the High-Level Political Forum under UN auspices.
Four years ago, on the sidelines of the same annual UN meeting, Kerry met Zarif and set the ball rolling on negotiations that culminated in the JCPOA on July 15, 2015.
Fresh from the mediatory mission to the Gulf, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson must be in a chastened mood. A meeting with Zarif is just what is needed to inject a much-needed realism into the US’ Middle East policies. Even Israel must be quietly pleased.