With Iran deal in ruins and tensions in Middle East running high, US has no contingency plan

Trump suggested that he expects Tehran to agree to new negotiations under the weight of the sanction load.
Sunday 13/05/2018
Iran’s Army Chief of Staff Major-General Mohammad Bagheri (L) and other senior officers on the front line in the northern province of Aleppo, last October.  (AP)
Dangerous involvement. Iran’s Army Chief of Staff Major-General Mohammad Bagheri (L) and other senior officers on the front line in the northern province of Aleppo, last October.(AP)

WASHINGTON - By ripping up the Iran nuclear deal, US President Donald Trump freed Tehran from international constraints on its actions both at home and in the region without providing a new control mechanism. Consequences for the Middle East and US-European relations could be costly, observers said.

“We could lose all checks on Iran’s nuclear programme,” said Rachel Brandenburg, director of the Middle East Security Initiative at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Centre for Strategy and Security in Washington.

The United States’ withdrawal from the Iran agreement puts pressure on America’s allies, she said, adding: “Trump has in effect transferred the responsibility to maintain or find a new nuclear agreement to the Europeans.”

Following Trump’s announcement, tensions between Israel and Iran flared with Iranian missile attacks on the Golan Heights that triggered withering Israeli air strikes on Iranian military installations in Syria.

“Trump’s withdrawal from the deal may make direct confrontation between the two countries more likely, especially if Iran refuses to renegotiate with the United States,” Ibrahim al-Assil, a fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington, said via e-mail.

The reinstitution of US sanctions against Iran gives Tehran the chance to shake off rules set by the international community without worrying about a new control regime. One example is the end of a system of inspections that was introduced under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) Iran agreement. That had made sure that Iranian nuclear activity stays peaceful, International Atomic Energy Agency said.

Iranian President Hassan Rohani said Tehran could return to its nuclear weapons programme within weeks if there is no agreement with European powers that want to stick to the JCPOA.

It is not clear if Iranian authorities, encouraged by radicals at home, would make good on that threat or if they would use their regional proxies to ratchet up pressure on the United States, risking more sanctions and retaliatory measures.

Supporters of the deal say Iran’s compliance is evidence that the agreement has done what it was supposed to do. Without the JCPOA, Iran’s activities will be much harder to monitor.

As new schemes must be developed to keep an eye on Tehran’s nuclear activities, the focus is likely to shift from issues such as Iran’s missile programme or its meddling in regional conflicts in the Middle East, Brandenburg said. “We run the risk that energies that could have gone into pressuring Iran’s missile programme will now again have to be invested into preventing Iran from getting nuclear weapons,” she said.

In announcing the US withdrawal May 8, Trump did not say how Iran could be kept from returning to a nuclear military programme but suggested that he expects Tehran to agree to new negotiations under the weight of the sanction load.

“The fact is they are going to want to make a new and lasting deal, one that benefits all of Iran and the Iranian people,” Trump said. “When they do, I am ready, willing and able.”

Speaking at a cabinet meeting a day after his announcement, Trump was equally vague when asked what he would do if Iran restarted its nuclear weapons programme. “Iran will find out. They’re going to find out. They’ll negotiate or something will happen,” he said without elaborating.

Trump’s national security adviser John Bolton said additional sanctions beyond those suspended under the JCPOA that are reactivated could be introduced against Iran. “We want to put as much economic pressure on Iran as we can,” Bolton said.

Coming after weeks of lobbying by France, Germany and the United Kingdom, which wanted to keep the Iran deal intact, the new US approach also drove American-European relations to a new low.

Some observers say Europe has been humiliated by a US president who listened to plans and appeals by European leaders but chose to ignore them. “Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran deal is a major defeat for the three major European powers who tried to pull their weight collectively in Washington,” Ulrich Speck, a senior fellow at the Transatlantic Academy, a research institution in Washington, wrote on Twitter. “Trump doesn’t care about what the Europeans think.”

A Western diplomat who declined to be identified told Reuters news agency the decision “announces sanctions for which the first victims will be Trump’s European allies.”

Britain, France and Germany said they would do all they could to protect their huge business interests in Iran, yet it is unclear how far they would be able to shield firms from US sanctions. In a sign of the deep frustration in European capitals, a French government spokesman said one option for Europe would be to fight “any unilateral measure” by the United States at the World Trade Organisation.

Trump’s administration tried to put a positive spin on the crisis, underlining talks with its allies were about to begin. “We will continue to work alongside our allies and partners to ensure that Iran can never acquire a nuclear weapon and will work with others to address the range of Iran’s malign influence,” US Defence Secretary James Mattis told a Senate hearing on May 9.