Trump Decertifying the Iran Deal Weakens U.S. Influence, Enhances Iran’s Position on the Global Stage

Trump Iran

The decision by President Trump to not recertify Iran’s compliance with the requirements of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), despite a report by the International Atomic Energy Administration (IAEA) declaring that Iran is in compliance, brings the U.S. back into the 35 year war with Iran that has dragged on since the founding of the Islamic Republic. This is nothing new. Western powers have struggled for centuries with how to deal with a strong, independent Iranian/Persian nation strategically situated between the Middle East and Asia. The dilemma has tormented the Greeks, Romans, Ottomans, British, French and Americans. This has been true whether the government of Iran was a Persian Emperor, a Safavid Caliphate, the Pahlavi Dynasty, a liberal democracy or an Islamic Republic. The western powers, at various times, have tried military conquest, containment, cooption, sanctions, political interference and cyber-attacks. No strategy has been successful in persuading Iran to abandon its independent policies and resistance to foreign domination.

In recent times, President Obama, in an attempt to bring Iran to heel, tried sanctions, cyber-warfare, assassinations, and political interference. In the end he decided to deal with the nuclear proliferation issue first and to kick the can on the other issues down the road. President Trump seems to be determined to tackle all of the issues at once. While it is unclear what to make of many of his pronouncements and what his ultimate strategy is, President Trump appears to be punting the decision on sanctions to Congress. This move has brought domestic politics into play. Congress and the U.S. main stream media, heavily influenced by expat Iranian opposition groups and the Israel Lobby have long pushed for sanctions and direct action based not only on the nuclear issue, but also on Iran’s ballistic missile testing, support for Hezbollah and Hamas, conflict with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, refusal to allow inspection of non-nuclear military installations, interference in Iraq and Syria, support for various Shia groups and resistance to U.S. influence in the Middle East. Most of these issues are non-negotiable for Iran. Re-imposition of sanctions will require 60 votes in the Senate, which will be a difficult barrier for Republicans to overcome if all Democrats opposed such a step. However, it is possible, or maybe even likely, that hardline anti-Iran, pro-Israel Democrats, such as Ben Cardin, Bob Menendez, Chuck Schumer and others may support Trump on this issue.

While what the U.S. Congress decides is important, it is not the whole story. Because the JCPOA is a multilateral agreement including Russia, China and the EU, how these players react will be critical. It appears from recent statements that Europe, Russia and China will continue to support the JCPOA and as long as they do so, Iran will probably do the same. The EU, Russia and China are beginning to see the U.S. as a rogue state and may not be supportive of U.S. policy choices. Europe will, however, need to find a way to protect their business entities from U.S. secondary sanctions in order for companies be able to continue to do business with Iran and for Iranians to experience the economic benefits that they expected from the removal of sanctions. Iran, for its part, is turning eastward and enhancing its relationship with Turkey, Russia, China and India.

Whatever happens on the political and economic front, threats and coercion are unlikely to change Iran’s policies and behavior. As former Ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, noted, “I see no good options vis-a-vis Iran in Iraq or Syria. They’re not going to be easily persuaded, and I don’t think we have the wherewithal to push them out.”

The outcome of this standoff will have major implications for future nuclear non-proliferation efforts and for stability in the greater Middle East. Adherence to global agreements is fundamental to international diplomacy. Trump, having already abandoned or threatened to abandon the Paris Climate Accord, TPP, NAFTA and UNESCO, has already raised questions about the reliability of the U.S. as an international partner. Leaving the JCPOA would be another step in weakening U.S. influence. On the other hand, Iran’s position on the global stage will be enhanced as they will be seen as the “adult in the room”.

Photo by BBC.com

This article was previously published by American Herald Tribune

Will the Iran Nuclear Deal Change the Geopolitics of the Middle East?

First published by Foreign Policy Journal

As the September 17 deadline for Congress to act on the Iran Nuclear Agreement (JCPOA) approaches, the media has been flooded with editorials, op-ed pieces and blogs making the case for or against the agreement. Those in favor of the agreement have made the case that, while an imperfect agreement, the deal was the best that could be achieved and, through intrusive inspections, will ensure that Iran’s nuclear program will remain peaceful and will not achieve a nuclear weapon. Those opposed have made arguments such as “It’s Iran, we can’t deal with them, we just like sanctions”, “Iran shouldn’t have any nuclear capability”, “Iran is Israel’s enemy”, and “the agreement only lasts 15 years”. Both sides of the debate seem to agree that this agreement will drastically change the geopolitics of the Middle East. But is this really true?

The underlying assumption of those critical of a change in the geopolitical alignment is that the current alignment has been successful in maintaining peace and stability and promoting economic growth, a dubious proposition at best. Those in favor of a geopolitical realignment see a new world in which Iran becomes an important player in bringing stability and order out of the current chaos. While this new world would certainly be an improvement over the current situation, there are a number of reasons to be skeptical of the chances for realignment.

First, and probably most important, is that one of the founding principles of the Islamic Republic of Iran was resistance to U.S. domination of the region. The U.S. and Iran are fundamentally at odds over the geopolitics of the Middle East. While the administration of President Hassan Rouhani is more open to engagement with the west, any thought that Iran will give up its independent foreign policy and follow the American lead is unrealistic. Iran and the U.S. may cooperate on issues where their interests align (Afghanistan, ISIS, drug trafficking, etc.), but Iran will continue to lead the so-called “axis of resistance”, and that will not sit well with U.S. policymakers.

Iran Nuclear Negotiations Lausanne Switzerland

Second, the much discussed idea that Israel will react to the nuclear deal by allying itself with Saudi Arabia and Hamas in opposition to Iran is also unrealistic. Despite all the rumors of high level meetings, it is hard to see how Saudi Arabia, whose radically conservative, Wahhabi version of Islam, provides the ideological underpinning for the Islamic State (ISIS), can ever align itself with Israel. With respect to Hamas, the ceasefire agreement between Israel and the Hamas government in Gaza is getting long in the tooth. Israel has not implemented much of what it agreed to, and thus the same conditions of poverty, deprivation, and lack of hope that led to the last two wars still exist in Gaza. The next war may not be far away.

Third, despite the best efforts of Russia, Iran, and the U.S., the situation in Syria will remain a festering sore and a source of instability and chaos. It is hard to see a solution. With major regional players such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, seeing the region through a sectarian lens, committed to the overthrow of the government of Syrian President Assad and, at best, ambivalent about ISIS, a coalition of western and regional powers to stabilize Syria is very unlikely. As long as ISIS remains in place, a solution to Iraq’s collapse as a contiguous and sovereign state is impossible and the Kurdish problem will remain unresolved.

Fourth, the window of opportunity to realign the Middle East will soon close. Whatever the outcome of the upcoming U.S. elections, and given the influence of the Israel lobby on U.S. Middle East policy, the next administration is likely to be less open to growing Iranian influence in the region. Israel will certainly not elect a more accommodating government. Whatever rapprochement is achieved by the Obama administration in its last year in office will be short lived. Iran, seeing its hopes of greater integration with the west dashed and strengthened by the removal of sanctions, will be forced to look east to Russia and China for allies.

In 2006, the Secretary of State, following the U.S. invasion and destruction of Iraq and Israel’s destruction of Gaza, famously declared the destruction of Lebanon by Israel as the “birth pangs of the new Middle East” and confirmed the U.S. policy of “creative chaos” in which the old order is destroyed and in its place a new order arises which will serve the goals of U.S. policy. The U.S., having created the “new Middle East,” will have to live with the consequences for some time.

Six Things You Should Know about Iran and the Nuclear Deal

In July, after almost two years on nearly continuous negotiations, the EU3+3 and Iran reached an agreement as to how best to deal with Iran’s nuclear program and international concerns that Iran was pursuing a nuclear weapon. Since that agreement, politicians and pundits, particularly in Israel and the U.S., have bisected and trisected the terms in an effort to make a case either for or against the agreement. In the debate over the merits, facts have been a scarce commodity. As the U.S. Congress approaches the September 17 deadline to either approve or disapprove the agreement, it would be useful to examine the realities surrounding Iran and its nuclear program.

  1. Iran is not ruled by a bunch of mad mullahs – Following the 1979 revolution that overthrew Shah Reza Pahlavi’s oppressive regime, Iran established an Islamic republic in which Islamic principles play an important role. The constitution vests ultimate power in the Supreme Leader who is indirectly elected for life through the Assembly of Experts. In practice the Supreme Leader tends to remain above the “hurley burley” of day-to-day politics. Although he is the ultimate decision maker in national security affairs, he rarely overturns decisions of the Supreme National Security Council. In many ways the Iranian governmental structure is similar to that of the United States with separation of powers and checks and balances, thus making it difficult to understand the decision-making process.
  2. In general minorities are not persecuted or oppressed – Shia Islam of the “Twelver” variety (The three branches of Shia Islam are Twelver, Zaidi or “Fiver” and Ismaili or “Sevener”.) makes up the overwhelming faith of Iranians. Christians, Jews, Sunni Muslims and Zoroastrians are recognized and are guaranteed representation in Parliament. Adherents to the Baha’i faith, which was actually founded in Iran, are considered heretics and are persecuted. While there remain limits on jobs that can be held, most adherents to the recognized faiths, particularly Jews, are comfortably ensconced in the middle class.
  3. The Islamic Republic is probably the most secular Muslim country in the Middle East – Iran’s large, young, western-oriented population tends to push the envelope of governmental restrictions on personal behavior. Despite being officially banned, alcoholic beverages are readily available. Friends have said to me “under the Shah we used to pray at home and go out to drink; now we drink at home and go out to pray.” Current President Hassan Rouhani has taken steps to reduce interference in the daily lives if citizen, instructing the morality police to “lighten up.”
  4. Women play an important role in the highly educated, young workforce – One of important reforms of the revolution was to extend education to the rural areas and, by separating the sexes, to encourage fathers to allow their daughters to attend school. While it’s true that a glass ceiling remains, women now make up 60 percent of the college students and 60 percent of the workforce.
  5. Iranian policy does not call for the destruction of Israel – Since the 1990s Iranian policy, with respect to the Israel/Palestine situation, declares that Iran would abide by the will of the Palestinian people and their leaders as reflected in an open referendum. The statement, often repeated by Israeli and Western media, that Iran wants to “wipe Israel off the face of the earth” is a politically motivated, mistranslation of a comment by Ayatollah Khomeini that Israel’s policies would result in the disappearance of the Jewish State from the pages of history. Given that Israel’s policies over the past two decades have resulted in a situation where non-Jews will soon outnumber Jews, Khomeini may have been prescient.
  6. If Iran lives up to its commitments under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), what the U.S. Congress does is irrelevant – The JCPOA, signed by the EU3+3 and Iran in Vienna on July 14, 2015, envisions a peaceful Iranian nuclear program, stringent restrictions on any path to a nuclear weapon and removal of nuclear-related sanctions. On July 20 the UN Security Council unanimously endorsed the JCPOA. With the lone exception of Israel, every other nation has expressed support for the JCPOA. As Hooman Majd pointed out in a recent New York Times op-ed, “The deal isn’t about the United States anymore. If Iran abides by it (even as America rejects it) the rest of the world will too, and the United States will have killed not the deal but its own credibility, the tremendous goodwill it has in Iran, and even its own economic interests. And Iran, the Iranians know, will abide by the treaty, make do in a world without America, and will re-elect, in 2017, the president who brought them the promise of a better life.” This train has left the station.

Prognosis for the Iran Nuclear Agreement(s): Major Differences Remain

In the days since the P5+1, and since Iran announced the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), intended to deal with the issues surrounding Iran’s nuclear program, there has been much debate surrounding the agreed upon terms and efficacy of the agreement. Opponents in the U.S. and Israel, backed by assorted pundits and think tanks, fearing that agreement would lead to a rapprochement between the U.S. and Iran, and concerned about a resulting change in the balance of power in the Middle East, began attacking the agreement before it was even finalized and announced. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pronounced it a “bad deal” even before he had an opportunity to read it.

Following the announcement in Lausanne, Switzerland, the Obama administration began deploying its pundits and think tanks and created a fact sheet purporting to outline the agreed conditions in a concerted effort to mobilize public support and prevent a hostile Congress from taking steps to derail the agreement. Other international players including regional powers have for the most part remained silent.

Iran Nuclear Negotiations Lausanne Switzerland

The ministers of foreign affairs of France, Germany, the European Union, Iran, the United Kingdom and the United States as well as Chinese and Russian diplomats announcing the framework for a Comprehensive agreement on the Iranian nuclear programme (credit Yagasi, Lausanne, 2 April 2015).

 

As the various factions debate the pros and cons of the JCPOA, the more important issue is which agreement they are talking about. There appear to be three agreements in play: the original agreement announced in Lausanne by EU Foreign Policy and Security Chief, Federica Mogherini and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif; the U.S. “Fact Sheet” discussed by President Obama during the Rose Garden briefing; and the “Fact Sheet” issued by Iran’s Foreign Ministry in response to the American document.

On many of the outstanding issues (time frames, limitations on enrichment capacity, etc.), the documents are similar and the differences would appear to be reconcilable. However, on the issue of sanctions relief, the differences appear to be wide and difficult to reconcile. The U.S claims that sanctions will be “suspended” and this will be done in a phased manner as Iran demonstrates that it is abiding by the agreement. The sanction architecture will remain in place so that sanctions can “snap back” if the IAEA does not certify Iran’s compliance. Iran’s position is that the agreement calls for sanctions to be “terminated,” not in a phased manner, but “immediately” upon signing the final agreement.

Arak IR-40 Heavy Water Reactor, Iran (Nanking2012)

Arak IR-40 Heavy Water Reactor, Iran (Nanking2012)

An important factor that contributed to the party’s ability to reach the “Framework Agreement” was the atmosphere of secrecy within which the negotiations took place. While there were some leaks, all parties refrained from commenting on the status of negotiations beyond general statements. At this point, however, both the U.S. and Iran have issued written public position papers that differ widely. While it is understandable that both parties have a need to appeal to their domestic constituencies, the effect of these public pronouncements has been to back each party into a corner and make it very difficult to modify the positions and reach a compromise. This situation will likely lead to another lengthy period of tough negotiations ahead of the self-imposed June 30 deadline.

Drawn out negotiations will present a political problem for President Obama.

One lesson to be learned from Obama’s effort to normalize relations with Cuba is: speed helps. Following his initial announcement of the agreement with the Cubans to improve relations, Obama moved very quickly, taking unilateral executive actions to implement the agreed parameters and marginalize his Congressional opponents. These moves quickly changed the political landscape, putting Congressional opponents behind the curve, energizing his supporters and changing public perceptions of Cuba policy. Except for the occasional misstep, such as sanctioning several Venezuelan officials, a move that forced Raul Castro to make the obligatory anti-American speech, Obama’s policies and tactics appear to have made the change in Cuban relations a done deal.

On the Iran question, the long period of public negotiations will give opponents of normalization time to mobilize opposition and find ways to torpedo any agreement. If no agreement can be reached, what then?

Iran Nuclear Agreement: Is It a Done Deal?

After months of intensive negotiations between the P5+1 and Iran, EU Foreign Policy Chief Frederica Mogherini and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, amid much media fanfare, announced a joint statement of principles outlining the agreement limiting Iran’s nuclear program. The announcement was followed by a statement by President Obama framing the agreement as a victory for sanctions and diplomacy. Despite the announcement of the agreement and the subsequent celebrations and recriminations, it remains clear that a lot of hard work, difficult bargaining over details, and political arm twisting and horse trading will be required before the June 30 deadline for the final agreement.

The U.S. and its allies on the P5+1, having long since abandoned the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) principles to “allow and inspect” and having focused on a policy to “deny and punish,” have insisted on a one-year “breakout time to a nuclear weapon,” a nebulous concept subject to much debate and interpretation. They never have acknowledged Iran’s right to a peaceful nuclear program; a right which has been the cornerstone of the Iranian negotiating position. In line with this position, Iran has insisted that they are unwilling to make what they call “irreversible change” to their nuclear infrastructure in return for a “suspension” of sanctions. They want the sanctions “lifted.” Given the long history of “double dealing” by the western powers, Iran does not have a lot of trust that it won’t happen again as the stated position of the U.S. with respect to Iran is “regime change.”

Iranian Foreign Minister ZarifShortly after the announcement of the agreement, the U.S. State Department issued a “fact sheet” apparently designed to spin the agreement for domestic consumption. The release contains a series of bullet points that purport to explain what has been agreed to. While many of the points regarding Iran’s obligations reflect the joint announcement, in the area of the lifting of sanctions there appears to be a wide gap. Foreign Minister Zarif immediately tweeted: “The solutions are good for all, as they stand. There is no need to spin using ‘fact sheets’ so early on.”

With regard to sanctions, the joint announcement says, “The European Union will terminate the implementation of all nuclear-related economic and financial sanctions and the United States will cease the application of all nuclear-related secondary economic and financial sanctions simultaneously with the IAEA-verified implementation by Iran of its key nuclear commitments. A new UN Security Council resolution will endorse the JCPOA, terminate all previous nuclear-related resolutions, and incorporate certain restrictive measures for a mutually agreed period of time.”

The State Department fact sheet says,

  • Iran will receive sanctions relief, if it verifiably abides by its commitments.
  • S. and E.U. nuclear-related sanctions will be suspended after the IAEA has verified that Iran has taken all of its key nuclear-related steps. If at any time Iran fails to fulfill its commitments, these sanctions will snap back into place.
  • The architecture of U.S. nuclear-related sanctions on Iran will be retained for much of the duration of the deal and allow for snap-back of sanctions in the event of significant non-performance.
  • All past UN Security Council resolutions on the Iran nuclear issue will be lifted simultaneous (sic) with the completion, by Iran, of nuclear-related actions addressing all key concerns (enrichment, Fordow, Arak, PMD, and transparency).
  • However, core provisions in the UN Security Council resolutions – those that deal with transfers of sensitive technologies and activities – will be re-established by a new UN Security Council resolution that will endorse the JCPOA and urge its full implementation. It will also create the procurement channel mentioned above, which will serve as a key transparency measure. Important restrictions on conventional arms and ballistic missiles, as well as provisions that allow for related cargo inspections and asset freezes, will also be incorporated by this new resolution.

Zarif’s Twitter reaction to this was “Iran/5+1 Statement: ‘US will cease the application of ALL nuclear-related secondary economic and financial sanctions.’ Is this gradual?” and “Iran/P5+1 Statement: ‘The EU will TERMINATE the implementation of ALL nuclear-related economic and financial sanctions’ How about this?” (Original emphasis.)

There appears to be a big gap in the perception of what was agreed to. The U.S. appears to be saying one thing to its negotiating partners and another to its domestic constituencies. Not a recipe for success. We may have a long way to go.