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

Live Interview With Stu Taylor

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Can the Iran Nuclear Deal Survive the US elections?

On July 14, 2016 the EU3+3 and Iran signed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which imposed restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program in return for removal of nuclear-related economic sanctions against Iran. While enthusiastically received by many around the globe, the agreement was less well received by conservative hardliners, particularly in Iran and the United States. Congressional Republicans in a letter crafted by Senator Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas) warned Iran’s Supreme Leader that the U.S. was an unreliable negotiating partner stating “What…(the) constitutional provisions mean is that we will consider any agreement regarding your nuclear-weapons program that is not approved by the Congress as nothing more than an executive agreement between President Obama and Ayatollah Khamenei. The next president could revoke such an executive agreement with the stroke of a pen and future Congresses could modify the terms of the agreement at any time.” This played right into Ayatollah Khamenei’s view that the U.S. cannot be trusted, will always be hostile, and would never stop its efforts to overthrow the Iranian government.

The JCPOA is very specific concerning what is allowed and not allowed with respect to Iran’s nuclear program and the accompanying sanctions regimes. Under the agreement Iran is obligated to limit its enrichment capacity, reduce its stockpiles of enriched uranium and heavy water, redesign the Arak heavy water reactor and much more. In return, economic sanctions are to be lifted. The agreement states, “This JCPOA will produce the comprehensive lifting of all UN Security Council sanctions as well as multilateral and national sanctions related to Iran’s nuclear programme, including steps on access in areas of trade, technology, finance and energy.” Further, it states, “The E3/EU+3 will refrain from imposing discriminatory regulatory and procedural requirements in lieu of the sanctions and restrictive measures covered by this JCPOA.” While the UN has certified that Iran has meticulously lived up to its obligations, the U.S. has dragged its feet on removing sanctions, particularly the secondary sanctions that restrict Iran’s access to the international financial system.

Contrary to his approach to the opening of Cuba, in which he moved aggressively through executive action to change the political dynamic and get U.S. businesses involved, President Obama has been much more politically cautious with respect to changing the relationship with Iran. Specifically, his failure to begin to unwind the labyrinth of secondary financial sanctions has made international financial institutions leery of participating in or financing business transactions with Iran. The fact that many international transactions are denominated in USD and require so-called U-turn transactions in the U.S. to convert USD into local currency further hinders Iran’s access to its foreign funds and has reduced the economic benefits that Iran expected from the JCPOA. This has played into the hands of Iran’s hardline conservatives.

The situation is unlikely to change for the better after the U.S. presidential election. Of the remaining candidates, all except Bernie Sanders are much more hardline with respect to Iran. Hillary Clinton has said, “Iran is still violating UN Security Council resolutions with its ballistic missile program, which should be met with new sanctions designations and firm resolve.” Unsurprisingly, Ted Cruz has stated, “On my first day in office, I will rip to shreds this catastrophic deal.” While he makes many contradictory statements and one must take everything that Donald Trump says with a grain of salt, he has expressed that he understands that the JCPOA is a signed agreement, but “I’m really good at looking at a contract and finding things within a contract that, even if they’re bad, I would police that contract so tough that they don’t have a chance.” (Sic) Only Bernie Sanders has expressed complete support for JCPOA and has said, “I think what we’ve got to do is move as aggressively as we can to normalize relations with Iran.”

All this said, we need to remember that this is an international agreement and the EU, Russia and China are moving aggressively to live up to their obligations under the JCPOA and consummate business deals with Iran. Iran has signed a $25 billion aircraft purchase deal with Airbus, and Peugeot has signed a $430 million deal to produce automobiles in Iran. If the U.S. stands in the way of effective implementation of the JCPOA or takes steps that ensure its demise, its influence on the global stage will be further weakened. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has made his position clear, saying on his website, “Any comments suggesting the sanctions structure will remain in place or (new) sanctions will be imposed, at any level and under any pretext, would be (considered by Iran) a violation of the deal.”

 

 

 

The Russians are Coming

Since the Syrian uprising began in 2011 and gradually morphed into full blown, vicious, deadly civil war, U.S. policies toward the conflict have been affected by some of the faults that have plagued U.S. Middle East policies for over fifty years and which I have described in my recent book, Fault Lines. When the uprisings began as peaceful demonstrations protesting corruption within the government, income and wealth inequality and lack of economic opportunity, the U.S. was faced with conflicting policy choices. On one hand the United States government could work with Iran to influence the Syrian government to negotiate with the opposition forces and to address their grievances peacefully (not likely given the state of U.S.-Iranian relations), recognize domestic political concerns and stay out of the situation, letting the Syrians solve the problem for themselves, or weigh in on the side of the rebel factions in hopes of overthrowing the Syrian government and thereby weakening Iran and Hezbollah and reducing the threat to Israel. The Obama administration decided to try and balance the last two alternatives, providing some support for the rebels while not committing enough American troops to effectively change the facts on the ground.

Continuing its practice of trying to find “good guys” among the myriad of fractious and diverse opposition groups who would become its proxy army, the U.S. tried to organize, equip and train the Free Syrian Army (FSA). This endeavor was a complete failure as, after millions of dollars spent, the number of troops in the field can be counted on one hand and most of the trainees, arms and equipment have ended up in the hands of jihadist Islamist groups. As the policy gradually fell apart, the conflict deteriorated into a stalemate.

Syrian President Bashar Assad Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin Damascus Civil War

Photos of Assad and Russia’s Putin are seen during a pro-Assad protest in front of the Russian embassy in Damascus, Syria (credit Freedom House)

Enter the Russians. Unencumbered by conflicting policy goals, having only the objectives of keeping the Syrian government in power, willing to work with regional allies such as Iraq, Iran and Hezbollah, concerned about violent Islamic groups spreading to the homeland, seeing ISIS as its primary adversary and able to rapidly deploy troops and fire power, Russia seems to have quickly affected the facts on the ground.

In fact, Russia already has expanded and upgraded the Syrian Air Base at Latakia allowing it to conduct over thirty five strikes against opposition forces in the first week in October compared with fewer than ten for the U.S. The establishment of a no-fly safe zone along the Turkish border with Iraq and Syria requires the establishment of air superiority. When Turkey agreed to allow U.S. planes to fly combat missions from Incirlik Air Base, the quid pro quo was that the U.S. would turn a blind eye to Turkish air strikes in Iraq and Syria. In the first weeks of strikes, Turkey attacked ISIS three times and Kurdish positions over three hundred times. The presence of Russian forces and aircraft greatly complicates Turkey’s plans to establish a safe zone. This presence also increases the risk of conflict between Russian and Turkish forces. Since Turkey is a member of NATO, there is risk that the U.S. could be drawn in. Most observers expect coordination among Russian, Iranian, Syrian and Hezbollah forces in a major offensive prior to the onset of winter.

The shift in the power dynamic could portend a move toward a negotiated settlement. Iran and Russia now have considerable influence with the Assad government. The U.S. seems to have changed its position on Assad being a party to the negotiations, and abandoning its “Assad must go position.” An Allied offensive against the rebels may bring them to the table with a unified, more flexible position. Negotiated endings to civil wars are rare, but one can always hope. In such an event attention could turn to solving the ISIS problem.

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.