If Donald Trump is good at one thing, it’s keeping his word on election promises. The promises may have been utterly crazy, but Trump does appear to be sincere about trying to deliver. Abandoning the 2015 Iran nuclear deal with the “strongest sanctions in history” is a key case in point.
Apart from a poorly informed campaign promise, there’s no logical reason why Trump has dumped the Iran nuclear deal. It was not, as he said, “insane” and he was incorrect to claim that the US has paid Iran hundreds of millions of dollars in cash to sustain the deal. The US instead lifted a blockade on Iranian bank accounts, which provided Iranians with access to billions of their own money.
The deal, which Iran has overwhelmingly complied with, is formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPA), to which the UN Security Council permanent five (USA, UK, France, Russia and China) plus Germany were signatories.
As a replacement to the JCPA, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo offered Iran a new 12-point plan so onerous that one US lawmaker described it as requiring everything short of Iran becoming an officially Christian state. “Iran will never again have carte blanche to dominate the Middle East,” Pompeo said, presumably retaining for the US the right to do. Iran will be “crushed” if it does not comply.
The 12-point plan includes allowing full access to International Atomic Energy Agency officials (which they already have), abandoning its civilian nuclear power program, withdrawing support for Hezbollah, Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Yemen’s Houthi militia, ending its long-range missile development program, withdrawing forces from Syria and effectively ending involvement in Iraq’s politics, which are increasingly limited in any case.
The US also wants Iran to cease its arguably non-existent support for Afghanistan’s Taliban, even though the Taliban is primarily supported by US ally Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence organization. This, then, starts to go to the nub of US concerns with Iran, the presumed lynch-pin in President George W. Bush’s fanciful “Axis of Evil”, which also included Iraq and North Korea. Iraq — the invasion of which turned out so appallingly — had neither weapons of mass destruction nor a nuclear capability.
Behind it all, the US has not forgiven Iran for deposing the CIA-installed Shah and its humiliating hostage-taking of US embassy staff in 1979-81. The more belligerent of Trump’s advisers also wish to reassert the US weakened position on the world stage, as manifested in the strategic quagmire that is the Middle East.
By extension from Iraq, the US is also seeking to redress the imbalance currently being experienced in Syria, where Russian and Iranian-supported forces are slowly clawing back territory in the country’s bloody seven-year civil war. The US would like nothing more than to hobble one of Russia’s key regional allies.
Imposing new restrictions on Iran also supports Israel, as well as the US’ other key regional ally and Iranian nemesis, Saudi Arabia. Yet rather than securing the interests of the US or its regional allies, trying to compel Iran into obeisance is likely to have the opposite effect. As was learned from North Korea, crippling sanctions do not stop a nuclear weapons program, which Iran may now feel compelled to pursue in the face of what it regards as a US push for regime change.
With the North Korea de-nuclearisation deal teetering on the brink of collapse and Iran now freed from the restrictions of the JCPA, Trump has provided the US and its allies with precisely the type of insecurity that international diplomacy is supposed to prevent.
Trump has tried to be true to his erratic word, and has taken the world on a roller coaster in the process. It is unclear, however, that his pushing of strategic boundaries will end as well as his bombastic claims suggest.