In the likely event that Donald Trump chooses to end US support for the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) today, there will be a scrabble to make sense of why, and to what end the current US administration would scupper what was, for many, the most significant foreign policy achievement of his predecessor.
In terms of why, there are two narratives floating around the rejectionist camp that are worth noting (beyond the simple pretence that Iran shouldn’t have nuclear weapons). The internal political narrative, the one the Republican Party and Trump are telling themselves and supporters in order to facilitate this dramatic change of course in US foreign policy. This seems fairly straightforward, if not deeply simplistic – the JCPOA was one of the crowning achievements of the Obama administration and thus, is bad and should be revoked. Trump supporters have also used it as a means to push back on the Russia ‘collusion’ narrative that has dogged his presidency. Former Trump security advisor Seb Gorka recently took to Fox news to decry John Kerry’s meeting with Iranian counterparts, in an attempt to save the deal, as evidence of ‘real collusion’ and hypocrisy from democrats.
Likewise, the undoing of a deal that Russia is party too, and in support of, creates political distance between the White House and the Kremlin. Ironically, as the Moscow Times has put it, this has given Russia a rare and thoroughly relish-able opportunity to be on ‘the right side of history’ as far as the west is concerned.
This is precisely what makes the external justification – to non-Trump supporters and/or the rest of the world- such a tricky one. Frankly there haven’t been many convincing narratives proposed. Those who wanted to terminate the deal can’t seem to explain why Iran is less likely to attain a nuclear weapon without it, than with it.
A truly worrying narrative that is beginning to gain traction is that Trump has facilitated a move toward denuclearisation on the Korean peninsula without such a deal, ergo it can be done in Korean. The idea that the ‘my nuclear button is bigger than yours’ discourse is held as a model for future negotiations is a terrifying simplification of the politics of that particular security problem, as well as any potential for a new solution to the Iranian one.
To What End?
The deployment of sanctions to push Iran towards negotiations on its nuclear programme was, depending on one’s perspective, a recognisable strategy toward a realistically attainable outcome. But it should be very clear, with the amount of time, effort and political capital that has gone into building the JCPOA, (both in terms of Iran and the US, but also the other signatory countries) that should it fail, there will not be another agreement like it any time soon. If ever. Iran itself has signalled that it will likely abandon the deal entirely if the US walks away, although this is not certain.
Nevertheless, the Trump administration will be pushing for a return to harsh multilateral sanctions against Iran with little in the way of a proposed diplomatic solution on the table, beyond a complete acceptance of denuclearisation on US terms. A distinctly unlikely outcome, given the history of regimes that voluntarily surrender their nuclear programmes. More likely then, that the administration sees this option as a first step in a broader push for regime change in Iran, perhaps one that requires a popular uprising for a new, more open democracy. Indeed, such sentiments have been tweeted by Trump in relation to recent protests.
The US has taken this approach before, notably with the deployment of sanctions in Iraq after the Hussein regime’s invasion of Kuwait. Despite their crippling impact on the population (UNICEF and the WHO estimated as many as 4500 infant deaths related to sanctions per month), the US resisted appeals for their termination without verification of the destruction of Iraq’s stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction. As we know, the story didn’t end with a popular uprising that brought democracy.
Instead, those sanctions are now seen as the part of the prologue to a disastrous war to forcibly unseat Saddam Hussein, unleashing chaos across the region. It is notable that as the Trump administration shifts from crisis to crisis, through different personnel, there has always been a consistent body of Iran hawks present. Now, with the inclusion of one of the biggest Iran (and formerly Iraq) hawks, John Bolton, as well as Mike Pompeo, to central foreign policy roles in the White House, the world waits to discover if the end of the JCPOA represents another such prologue to an even more disastrous conflict.