Will Trump’s new foreign policy team mean the end of the nuclear agreement with Tehran?

Tehran has many options — in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen, for example — for responding to a US withdrawal from the agreement.
Sunday 01/04/2018
An Iranian man watches a television broadcast of US President Donald Trump’s speech on the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, last October.  (Reuters)
Mounting concerns. An Iranian man watches a television broadcast of US President Donald Trump’s speech on the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, last October. (Reuters)

WASHINGTON - Speculation is rife in Washington that the nuclear agreement between the P5+1 powers and Iran will collapse after May 12, the date US President Donald Trump must either extend the waiver on US sanctions against the Tehran regime or allow them to go back into effect. The latter option almost certainly would mean the end of the agreement.

It is widely known that Trump has long yearned to shred the agreement, a position that was a key element of his 2016 election campaign, but has been restrained by a chorus of voices, including those of US Defence Secretary James Mattis and the recently fired duo of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and national security adviser H.R. McMaster. Washington’s major European allies that are parties to the accord also have counselled restraint.

Now that Trump has named John Bolton, who has called the agreement — officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) — a “strategic mistake,” to be his national security adviser and nominated Mike Pompeo, another opponent of the deal, to be secretary of state, many observers say the outcome is determined.

“Trump has now surrounded himself with men who, like him, oppose the nuclear deal. The prospects of the deal surviving are fast diminishing now,” said Trita Parsi, author of “Losing an Enemy: Obama, Iran and the Triumph of Diplomacy,” the first detailed account of the negotiations that led to the agreement.

Gary Samore, who served as former President Barack Obama’s coordinator for arms control and weapons of mass destruction and is now at Harvard University, said in a conference call that Pompeo’s nomination to Tillerson “clearly increases” the likelihood that Trump will withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal on May 12.

Another former Obama administration official, Perry Cammack, of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said: “With Bolton and Pompeo having replaced Tillerson and McMaster, there is no longer either an institutional check on Trump’s impulses nor an obvious withdrawal option available” that would allow the agreement to remain in place even without US certification.

“With John Bolton at the helm,” Cammack said. “A US withdrawal from the JCPOA can be assumed, until it is demonstrated otherwise, to be designed to cause the agreement’s collapse.”

Other analysts, however, say the agreement may be saved by the Europeans, assuming they meet Trump’s demands for major changes in the deal, which include eliminating its sunset clauses, demanding inspections of Iranian military sites and tying a snapback of sanctions to further Iranian development of nuclear-capable missiles.

“The appointments [of Bolton and Pompeo] put enormous pressure on the Europeans to find an acceptable solution,” said Richard Baffa, senior international defence/policy researcher at the RAND Corporation.

Mark Dubowitz, CEO of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and a harsh critic of Tehran, told CNN that the key player might be French President Emmanuel Macron, who “has come out on three occasions and said that as long as the United States keeps the deal, France is prepared to start to examine other issues to supplement or complement the deal, including dealing with the sunset provisions, Iran’s missile programme and, of course, Iran’s destructive regional behaviour.”

Dubowitz said Macron’s position could be described as: “We’re prepared to fix it as long as the United States under Donald Trump is not going to nix it.”

The United States is negotiating with its European allies on changes to the agreement and sources say progress has been made. A sticking point appears to be Trump’s demand to alter the sunset clauses or modify the time-bound limits on Iran’s nuclear programme. The Europeans say Tehran never would accept changing those terms.

Rob Malley, president and CEO of the International Crisis Group, said on a conference call that Europe could save the agreement even if the United States withdraws from it. He suggested that the European countries “seek to persuade Tehran to comply with its obligations, notwithstanding a US withdrawal, by shoring up the political and economic benefits of bilateral ties between the European Union and Iran, which would be lost if Iran disregarded its commitments.”

Iranian officials, however, have said on numerous occasions that, if the United States withdraws from the accord, so, too, will Tehran, regardless of what Europe offers. Russia and China have expressed support for Tehran’s position.

Assuming Trump refuses to certify Iranian compliance on May 12 and the agreement collapses, opinions vary as to the consequences. Parsi said hardliners in Tehran would gain the upper hand if the United States backs out of the deal because that would vindicate their narrative.

“Rather than being a reaction to Iran’s policies, the United States’ enmity towards Iran is inherent to Washington and will continue regardless of what Iran does or doesn’t do,” he said.

Such a conclusion, Parsi said, “would mean, I fear, a more aggressive [Iranian] foreign policy that raises the cost for Washington and the region as a whole for not coming to terms with Iran.”

Iran would be taking a large risk if it were to respond to a US withdrawal by immediately accelerating its nuclear programme. Given the attitudes of Trump’s new foreign policy team, as well as the opinions of Washington’s Saudi and Israeli allies, such a move could provoke a US military strike. Tehran has many other options — in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen, for example — for responding to a US withdrawal from the agreement.

“I do not believe Tehran will immediately withdraw and restart its nuclear programme,” Baffa said. “Instead, Iran will probably seek to appear as the victim of an unreasonable US stance by highlighting that all the other signatories of the deal continue to support it. Iran’s goal will be to isolate the United States and avoid new sanctions, particularly given the relatively poor state of the economy and the fairly widespread unrest of late.”

Whatever the consequences, hardliners in Washington seem to concur that the alternative of maintaining the agreement is worse. As Clifford May, president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, told Fox Business, the nuclear deal “is not in the interest of the region and it’s not in the US interest.”