As US hints at exit from Iran deal, potential new conflicts come into view

September 24, 2017
Under pressure. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif talks on his cell phone as he attends the UN General Assembly at UN headquarters, September 20. (AFP)

Washington- As US President Donald Trump edges closer to ending the Iran nuclear agreement, officials and observers warned of a potential new conflict in the Middle East and of a growing split between Washington and its European allies.
“I have decided” about whether to pull the United States out of the 2015 agreement, Trump said, with­out giving details. The New York Times reported that the president wants to extend the time frame of the treaty and deter Iran’s develop­ment of ballistic missiles. Tehran has rejected all calls for new nego­tiations about the accord.
The Trump administration must submit a report by October 15 to tell the US Congress whether Iran is following the rules of the agree­ment designed to keep Tehran from developing nuclear weapons. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), as the Iran deal is officially known, was hammered out after years of talks between Iran and the United States, Russia, China, France, the United Kingdom, Ger­many and the European Union.
In his first address to the UN Gen­eral Assembly, Trump repeated his criticism of the Iran deal in strong language.

“The Iran deal was one of the worst and most one-sided trans­actions the United States has ever entered into,” Trump said in his speech. “Frankly, that deal is an embarrassment to the United States and I don’t think you’ve heard the last of it — believe me.”
He expressed a suspicion that Iran has not given up its nuclear ambitions. “We cannot abide by an agreement if it provides cover for the eventual construction of a nu­clear programme,” he said.
Trump said Tehran was using Ira­nian resources to support Hezbol­lah in Lebanon, shore up the rule of Syrian leader Bashar Assad, help rebels in Yemen’s civil war “and un­dermine peace throughout the en­tire Middle East.”
Iranian President Hassan Ro­hani said in his General Assem­bly speech that his country would “not be the first country to violate the agreement” and later said he did not believe Trump would walk away from the treaty.
America’s partners are split over Trump’s hawkish stance on Iran. Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who has said the Iran agreement should be changed or scrapped altogether, called Trump’s speech “courageous.” Saudi Arabia, another key US ally in the Middle East, repeated its criticism of the Iran accord.
European powers warned the United States that leaving the Iran agreement would be a mistake. “Renouncing it would be a grave error, not respecting it would be ir­responsible,” French President Em­manuel Macron told the General Assembly just hours after Trump’s speech.
EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, after a meeting between treaty partners, said the agreement was working. Russian Foreign Min­ister Sergei Lavrov called Trump’s position “extremely worrying.”
Russia and the Western Euro­pean powers are expected to stay with the agreement even should the United States withdraw, blunt­ing the effect of renewed American sanctions against Iran and isolating Washington.
Macron, after meeting with Trump in New York, said the US president had been unable to ex­plain to him what should take the place of the JCPOA: “I didn’t under­stand it.” German Chancellor Ange­la Merkel told state broadcaster DW that the Iran treaty was “better than having no agreement at all.”
The statements by two of Eu­rope’s most powerful leaders show that Trump risks isolation if he leaves the accord. “The rest of the international community would not be with us,” said Michael O’Hanlon, a national security spe­cialist at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
Despite warnings by Macron and others, there are signs that even high-ranking officials in the Trump administration who have been ar­guing to keep the nuclear pact to­gether are distancing themselves from the JCPOA.
One of them is Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, one of several senior officials who have said it would be better for the United States to leave the treaty intact. Following Trump’s speech, Tillerson called for changes to the accord, especially because the limits on enrichment technol­ogy imposed by the agreement run out in 2025.
“We can almost start the count­down clock as to when they will re­sume their nuclear weapons capa­bility,” Tillerson told the Fox News channel, referring to the Iranians. “If we’re going to stick with the Iran deal, there have to be changes made.”
State Department spokeswom­an Heather Nauert referred to the agreement in the past tense. “This nuclear deal failed to look at the to­tality of all the bad actions that Iran is responsible for,” Nauert told Fox.
In case of a US withdrawal from the JCPOA, all eyes would be on Tehran, which could carry on with the remaining treaty partners and continue to accept UN inspections of nuclear facilities or decide to “kick the inspectors out,” O’Hanlon said.
This would put pressure on Trump to launch a military strike against Tehran — “a very difficult decision,” O’Hanlon said.