Yesterday, President Trump sauntered into the Diplomatic Room of the White House to deliver his long-awaited verdict on the future of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. In a moment anticipated by all but the most optimistic, the President declared the intention of the United States to withdraw from the so-called Iran Deal, in a move which is likely to sow division amongst allies, further alienate antagonists and, in the absence of a plan B, proliferate instability.
President Trump’s decision came as a surprise to few, least of all French President Emmanuel Macron, who, following a brief and at times bizarre courtship with Mr. Trump in Washington last week, told reporters of his pessimism, and expectation that the President would withdraw from the deal “for domestic reasons”.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, it seems, was no more fruitful in her efforts to sway the US President during her fleeting, comparatively lacklustre three-hour conclave with Mr. Trump.
The final push, orchestrated by the immutable Boris Johnson, saw the British Foreign Secretary take to Fox & Friends – the Donald’s favourite TV show, to urge the President not to “throw the baby out with the bathwater” and refrain from scuttling the deal: a point the Secretary re-iterated in long-form in a New York Times op-ed, though whether his contribution was absorbed by the President was not immediately apparent.
Deal or no Deal
The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), widely known as the Iran Deal, has a contentious history. Agreed in July, 2015, the JCPOA framework embodies the fruit of years of negotiations between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the so-called P5+1 powers – composed of the UN Security Council’s five permanent members: China, Russia, France, the United Kingdom and the United States; plus Germany.
Under the framework, Iran has faced restrictions directed at checking its capacity to purse nuclear weapons. Most notably, the Islamic Republic has been required to reduce its low-enriched Uranium stockpiles by 98%; decommission much of its nuclear infrastructure – including two-thirds of its centrifuges; and submit to comprehensive inspections by the UN’s nuclear watchdog: the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). In exchange, many of the international sanctions in areas such as finance, oil and aviation, which had strangled the Iranian economy, were lifted.
But, in spite of repeated IAEA and UN reaffirmations that Tehran has, thus far, complied with the deal’s provisions: maintaining a uranium stockpile which is less than a third of the maximum level permitted by the JCPOA, the more-hawkish elements of the current American administration – legitimised with the recent addition of noted uber-hawk John Bolton, have deplored the deal as “defective”, “unacceptable” and underpinned by a “giant fiction”.
The premise of the President’s bold break with the deal and its signatories, including some of the US’s closest allies, is, at best, shaky. It is an opposition which the now-President repeatedly articulated throughout his campaign, in equally vague terms.
Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu exhibited similarly ambiguous rhetoric last week. In a peculiar PowerPoint presentation, the Prime Minister made repeated allusions to Iran’s non-compliance with the deal’s provisions, but provided little concrete evidence in support of such bold assertions.
No Plan B
Whether the withdrawal of the US is genuinely attributable to unsubstantiated notions of Iranian non-compliance, the state’s broader conduct in Syria and Yemen, or a burning, Trumpian itch to dismantle the signature foreign policy achievement of the Obama administration, has become a secondary concern, as states are left to figure the implications of Washington’s withdrawal for the deal, the region and their continuing relations with Trump’s America.
For Europe, this is a defining moment. The courting states: France, Germany and the UK, are left to decide whether to attempt to salvage the framework, or follow the US in ducking the deal in pursuit of a hypothetical plan B. Meanwhile, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has signalled Tehran’s willingness to remain a party to the deal:
“We will wait several weeks before acting on this decision. We will be consulting with friends, our allies and members who have signed on to the agreement. Everything depends on our national interests. If our nation’s interests are attained in the end, we will continue the process.”, the Iranian President’s statement proclaimed.
European leaders, unanimous in their censure, appear to be moving in the same direction. President Macron is due to speak with his Iranian counterpart Wednesday to articulate France’s “wish to stay in the agreement”. In the days ahead, EU foreign ministers are scheduled to meet with Javad Zarif, Iranian Minister of Foreign Affairs, to offer their own assurances. Meanwhile, the European Union has expressed its intention to insulate European businesses from any US sanctions imposed in retaliation to their continuing dealings with Tehran.
The transition of the United States from deal maker to deal breaker bares enormous implications for international relations. After a week of dialogue with European leaders, the US has moved to drive a wedge firmly between itself and many of its closest allies: a division likely to become more acute as the EU appears poised to break from the US, perpetuate the Iran Deal and undercut American economic sanctions. More broadly, as tentative talks on the Korean peninsula evoke optimism for an eventual North-South reconciliation, it must be wondered what effect Washington’s withdrawal will have for its role in any peace process. Meanwhile, the world ponders the implications of a new American isolationism.