Trump didn’t think this one through.
What does President Trump hope to accomplish by withdrawing the US from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), or Iran nuclear deal? Does he want to go to war? Does he want to renegotiate the deal? Is he hoping sanctions stir so much unrest in Iran that its citizens overthrow the government?
Regardless of Trump’s goals, the withdrawal decision rests on a series of tactical errors and mistaken assumptions. He is overestimating US strength and underestimating that of its adversaries. His strategy has far too many moving parts. The risk that one or more fail is much higher than he apparently believes.
Trump may think he understands the Middle East and that he can trust his allies there. He’s wrong on both counts. The Middle East is a welter of ancient enmities and alliances, tribalism, sectarian strife, greed, duplicity, and intrigue (it’s not all that different from Washington) that nobody fully comprehends. Things are almost never as they appear. One categorical statement can be made: you put your own interests first or you don’t survive.
Saudi Arabia, the other Sunni Gulf states, and Israel have formed an alliance of convenience against their common enemy, Shiite Islam. Saudi Arabia is Sunni, Iran is Shiite, and the two countries have historically been the most powerful in the Middle East, vying for influence and dominance.
The alliance dreams of replacing the governments of Shiite Iran, Iraq, and Syria (Shiites are a minority in Syria, but Bashar al-Assad is Alawite, a Shiite sect) with Sunni satrapies. Next best is chaos and terror in those countries to keep them weak. The Sunnis, with the tacit support of Israel, bankrolled al Qaeda and ISIS to further their goals of chaos and regime change in Syria and Iraq
The United States has been duped into the alliance. There are no good reasons for the US to become involved in the Middle East’s toxic internecine rivalries. Israel can take care of itself, the US has its own oil, and even if it didn’t, the petro-states have to sell theirs to someone.
The US government has never articulated a coherent rationale for its Middle Eastern involvement, because there is none. It has sown the discord and destruction the Sunnis and Israel desire, enriched US defense and intelligence contractors, and fueled neoconservative pipe dreams of a “stable” (i.e. US-dominated) Middle East, all at a huge cost in blood, money, moral standing, destabilizing refugee flows, and terrorist blowback.
Nothing screams “duped” like Trump citing Benjamin Netanyahu in his Iran Nuclear Agreement withdrawal speech. Netanyahu lied in 2003 when he swore Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and assured the world a US invasion would be the best thing that ever happened to the Middle East. Netanyahu got what he wanted—Saddam Hussein deposed and Iraq subjugated at no cost to Israel. The US got stuck with the tab, which it’s still paying. After his Iraq whopper, Netanyahu should be held in the same regard as the boy who cried wolf. The rest of the world does, ignoring Netanyahu’s “evidence.” Much of it was old news, and Mossad is a proficient document fabricator. As for the US, fool me once….
Back to the original question: what does Trump hope to accomplish? Even if Trump were as stupid and crazy as his most demented critics claim (he’s not, not by a long shot), he wouldn’t be so stupid and crazy as to actually want to go to war with Iran. After the inglorious succession of Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Syria, you don’t attack a nation that is larger, more populated, more economically advanced, and a tougher military challenge than any of those prior targets. You especially don’t attack when that nation’s big brothers are Russia and China.
Trump’s bluffing. He’s trying to give the bluff more credibility by embracing figures who may be just stupid and crazy enough to want a war with Iran: Netanyahu, Saudi Arabian crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, John Bolton, Mike Pompeo, and Trump’s largest campaign contributor, Sheldon Adelson (who once said Iran should be nuked). Iran, Russia, and China will call his bluff.
Iran has huge oil and natural gas reserves and China is the world’s largest importer. As part of the de-dollarization offensive against the reserve currency, Russia and Iran accept payment for their oil in yuan. Iran is a geographic and commercial linchpin of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Russia and China are involved in Iranian development and infrastructure projects and sells arms to the Iranian military. They will not sit still for a US war and regime change operation directed at their ally.
There are three main objections to the Iran nuclear deal. Obama’s sleight of hand in getting the deal—which is not a treaty—through Congress still rankle. The deal’s 10 and 15-year sunset clauses makes it a moratorium on nuclear development, not a permanent ban. And the inspection provisions do not allow for inspections of certain military facilities where Iran could be surreptitiously developing a bomb.
The procedural objections are valid, but do not impinge on the tactical merits of Trump’s withdrawal. If Iran considers itself no longer bound by the deal, withdrawal brings forward the sunset clause to the date of the withdrawal. That means Iran could restart its nuclear program today and, if Netanyahu’s warnings are correct, have a bomb in a year or two. Iran would also kick out the International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors, so the JCPOA signatories would lose even the “imperfect” inspection and monitoring capabilities they had under the agreement.
Trump would only risk bringing the objectionable sunset dates forward and losing the JCPOAs inspection and monitoring capabilities if he thought he could win a “better,” more stringent deal through renewed sanctions, threats of war, upheaval within Iran, and renegotiation. It’s a variation on his North Korea strategy, which may produce some sort of breakthrough agreement with that nation.
However, Trump’s negotiating position is weaker than Obama’s when the JCPOA was signed. The US has lost the war in Syria against the same alliance it would go up against in Iran. Sanctions have become the US’s main non-military weapon. Germany, France, and Great Britain may fall in line, but they’ll be hurt economically if they do. If they don’t, sanctions won’t work.
There’s no chance Russia and China will observe them. With Turkey, which helped Iran evade the last round of sanctions, they will help it evade the new ones. China will buy Iran’s oil and natural gas, providing it with yuan and perhaps gold reserves outside the US-dominated global payments system. The BRI will go on, building links from Iran to the rest of Eurasia. Iran is not North Korea, and with the support of its big brothers has far more ability to stand up to Trump.
Whether or not any of the other JCPOA signatories implement sanctions, they probably will not support a more stringent agreement. It would be a classic case of rewarding what they regard as Trump’s bad behavior. The Europeans are annoyed and Russia and China certainly won’t play ball.
If Trump doesn’t get his new agreement, there are yawning downsides. Iran may continue to abide by the JCPOA if sanctions are evaded or rejected by the Europeans. There would then be no willingness among the signatories to renegotiate and no need to do so. Trump will have done nothing but hasten the world’s transition from US unipolar dominance and humiliate himself.
Or Iran may kick out the inspectors and try to build a bomb, the outcome Trump thought he was preventing. He would then have to decide whether to wage a war that could draw in the world’s major powers and engulf the Middle East.
Trump is overplaying a weak hand. There’s no 4D chess here; he just hasn’t thought this one through. His gesture pleases Israel, Saudi Arabia, and neoconservatives back home, but it will be Trump and the United States, not his “friends,” who will bear the cost of failure.