Iran Decision Is a Strategic Blunder
President Trump announced Tuesday his intent to withdraw the US from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, His decision isn't unexpected. Even before winning the election, he's rallied against the treaty as a "major embarrassment" and has repeatedly indicated his desire to resign from it. Still, it's a disappointing decision that will have major ramifications for the US and the world.
Trump's not entirely incorrect. The Iran deal is deeply flawed. It's scope is limited, as it still permits the development and testing of intercontinental ballistic missiles, only curbing Iran's ability to enrich isotopes to be used in nuclear weapons (they can do so for 'civilian purposes'). It's impact on thawing US-Iranian relations has been pretty much been nonexistent; several months after signing the deal, Iranian leader Ali Khamenei said their "death to America" motto was perpetual.
For Trump though, the most maddening aspect of the deal is the lack of recognition for Iran’s belligerence. Its language fails to address the sponsoring of terrorism, the undermining of regional regimes, or the staunch difference in objectives between Iran and the West. He’s also cited the expiration date (2030) for most provisions of the agreement. These protests are fair, and it could very well be argued that, due to the backdrop, signing in the first place was a bad idea. But withdrawing is equally damning. It’s something that once done, cannot simply be undone.
The US economy is already feeling the effects. Oil has been hovering in the high $70's over the past several days, and is expected to hit $100 or more by next year. Prices at the pump have gone up as a result, just in time for summer. The domestic aviation industry is also feeling the pain. with Boeing losing billions of dollars in contracts. Other companies may take a hit as well.
Iran's economy will suffer a mutual effect as its now expected to teeter over the edge. It was under-performing before the deal, and has steadily deteriorated since. Earlier this year, protests broke out in Tehran due to the somber situation, the first time the growing middle class exhibited their frustration.
This undercuts the idea that the US can unilaterally strong-arm the Iranian economy into submission. If anything, destabilizing the economy will cause further unrest for the Middle East, pushing Iran to amplify their aggression in retaliation. Afterall, Iranians have few realistic tools to control their government. It also drives Iran to the real winners here: Russia and China. Most consequently, it may lead to a resumption of their nuclear weapons program, setting a very bad precedent in the process.
This is problematic as Iran’s interests remain profoundly misaligned with many of its neighbors. They’ve continuously funded the Hezbollah militia in Lebanon and the Hamas militia in Palestine since their respective foundings in the mid 80’s, agitating Israeli efforts to instill stability. They’ve pitted themselves against Saudi Arabia, who's found new credence in the US. And they’ve forced other major Middle East players to walk a fine line, most notably Turkey and Egypt.
But it’s important to point out that the deal was never meant to manage any of this. Obama was well aware that trying to sort out the foreign policy of Iran was far from pragmatic. He instead opted for the low hanging fruit, believing anything more would cause a collapse in diplomacy. Now we may see that outcome anyway.
As Trump has expressed, there very well may be a narrow path towards reworking the pact. But if renegotiation's are going to occur, even with other signatories open to the idea, it's years away. Dialogue between Iran and the P5+1 began in 2006, taking nearly a decade until a finalized agreement was reached in 2015. A second round of negotiations would be even more protracted. Relations between US and Russia have deteriorated further in the wake of the latter's meddling in the 2016 election, and a complicated civil war in Syria that has put the two powers at odds. Meanwhile, Trump's threat of a trade war with China has strained his relationship with President Xi Jinping.
And that's all in the face of European allies that support the Iran deal, despite its drawbacks. French leader Emmanuel Macron stated last month that there is no "plan b" but believed Trump would withdraw anyway. German chancellor Angela Merkel, while agreeing the deal doesn't go far enough to stop Iran, has said it's "the first step" in dealing with their nuclear ambitions. She fears, rightfully so, a US withdraw would divide the West and undermine their collective bargaining power.
The biggest question is what impact will Iran have on Trump's upcoming summit in Singapore? Negotiating a similar agreement with North Korea could be complicated if they believe the US can't be trusted to keep its word, even when the other side is.
It also reveals a "bait-and-switch" tactic for the US, in which economic concessions are made, then subsequently withdrawn to exert economic pressure, something Kim doesn't really experience now. He's repeatedly emphasized this point over the past several weeks, and will most likely seek to avoid giving the US the same leverage over the North Korean economy that they demonstrably have over Iran's.
Not surprisingly, Trump has indicated that financial recompense is the grand prize for North Korea but they must first unequivocally denuclearize, which they haven't yet expressed willingness to do. This shows US objectives for the summit may be unrealistic, and thus unfruitful. If talks do fail, some fear Trump may revert to a 'fire and fury' approach, which he's hinted may be the next step on Iran.
The bottom line is that the internationally community feels the agreement is a net gain. It provides a verifiable way to keep Iran in check, albeit temporarily, while opening up their economy to foreign investment, making them more vulnerable to future sanctions. The US is isolated in its stance on the deal, while Iran is moving to maintain the accord with Europe and China. The move gives North Korea a taste of the Trump doctrine in action, and sets the tone for the upcoming conference on their own nuclear program, which remains far more advanced than Iran's.
The Iran decision is yet another example of how Trump's 'America first' policy is really America alone.