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”.

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This article was previously published by American Herald Tribune

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.”




Rouhani’s fate tied to nuclear deal

I have re-posted this insightful article by my colleague Shahir ShahidSaless in which he discusses the impact of the P5+1-Iran nuclear negotiations on regional geopolitics and internal Iranian politics. He points out that President Hassan Rouhani is uniquely positioned to reach a deal which will be accepted by Iranian leaders. If this opportunity passes with a resolution of the nuclear issue, we may be in for a long period of conflict. Shahir is a political analyst and freelance journalist writing primarily about Iranian domestic and foreign affairs. He is also the co-author of Iran and the United States: An Insider’s View on the Failed Past and the Road to Peace, published in May 2014. He lives in Canada. The article was originally posted on


Rouhani’s fate tied to nuclear deal

1024px-Hassan_Rouhani_2 (1)For most of 2014, the global media spotlight shone on Iran, primarily as diplomacy over the country’s nuclear program gained momentum, and high level meetings between Iran and the P5+1 (US, Britain, France, Russia, China + Germany) took center stage in international affairs. The fate of Iran’s nuclear talks could be a game-changer at the domestic level in Iran, as well as at the regional and international levels.

Two major developments unblocked the path towards meaningful negotiations between Iran and the West, aimed at untying Tehran’s nuclear Gordian knot. First, the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei repositioned his firm stance of “no talks with the Great Satan” by introducing the concept of “heroic flexibility” in diplomacy. Second, the US abandoned its decade-long policy of “zero uranium enrichment inside Iran”.

From the Americans’ perspective, primarily that of US President Barack Obama and his administration, one may read between the lines that for a number of reasons, this opportunity cannot be missed.

First, extremely motivated moderates are in power, led by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. Yes, the Supreme Leader ultimately makes decisions but varying foreign policies under different presidents, despite having the same Supreme Leader, clearly show that presidents still play a major role in shaping Iran’s foreign policy. The reformist Mohammad Khatami pursued a reconciliatory foreign policy, and adopted a cooperative approach on the nuclear issue, making numerous overtures to the West including the US, while Mahmoud Ahmadinejad followed a confrontational foreign policy on all fronts.

Rouhani’s political experience and credentials are virtually unmatched in Iran. He served as Head of the Foreign Policy Committee of the Parliament (Majlis) for eight years and was Secretary of the National Security Council (NSC), the highest advisory board to the Supreme Leader, for 16 years. Rouhani also spent 23 years, from the inception of the NSC, as Khamenei’s representative on the Council until June 2013 when he won the presidential election. This places Rouhani in a unique position of influence with Iran’s Supreme Leader while he negotiates with foreign powers to strike a deal.

Second, considering the now Republican-dominated Congress, concerns abound over the tenuous nature of continued nuclear talks. Failure would most likely result in tougher sanctions against Iran, the result of which would be a halt in communication and dialogue between Iran and America. As such, the pattern of previous years, whereby Tehran would expand its nuclear program, begetting even tougher US sanctions, would only perpetuate itself.

The history of international relations dictates that when governments fail to overcome their differences through dialogue, the only alternative becomes a military solution. As turmoil already engulfs the Middle East, the Obama administration cannot afford to engage in yet another full-fledged war with unpredictable consequences.

Third, Iran’s rivalries with Saudi Arabia and Turkey have destabilized the region, culminating in a disastrous Syrian war, giving rise to jihadists that threaten the security of the region and, thereby, American security interests. If the US stands any chance of resolving the complex, international endeavor of bringing stability and peace back to the region, it is also imperative for it to bring Iran in from the cold.

Obama’s opportunity to forge an historic legacy lies very much in ending the Iranian nuclear crisis, one of the most contentious foreign-policy issues confronting the US since the Cold War.

From the Iranians’ perspective, it is also vital to reach a nuclear deal sooner rather than later. Sanctions, primarily the US unilateral sanctions on the oil and banking sectors, have taken a serious toll on Iran’s economy. This, coupled with the recent fall in oil prices, has left Iran’s economy deeply vulnerable. Until recently, the impact of the sanctions was cushioned by the high price of oil. Prior to the most destructive US wave of sanctions against the oil and banking sectors, Iran generated $95 billion (Dh349.4 billion) in revenue from its oil export in 2011. Even if the prices climb up to around $70 per barrel, this revenue will drop to $25 billion in 2015.

Sources maintain that Iran is aware that if it fails to clinch a deal with Obama and his team, his successor will likely align with both houses of the US government, intensifying sanctions even further.

Politically, Rouhani and his camp’s fate are tied to the outcome of the nuclear talks. Failure of the talks would mark the return of radical politics in Iran. In the best case scenario for Rouhani, he and his Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif, would be pushed to the sidelines. More likely, it would mean the downfall of Zarif and in the worst case, Rouhani, himself.

Success of the talks would present Iran’s moderates with an opportunity to solidify their position, significantly increasing the likelihood of winning the March 2016 parliamentary elections. It would also positively influence the 2016 elections for the Assembly of Experts (the body of 86 mujtahids tasked with the selection of the next Supreme Leader in case Khamenei passes away), as well as Rouhani’s re-election in 2017.

During their latest round of nuclear talks, negotiators from Iran and the P5+1 extended their self-imposed deadline for a final compromise to July 1, 2015. Still progressing, Obama and his administration are determined to successfully end this crisis for the reasons discussed earlier. It is true that a fierce fight over nuclear compromise with Iran can be expected between Congress and Obama, but for reasons previously presented by this author, it is unlikely that the Congress can win this battle.

From the Iranian perspective, especially with lower oil prices that many experts believe will sustain into the foreseeable future, the country needs sanctions to be removed, or at least meaningfully eased. This would result in a boost of its oil exports, access to its oil revenues currently denied by the US and the Europeans, and to its blocked overseas assets that exceed $100 billion.

In 2015, moderates led by Rouhani must fight a war for survival and all viable roads lead to the realization of a nuclear deal. Might Rouhani be able to convince the Supreme Leader to accept compromise? He has done so in the past.

Between 2003 and 2005, while Rouhani was the NSC’s Secretary and led the Iranian side in talks with Europe, Iran voluntarily suspended its uranium enrichment as a confidence building measure. This happened thanks to Rouhani’s keen negotiation skills not only with Europeans, but also towards the members of the NSC, and, more importantly, Ayatollah Khamenei, who was fundamentally reluctant about suspension.

Photo by  Mojtaba Salimi (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Stable Instability in the Middle East

As 2014, a year of tumult, chaos, violence and change in the Middle East, draws to a close, we seem to be entering one of those periods that I call stable instability. While all of the conditions that created the violence and chaos remain, none having been resolved and none of the underlying issues creating the conditions having been addressed, the resulting conflicts have become more or less frozen. Even the most intractable of the conflicts, the Israel/Palestine situation, having emerged from the tragedy of the 2014 Gaza War, has reached a condition of stasis.

Following the Gaza War, a conflict that killed and injured thousands of civilians, mostly Palestinian women and children, the situation has returned to the status quo ante, with Gaza remaining blockaded, with the West Bank remaining under occupation, and with Arab residents of Israel remaining second class citizens. The U.S., unable to face the realities on the ground and having no “Plan B”, continues to call for negotiations between the Palestinian Authority (PA), a weak, divided and dysfunctional organization and Israel, the strongest power in the region. The professed goal of the negotiations is to achieve a “two state solution”, a solution that has long since reached its “sell by date”. The PA has been reduced to making threatening statements and gestures and then doing nothing. The right wing government of Benjamin Netanyahu remains in power in Israel, albeit with a shaky coalition. With the right firmly in control, there seems to be little prospect for change in the Israeli position regardless of who is Prime Minister.

In Syria, perhaps better called the former state of Syria, the nearly four-year-old, three-way civil war has reached a stalemate. As a Syrian friend of mine told me, “Except for an occasional rocket attack, the situation in Damascus is fairly normal.” I guess that if one lives in Syria, the concept of normality is somewhat different than it is in the U.S. On the other hand in Aleppo and in the refugee camps, the war continues to cause untold misery for everyone. With outside powers, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey Qatar, Kuwait and the U.S., arming and supporting the various protagonists, the prospects for one side or another prevailing and ending the war are dim. The stalemate is likely to continue for some time.

In Iraq, the U.S. plan to use air strikes to “degrade and destroy” ISIS and retain the united Iraqi state is unlikely to succeed anytime in the foreseeable future. Iraqi Kurdistan will continue to be a quasi-state and, with Western aid and assistance, should be able to defend its new expanded territory against ISIS incursions. Absent a major commitment of ground forces by Iran, Turkey and/or the U.S., eastern Syria and central and western Iraq will remain under the sway of the Islamic State (IS). With the aid and support of Iran, the Iraqi central government should be able to defend Baghdad and the Shia majority territory to the south from ISIS. The unanswered question is: what form of government will emerge in the Sunni areas of Iraq currently ruled as an Islamic State by ISIS?

Lebanon, riven by sectarian divisions, has fluctuated between weak and no government. In February Lebanon elected a Prime Minister after a period of ten months without one. Following the expiration of President Michel Sleiman’s term in May, Lebanon has been unable to elect a president. While Lebanese citizens are accustomed to political chaos, the current situation raises it to a new level. Whatever government emerges, it will almost certainly be weak and relatively powerless to address the pressing issues facing the country. Only forceful action by Hezbollah and the Lebanese Army has been able to prevent the Syrian civil war from spilling over. Lebanese citizens of all persuasions count on these two trusted organizations to defend Lebanon’s national interest.

Turkey, attempting to manage the conflicting policy goals of preventing the Syrian civil war from spilling over, preventing conflict with its own Kurdish population and overthrowing President Bashar Assad in Syria, is playing a dangerous game. If Turkey is not very careful and skillful it may end up achieving none of its goals. Such an outcome would have significant adverse consequences for the AKP led government. The AKP policy of “zero problems with its neighbors” has become “problems with all the neighbors”.

Iran is presently the most stable country in the region. In a region very short on stability, this condition is crucial to the well-being of many of the states facing internal turmoil. The enormous popularity of President Hassan Rouhani (favorability rating exceeding 80 percent) has inoculated him from attacks by the hardline parliamentary opposition in Iran, given him space to negotiate with the P5+1 over the nuclear issue, and allowed him to institute economic and social reforms. If he is unable to deliver on his promise of the removal of sanctions and of economic growth, the hardliners will almost certainly be strengthened in the 2015 parliamentary elections and he will have much less flexibility.

Stable instability is a fragile condition. It wouldn’t take much to tip the balance and destabilize the entire region.


No Deal or a Bad Deal

TrustAs the EU3+3 and the Islamic Republic of Iran continue their negotiations regarding the Iranian nuclear program, they are approaching the July 20 expiration of the Joint Plan of Action (JPOA) which has governed the framework for the negotiations.

In the limited statements that have emanated from the negotiators it seems there still is concurrence that they are far apart on the specifics of an agreement.

This state of affairs is not surprising given the high level of mutual mistrust that has long governed the relations between the U.S. and Iran and the natural inclination of negotiators to refrain from making difficult compromises until faced with a deadline.

Another obstacle to understanding the state of negotiations is the reluctance of the U.S. to articulate its endgame objectives clearly. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Zarif has, on a number of occasions, reaffirmed the language of the JPOA:

“[A] comprehensive solution [that] would enable Iran to fully enjoy its right to nuclear energy for peaceful purposes under the relevant articles of the NPT in conformity with its obligations therein. This comprehensive solution would involve a mutually defined enrichment program with practical limits and transparency measures to ensure the peaceful nature of the program.”

On the other hand, the U.S. position is more difficult to discern. At times U.S officials have articulated various goals, which include the closing of the Fordow underground enrichment site, dismantling the Arak heavy water reactor, extending nuclear weapon “breakout time” and eliminating Iran’s nuclear weapons capability. Add to these the often-expressed issues of human rights, support for terrorists, regional meddling and “regime change,” it is hard to be optimistic about the chance of reaching an agreement by July 20.

Even if the negotiators are able to reach an agreement, both parties will face serious domestic political issues in implementing their obligations. It is interesting that the political structure of Iran and the U.S. are very similar. Both operate under constitutions that were deliberately crafted to provide for separation of powers and checks and balances.

The result is that policy making and implementation decisions are spread across a number of competing and often antagonistic power centers, many of which are determined to torpedo an agreement in pursuit of their own interests. This is particularly true in the U.S. where the Congress, heavily influenced by the Israel Lobby, is unlikely to give President Obama an easy foreign policy success.

Despite all of this pessimism, I remain optimistic that this round of nuclear negotiations will eventually lead to an agreement. Once the July 20 “deadline” passes, the negotiators will be faced with the brutal reality that this is the last, best chance to contain Iran’s nuclear program without military action and a likely regional war. The U.S. and its allies, having implemented a decade of crippling sanctions – sanctions that have impoverished many Iranians, having assassinated Iran’s nuclear scientists, having encouraged unrest among Iran’s Sunni population, having deployed the Stuxnet virus to disrupt the Natanz enrichment facility, are about out of non-military arrows in their quiver.

Despite all of the pressure tactics, Iran has continued to expand its nuclear capability, going from 3,000 to 20,000 centrifuges, from 3 percent enrichment to 20 percent enrichment, from a few kg of low enriched uranium to 200 kg of 20 percent enriched uranium. Clearly coercion has not achieved the desired results.

The Iranian leadership, seeing the nuclear program as a point of national pride, feeling that giving into coercion is the first step toward regime change, is not about to succumb to pressure tactics. Substantiated by my personal conversations with Iranians, polls show the leadership has the support of the people on this. As with most negotiated agreements, neither side will be happy. Those, such as Hillary Clinton, John Kerry and Benjamin Netanyahu, who say “No deal is better than a bad deal” will just have to get over it. Gary Sick, an Iranian expert at Columbia University reports that, in his office, the over-under date for an agreement is August 8.

In order to accomplish this, negotiators will need to break or repeal Ambassador John Limbert’s five rules for U.S.-Iran relations:

  • Rule 1: Never walk through an open door; instead bang your head against the wall.
  • Rule 2: Never say yes to anything that the other side proposes; to do so would make you look weak.
  • Rule 3: Assume that the other side is infinitely hostile, devious, domineering and irrational. It is the embodiment of all that is evil.
  • Rule 4: Anything that the other side proposes must contain some kind of a trick. Its only purpose in life is to cheat you.
  • Rule 5: Whenever you seem to be making progress, someone or some diabolical coincidence will mess it up.