Ethan Kessler: Careening toward uncertainty

Friday, May 11, 2018 - 9:17am

Last Tuesday afternoon marked the beginning of a new chapter for America’s Middle East policy. Ahead of the official May 12 deadline, President Donald Trump announced his refusal to recertify sanctions relief for Iran, thereby withdrawing the U.S. from the landmark 2015 Iran nuclear deal.

By no measure was the Iran nuclear deal, known officially as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, perfect. Certain aspects and provisions of the deal have no doubt proved contrary to the interests of Israel and the U.S.; however, Trump’s dismissal of the deal without an apparent replacement or follow-up plan, in keeping with his characteristically short-sighted style, leaves America’s policy toward Iran in a troubling state of uncertainty.  

The deal, though derided as a temporary fix to a permanent problem, addressed several components of Iran’s budding nuclear program, which was ostensibly for energy purposes only but was agreed upon to be military in nature by the international community. All of these comprehensive limitations were enforced by mandatory inspections by the United Nations’ nuclear arm, the International Atomic Energy Agency.

In exchange for hobbling its nuclear abilities, Iran would be relieved of the crippling economic sanctions that have followed its nuclear development since 2006 and have cost the nation hundreds of billions of dollars by isolating it from global financial markets and limiting its oil exports. The provisions of the deal, laid out in 10- and 15-year segments, allowed for longer-term arrangements to be made in the interim, which could address the larger issue of Iranian nuclear capability.

The lack of permanence within the deal was only natural, as Iran’s extant nuclear knowledge can never be destroyed, nor can it legally be denied the right to carry out nuclear activity for peaceful means. Iran’s regime clearly deemed the possession of nuclear weapons beneficial to its foreign policy goals before the deal, and JCPOA did what it could by successfully presenting sanctions relief as a worthwhile tradeoff in the short-term.  

Where JCPOA most notably faltered, however, was in the lack of concern it demonstrated regarding Israel.  

As Iran has collected the windfalls of JCPOA’s sanctions relief, it has spent billions to arm Hezbollah and other Shiite militias in Lebanon and Syria, as has been adamantly expressed by Israel. The use of sanctions relief by Tehran to fund proxy wars against Israeli interests has led to unprecedented levels of conflict in the region, weakening ties between the U.S. and our strongest Middle Eastern ally.

Trump’s decision to withdraw from the deal, however, was most likely not the result of a comprehensive and balanced assessment. Since his presidential campaign, Trump has maintained the deal’s nefarious one-sidedness. Additionally, withdrawal from JCPOA is consistent with Trump’s persistent hostility towards both former President Barack Obama’s legacy and multilateral deals that have taken the place of a more traditional emphasis on policy.

The long-term ambitions present in the U.S. withdrawal are, instead, represented by National Security Adviser John Bolton and State Secretary Mike Pompeo. Bolton’s hawkish propensity for regime change in hostile states, along with Pompeo’s prioritization of curbing Iranian regional military expeditions, granted the two a boon in Tuesday’s nixing of JCPOA while only serving to worry other signatories to the deal.

These ambitions, however, are left empty without immediate action to take the place of JCPOA, which Trump has failed to put forward or even outline. It must be kept in mind that the urgency of JCPOA originated from Iran’s supposed proximity to full nuclear capability, and the same should be kept in mind for the regime now that it will soon be unbounded by the deal’s limitations. However, tighter sanctions may not be enough to force Iran back to make a more conciliatory deal before it reaches that capability.

To begin with, Iran has reacted toward Trump’s decision by maintaining the U.S. was bound to break its word from the beginning. In addition to the general tradition of distrust toward the U.S. that this inspires – namely in regard to the upcoming meeting between North Korea and the U.S. over Pyongyang’s own nuclear arsenal – it forces Iran into a corner regarding future deals with the U.S., at the risk of being portrayed as spineless to the Iranian people.  

This shortcoming could, perhaps, be overcome if not for the lack of steps that have been taken thus far to remedy it. Namely, the issue of forcing the deal’s other signatories to comply with a return to secondary sanctions places the U.S. at risk of clashing head-on with the European countries that originally helped broker the deal.  

Though in the end the European signatories will most likely side with the U.S., the case carries the danger of blowing up and damaging key alliances. The hesitation this will likely cause could prove lethal as Iran returns to a limitless nuclear arena.

Ultimately, Trump’s refusal to compose anything close to a comprehensive Middle East policy has been adequately reflected in his abrupt withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal.  As the country has seen, Trump’s brash “America First” policy that calls for reduced international presence has often been relegated to a distant memory the moment it is confronted by more uncomfortable realities, as has been the case in Syria and Afghanistan.  

As of now, Iran will prove no different.  The result of withdrawal, beyond the probable resumption of Iranian nuclear activity, will be boosted Iranian confidence in the absence of American coherence.  Without a plan to realistically reinstate sanctions to positive effect by ensuring the unwavering cooperation of all other signatories, the U.S. is left with nowhere to turn to after the nuclear deal.  The deal as it stood may have instated its own problems, but until further action the U.S. is surely worse off than it was before.