As Trump mulls end of Iran pact, question of ‘what then’ looms

For now, powerful Iran critics in the Trump administration and Israel look to have the upper hand.
Sunday 06/05/2018
Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu (R) and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Tel Aviv, on April 29. (Reuters)
Shared concerns. Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu (R) and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Tel Aviv, on April 29. (Reuters)

WASHINGTON - The fate of the international nuclear agreement with Iran is hanging by a thread as Israel and Saudi Arabia urge US President Donald Trump to get tough with Tehran. However, his administration has yet to spell out a way forward after a potential collapse of the accord.

Trump, who has repeatedly criticised the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), as the 2015 Iran deal is formally known, is keeping the world guessing whether he will keep or kill the agreement. Trump is facing a May 12 deadline that gives him a choice between leaving the JCPOA in place or reintroducing US sanctions against Tehran, which would in effect destroy the accord. “We’ll see what happens,” Trump said May 1. “I’m not telling you what I’m doing but a lot of people think they know.”

Mike Pompeo, Trump’s new secretary of state and a prominent hawk on Iran, used his first foreign trip after his installation to assure US allies Israel and Saudi Arabia that the administration would take a hard line in dealing with Tehran.

“We remain deeply concerned about Iran’s dangerous escalation of threats to Israel and the region and Iran’s ambition to dominate the Middle East remains,” Pompeo said in Israel, where Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu later presented what he called Iran’s nuclear archive to convince Trump to end the JCPOA.

Netanyahu urged Washington to pile pressure on Tehran. “Iran must be stopped. Its quest for nuclear bombs must be stopped. Its aggression must be stopped and we’re committed to stopping it together,” he said.

Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir voiced his country’s backing, saying the kingdom “supports the policy of the Trump administration against Iran and to improve the terms of the nuclear agreement with Iran.”

Pompeo said the documents obtained by Israel show that Iran lied about its pursuit of nuclear weapons and its deception undercuts the 2015 deal. In a statement, Pompeo said he “personally reviewed many of the Iranian files,” adding that the documents show that Iran had a secret nuclear weapons programme “for years” while it was denying it was pursuing such weapons.

The secretary of state said the Iranians lied to the six countries — China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States — that negotiated the Iran nuclear deal. The agreement was thus “built on Iran’s lies,” Pompeo said.

John Kerry, one of Pompeo’s predecessors who was closely involved in the negotiations that produced the 2015 accord, disagreed. “Everything that PM Netanyahu laid out was exactly why we needed this agreement,” Kerry tweeted.

The former secretary of state and others argue that the JCPOA is groundbreaking in that it has given the international community the ability to gain insight into Iran’s nuclear activities. Before the agreement there was “no visibility into Iran’s [programme],” Kerry wrote. “Blow up the deal and you’re back there tomorrow!” Iran has said it will restart uranium enrichment if Trump leaves the JCPOA.

For now, powerful Iran critics in the Trump administration and Israel look to have the upper hand. Together with US national security adviser John Bolton, Pompeo forms an Iran hard-line tandem in Trump’s circle of close advisers. Netanyahu appeared to be confident that the US president would rip up the JCPOA. “I’m sure he’ll do the right thing,” Netanyahu said.

US Defence Secretary James Mattis, no friend of Tehran, cautioned about blowing up the nuclear accord. However, it remains unclear whether Trump can be swayed by arguments from French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel during separate recent visits to the White House that it would be better to keep the agreement intact and embark on a new international initiative to stop Iran’s missile programme and aggressive meddling in the region.

Although Trump has repeatedly hinted at walking away from the JCPOA, no one is sure what he will do. “The debate over the fate [of] the deal has become a three-ring circus, with Israelis, Europeans and the Iranians themselves all jockeying to shape the outcome in their own favour,” Suzanne Maloney, deputy director of the Foreign Policy programme at the Brookings Institution, wrote in an analysis posted on its website.

“President Donald Trump is revelling in his role of ringmaster, entertaining appeals from US allies and holding the world in suspense while he ostensibly deliberates over a choice with massive national security and economic implications,” Maloney added.

She said she does not expect the discussion to end with Trump’s announcement on the JCPOA. His decision “will likely usher in an even more intense ambiguity surrounding the status of the nuclear agreement, the state of the transatlantic relationship, the legality of doing business with Iran and the prospects for military conflict involving Tehran and its proxies across the Middle East.”

Some observers say Iran hardliners in the US administration have their minds set on increasing the pressure on Tehran for ideological reasons. “I’m afraid Pompeo and Bolton just don’t think about what happens after” a possible decision by Trump to finish off the nuclear agreement, said James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute in Washington. “My dread is that he will end it,” Zogby said in an interview, referring to Trump and the JCPOA.

Given rising tensions between Israel and Iran over the latter’s involvement in the Syrian war and increasing military presence close to Israeli territory, the region could face a “war that would be more devastating than anything we have seen,” Zogby warned. Yet, the administration does not seem to have a long-term view.

“Even if there is regime change in Iran, what happens then?” Zogby asked.