Just a couple of weeks ago, President Donald Trump’s naysayers were having to re-think on his Korea strategy and, potentially, his wider unorthodox political style. Perhaps, they were being forced to ask themselves, his brinkmanship really was responsible for what is looking like a rapprochement between North and South Korea and potentially the denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula.
Alternatively, with encouragement from China, Kim Jong-un was already intending to move towards a “weapons for peace and aid” deal and Trump’s blustering was just dumb luck.
Those who were prepared to start giving Trump the benefit of the doubt are again having to re-think what he is doing on the world stage, beyond diminishing the US’ stature. Yesterday’s decision to cancel the US support for the Joint Comprehensive Plan for Action (JCPOA) has openly split the Western alliance.
What’s the problem here?
The JCPOA led to Iran agreeing to stop its nuclear weapons program in exchange for dropping economic sanctions. Now Iran may feel emboldened to return to developing nuclear weapons in the face of what will be challenging re-imposed sanctions.
Should Iran embark upon such a course of action, Israel would be likely to pre-emptively strike at such weapons development facilities. This may in turn prompt Iran into open conflict with Israel.
Israel has already struck at Iranian and pro-Iranian military positions in Syria but military strikes in that conflict have allowed, under its proxy conditions, a fig-leaf of detachment. Existing Israel-Iran tensions are therefore relatively contained in a war in which Iran and its proxies are only some of many actors in the field.
A direct Israeli strike on Iran would, however, be a different matter altogether. There is potential for Trump’s decision, therefore, to produce a new regional war.
The (bad) politics behind the move
What is concerning is that there is no good, much less compelling, reason for the US to have gone down this path. Trump’s use of Iran being a “sponsor of terror” as a key part of his rationale for ending the JCPOA only makes marginal sense.
There is little doubt that Iran’s support for Hezbollah, and rebels in Yemen, is very much part of Iran’s attempt to establish a regional hegemony. But this is, much more so than a direct war with Iran, a containable and more or less conventional threat.
Beyond concern for sponsoring “terrorism” — for which one might have looked more closely at some of the US’ Middle-Eastern allies — Trump based his decision on an Israeli “intelligence” briefing by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Netanyahu’s claims on this issue were flatly contradicted by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors, saying that Iran was in full compliance with the JCPOA.
In large part, where the US positions itself in relation to Iran is dependent upon its close relationship with Saudi Arabia, which is Iran’s chief regional opponent. In part, too, punishing Iran for a claimed but unsubstantiated breach of the JCPOA will play well with Trump’s conservative voters, many of whom still remember the humiliating Iran hostage crisis of 1979-80.
But Trump’s decision does not reflect the facts on the ground in Iran and does not make strategic sense. No one wants to allow Iran off the nuclear weapons leash imposed under the JCPOA, and no one wants a possible war between Israel and Iran.
Donald Trump’s tearing up of the political “rule book” was what his supporters wanted, and he has done just that with his JCPOA decision. But his erratic decision-making has cast the US as a nation that is — and is seen to be — increasingly out of control.
Damien Kingsbury is Deakin University’s Professor of International Politics.