US president unlikely to abandon ‘worst deal ever’
London - US President Donald Trump’s decision to rewrite a letter from the State Department to Congress suggests where the administration’s Iran policy review is heading. While the original draft declared Iran in compliance with its 2015 nuclear agreement with world powers, the one sent on April 18 criticised Tehran’s regional role.
This sidesteps the contradiction between Trump’s campaign attacks on what he called the “worst deal ever” and the advice he has subsequently received from inside and outside the United States not to abandon it. The deal can stay, Trump suggests, if Iran makes concessions and not just on the nuclear programme.
As president, Trump at first suggested that the nuclear agreement should be better enforced but the problem was that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) had on six occasions certified that Tehran had complied and had judged an excess of heavy water, a key element in the nuclear process, to be “slight” and rectified. Any renegotiating of a multilateral agreement requires wider support, which is not apparent.
When the Trump administration put Tehran “on notice” after Iran’s ballistic missile tests in February, Russia and China denied that Tehran had violated UN Security Council Resolution 2231, which, in endorsing the nuclear agreement, barred “any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons.”
Amending the resolution needs Security Council agreement, while tightening monitoring, perhaps demanding access to Iran’s military sites, requires assent from the 34-country IAEA board.
Hence the growing notion of the United States going it alone, offering Iran a stick of further sanctions and a carrot of easing US non-nuclear sanctions, which deter international banks from Iran dealings. The case for heightened US pressure before renegotiations has been argued in Foreign Affairs magazine by Ali Vaez, senior Iran analyst at the Brussels-based International Crisis Group.
Citing an unnamed Iranian official, Vaez asserted that Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei signalled willingness to renegotiate by suggesting in November that Iranian negotiators had overlooked important details during nuclear talks.
Iran would make concessions, runs Vaez’s argument, in return for Washington easing sanctions dating to the 1980s relating to links with Palestinian groups and Hezbollah in Lebanon. The United States could sharpen the choice with new sanctions.
Through “a realistic better-for-better deal,” Vaez writes, Trump “could succeed on several fronts: A more durable nuclear accord, a framework for managing differences with Iran, and perhaps even a more stable Middle East.”
Elana DeLozier, chief executive officer of the Sage Institute for Foreign Affairs and former nuclear analyst for New York’s Counterterrorism Bureau, was sceptical.
“Trump might try to ratchet up pressure through additional non-nuclear sanctions,” she said, “but it may not be realistic to expect the US to lift non-nuclear sanctions in return for Iran making foreign policy changes.
“Politics was never on the nuclear table before and I don’t imagine Iran would want it to be now. Moreover, Iran is unlikely to compromise on its ballistic missile programme as it sees this as a matter of sovereignty.”
DeLozier said she doubted unilateral US action was a route to a new deal. “Trump is ratcheting up pressure through sanctions and Iran is ratcheting up pressure through these ballistic missile demonstrations,” she said.
“So where does that lead? I don’t see a nuclear-deal-style negotiating table in Trump’s future or a ballistic-missile negotiating table in Iran’s future.”
Could Trump stiffen sanctions with military pressure? Attention focuses on Yemen and the waters of the Arabian Gulf. In Yemen, Trump administration officials have launched dozens of missiles and promised to bolster Saudi-led forces supporting the UN-recognised government against Iranian-backed rebels.
As for the Gulf, Trump said during his campaign that Iranian vessels would risk being “shot out of the water.” In a recent naval incident, a US destroyer fired a warning flare at an Iranian vessel. Although US Navy statistics suggest “unsafe and/or unprofessional” interactions with Iranian forces have not increased since last year, they have attracted more publicity. In January, a US destroyer fired warning shots at four Iranian vessels.
Few doubt the dangers. The Arabian Gulf is a crowded sea — one-third of global seaborne-traded oil passes through the Strait of Hormuz, which Iranian commanders have often threatened to close. Iran’s naval security here rests with the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, which has a strong ideological commitment.
But is there a strategy on either side? Does Trump see a means to make Iran change course, with or without an agreement? How far might he go?
Military pressure on Iran is a “fool’s errand,” said Sam Gardiner, a former US Air Force officer who has taught at the US Naval War College.
“We saw George Bush attempting to pressure Iran for two terms,” he said. “Has Iran changed behaviour because of Israeli military pressure? No. Did Iran agree to nuclear negotiations because of military pressure? Not likely. Maybe economics and sanctions but not military pressure.”
Analysts have long argued that closing Hormuz benefits no one. Gardiner warns that the Trump administration may not appreciate this.
“It’s in everyone’s interest to keep open the Gulf but this doesn’t mean everyone is able to see this,” he said. “I can envision the administration concluding that since the US has become mostly energy independent it isn’t necessary.”