Stratfor: Trump’s art of wrecking the nuclear deal with Iran

Summary: Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran was one of his major accomplishments, a defeat of the multi-generational propaganda barrage by America’s pro-war hawks. Now conservatives work to overturn it, as they have opposed all nuclear arms control treaties — deals that have helped prevent atomic war. Stratfor gives a hopeful forecast for what follows Trump’s refusal to certify Iran’s compliance with the agreement.

Aftershocks from the Iran deal

“Iran, Trump and the Art of the Nuclear Deal”

By Matthew Bey at Stratfor.
10 October 2017. Visuals added.

Deep ideological differences and mutual mistrust have marred the relationship between the United States and Iran since the Islamic Republic replaced the nation’s monarchy nearly four decades ago. But time has done little to heal the wounds that each country has inflicted on the other. Their enduring enmity will be on full display this week as U.S. President Donald Trump prepares to “decertify” the deal Iran has struck with global powers on its nuclear program by arguing that the agreement isn’t in the best interest of U.S. national security. Though Washington will likely keep sanctions relief for Tehran in place for now, Trump’s speech will trigger a 60-day review period during which Congress will have the power to reimpose them.

JCPOA: nuclear timeline for Iran.

Despite this apparent setback for the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the prospect that the longtime adversaries will eventually set aside their grievances hasn’t entirely dimmed. Because while political narratives come and go, the geopolitical forces that led to the nuclear deal’s inception are here to stay, pushing the United States and Iran closer and closer to rapprochement.

The President’s Gamble.

The current U.S. administration has placed far more emphasis on curbing Iran’s activities throughout the Middle East than its predecessor did. Within the past year, the White House has tried to unite Arab states, led by Saudi Arabia, into a coalition against Iran while stepping up its military aid and weapons sales to Sunni powers across the region. In all likelihood, Trump will steadfastly maintain this tough stance when he unveils his administration’s policy on Iran later this week, announcing additional targeted sanctions against it. As long as the nuclear deal remains intact, though, the use of Washington’s strongest tool against Tehran — wide-reaching sanctions — will be off the table.

By reopening the debate about the JCPOA with the threat of withdrawal, Trump hopes to either rein in Iran’s regional meddling or persuade Tehran to broaden the deal to include restrictions on its ballistic missile program and on its support for militant groups, such as Hezbollah and Hamas. The president’s strategy, however, is not without risk. Any cracks that open within the JCPOA’s framework could spread quickly, perhaps even leading to the deal’s collapse. Trump’s approach also relies on the assumption that Iran — a country with a precarious political balance to maintain within its borders — won’t respond aggressively to provocation.

Still, the president’s gamble may not be as risky as it seems. We need only look at the forces that shaped the JCPOA’s signing in the first place to see why. Over the past decade, the United States has searched for a way to reduce its presence in the Middle East and shift its attention to other parts of the world, including a resurgent Russia and a rising China. The solution it has settled on is to balance Middle Eastern powers — including Iran — against one another, forming a built-in check to prevent any one country from becoming too influential. But Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear weapons program was something that neither the United States nor its European allies could allow. The JCPOA thus offered a means of halting the program’s progress without risking the outbreak of war.

The United States’ pressing need to look beyond the Middle East persists to this day. In fact, if anything, it has become even more imperative: China’s economy and military prowess are growing, the standoff between Russia and the West endures, and the nuclear crisis on the Korean Peninsula has deepened. Reviving the nuclear ambitions of — and the threat of conflict with — Iran by abandoning the JCPOA would doubtless detract from the United States’ ability to address these urgent needs in Eurasia and the Asia-Pacific. It would also harden North Korea’s belief (not to mention Iran’s) that negotiation with the United States on nuclear issues is futile.

To make matters more complicated, Washington is alone in its newest strategy to contain Iran’s influence. Unlike the United States, Europe considers Iran’s regional ambitions to be separate from its nuclear activities, and the JCPOA to be pertinent only to the latter. The White House has blurred that distinction in a way the deal wasn’t designed to handle. This discrepancy is the reason that the rationale behind Washington’s decertification of the accord is key: The United States and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) agree that there is no evidence to suggest that Iran is not complying with the deal. And as long as Iran upholds its end of the bargain, the European Union will likely push back against any U.S. attempt to reinstate broad sanctions, which would damage several European companies. (The Continental bloc has already vowed to challenge the United States in the World Trade Organization if it tries to do so.)

All of these factors will make it difficult for Congress to put sanctions back in place against Iran. But perhaps that’s exactly what the Trump administration is counting on. After all, the president derided the nuclear deal during his campaign for office. By punting the issue to Congress, where lawmakers will have a hard time resuming sanctions, Trump can wash his hands of the decision and gain the political cover needed to keep the agreement in place while adopting a tougher stance toward Iran.

Weighing the Cost of a Nuclear Weapon.

Of course, the United States is only half of the JCPOA equation. And though Iran is often portrayed throughout the West as an erratic and unreliable partner, the country — like all nation-states in the global system — is a rational actor whose moves reflect its constraints and imperatives.

Chief among them, for the Islamic republic, is the simple need to survive. Throughout history, Iran has faced the threat of invasion from the west, first from powerful forces in Mesopotamia and then from the state of Iraq, particularly under the rule of Saddam Hussein. Seizing the chance that revolution afforded, Saddam invaded the Islamic republic not long after its establishment in 1979, prompting former Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini to restart the deposed shah’s nuclear weapons program in search of a credible deterrent against Iraq. Vital oil reserves along Iran’s border with Iraq has only heightened its vulnerability in modern times.

With Saddam’s removal from power, Iraq presented more opportunity than risk to Iran, and Tehran began to exert influence over its neighbor’s Shiite leaders. But Iraq’s fate also served as a stark warning: The weapons of mass destruction that were once an asset for Saddam became the liability that led to his downfall. The message was not lost on Iran, which halted most of its nuclear weapons development in 2003, even as it used the facade of the program’s progress to drive a grand bargain with the United States.

This strategy, though quite rational, backfired by encouraging the creation of a powerful sanctions regime that crippled the Iranian economy. Prior to 1979, Iran’s economy was roughly the size of Saudi Arabia’s; today it is only three-fifths as large. As a result, the Islamic republic has struggled to make good on many of the promises that brought it to power. And in a country with a lengthy history of revolution and political upheaval, the popular backlash that sustained hardship tends to generate doesn’t bode well for the government’s self-preservation.

Iran’s leaders, who lack the immunity to widespread discontent that North Korea’s dictatorship enjoys, believe that the greatest threat to the nation’s stability today comes from within. Countering it requires a stronger economy and the careful management of social and political discord — both goals that have reinforced the growing sentiment among Iranians that the pursuit of a nuclear weapons program isn’t worth the steep cost of sanctions. Consequently, Iran is keen to avoid making any rash decisions about its nuclear weapons development. Rather than uniting the United States and its allies by restarting its shuttered program, Tehran will likely keep using the issue to drive the wedge between them even deeper.

A Piece of a Bigger Puzzle.

Iran will enter into any new negotiations over its nuclear program with an eye toward the rest of the international community as well. Iran has little incentive to remain a pariah state, given the extent to which that status has already devastated its economy, and a movement toward diplomatic moderation has blossomed among the country’s leaders since the late 1980s. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is now the standard-bearer for that movement, though the volatile nature of the nation’s politics has hampered his attempts to act on that ideology so far.

Nevertheless, he and his contemporaries have the heft of geopolitics on their side. Though Iran’s rhetoric has traditionally targeted the United States, it is Turkey and Russia that may be more likely to threaten Tehran’s security interests, especially as Washington withdraws from the region. Iran is deeply concerned about Turkey’s resurgence in the lands it previously controlled during the Ottoman Empire, including Iraq and the Levant. And Russia — a country with which Iran has fought numerous wars — has similarly increased its involvement in Tehran’s backyard over the past decade. Detente with an external powerhouse like the United States would certainly improve Iran’s position against both threats.

Saudi Arabia is another regional rival that Iran is sure to watch, particularly given the Sunni kingdom’s close relationship with the United States. Despite that partnership, however, Washington’s strategy of balancing power in the Middle East requires just that: balance. Saudi Arabia’s influence could therefore wane in the coming decades, especially since its prominence is based in oil reserves and the wealth that comes with them. As the Saudi oil industry becomes less lucrative over time, it will call into question the kingdom’s economic vitality — and by extension, its utility as the United States’ most powerful Middle Eastern ally.

Of course, Iran’s economy relies on oil, too. But it is far more diversified, which suggests that it will fare better in a world where oil no longer reigns supreme. Moreover, Iran has the advantage of strategic location. As China works to build land routes through Asia to Europe, it will have to choose whether to pass through Iran or Russia — a decision that Beijing’s natural rivalry with Moscow will make easy. With a quick glance at the map, it is clear how Iran’s position on China’s newest Silk Road would give Washington plenty of opportunities to counter both China and Russia if Tehran were its partner.

A Partnership Checked by Politics

The slow-moving undercurrents of geopolitics can take years to shape domestic policy. In the meantime, Iran and the United States will continue to display their mutual animosity at home. Iran’s powerful hard-line groups, including the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, have staunchly opposed negotiation with the United States. Trump’s recent actions have only reinforced their belief that Washington cannot be trusted, and if Rouhani’s administration offers to discuss scaling back its conventional weapons program, as some have suggested it might, their objections will only grow louder. Until Iran takes true strides toward a more moderate foreign policy, its conservative groups will continue to disrupt any agreement with the United States that stretches beyond its nuclear program.

Back in the United States, Iran’s support for Middle Eastern militant groups and threats to the Persian Gulf have slowed Washington’s attempts to pull back from the region. The reputation Iran has gained among the American public hasn’t made things any easier: Many of Iran’s current leaders were visible figures during the Islamic Revolution, the subsequent hostage incident at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and the talks regarding Iran’s nuclear program, all events that painted a picture of an untrustworthy nation. That paint will only start to chip away when the next generation of political leaders rises to power in both countries.

For now, Iran and the United States have reached a crossroads in their relationship. Many of their long-term imperatives have begun to align. But it remains to be seen how quickly they will override the more immediate national and regional problems that each state now faces. And should the nuclear deal collapse, it could push back the lasting relationship that Iran and the United States have begun to build by another decade.

Iran, Trump and the Art of the Nuclear Deal
is republished with permission of Stratfor.

————————————————

Matthew Bey

About the author

Matthew Bey is an energy and technology analyst for Stratfor, where he monitors a variety of global issues and trends. In particular, he focuses on energy and political developments in OPEC member states and the consequences of such developments on oil producers and the international oil market. Mr. Bey’s work includes studies on the global impact of rising U.S. energy production, the recent fall in oil prices, Russia’s political influence on Europe through energy, and long-term trends in energy and manufacturing.

Mr. Bey is a native of Houston, Texas. He holds a bachelor’s degree from Texas Lutheran University and a master’s degree in mathematics from the University of Texas. See other articles by Matthew Bey here.

Stratfor-Worldview

About Stratfor

Founded in 1996, Stratfor provides strategic analysis and forecasting to individuals and organizations around the world. By placing global events in a geopolitical framework, they help customers anticipate opportunities and better understand international developments. They believe that transformative world events are not random and are, indeed, predictable. See their About Page for more information.

For More Information

Important: Understand the context of Trumps decision — For 50 years Republicans have fought against treaties that brought peace.

If you found this post of use, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See all posts about Iran, about Iran’s conflict with Americaabout nuclear weapons, and especially these…

  1. Iran will have the bomb in 5 years (again) — Forecasts of an Iranian bomb really soon, going back to 1984.
  2. What do we know about Iran’s nuclear ambitions? — US intelligence officials are clear:  not as much as the news media implies.
  3. What does the IAEA know about Iran’s nuclear program? — Their reports bear little resemblance to reports in the news media.
  4. What happens when a nation gets nukes?  Sixty years of history suggests an answer.
  5. What happens if Iran gets nukes? Not what we’ve been told.
  6. Stratfor describes the Middle East – after the Iran deal.
Losing an Enemy: Obama, Iran, and the Triumph of Diplomacy
Available at Amazon.

To better understand the agreement.

Losing an Enemy: Obama, Iran, and the Triumph of Diplomacy by Trita Parsi (Yale University Press, 2017). From the publisher…

“This timely book focuses on President Obama’s strategy toward Iran’s nuclear program and reveals how the historic agreement of 2015 broke the persistent stalemate in negotiations that had blocked earlier efforts.

“The deal accomplished two major feats in one stroke: it averted the threat of war with Iran and prevented the possibility of an Iranian nuclear bomb. Trita Parsi, a Middle East foreign policy expert who advised the Obama White House throughout the talks and had access to decision-makers and diplomats on the U.S. and Iranian sides alike, examines every facet of a triumph that could become as important and consequential as Nixon’s rapprochement with China. Drawing from more than seventy-five in-depth interviews with key decision-makers, including Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, this is the first authoritative account of President Obama’s signature foreign policy achievement.”

17 thoughts on “Stratfor: Trump’s art of wrecking the nuclear deal with Iran

  1. Totally agree with the author on this one. Trumps advocating of cessation from the Iran nucleur deal is driven purely by his desire to roll back Obama’s achievements because he belittled him in public. This personal vendetta is putting world peace at risk and establishing an even bigger gulf between the US and Europe (similar to the relationship that existed under George W. Bush.

    This is a good take by CNN on the dangerous waters the President is taking his country and its forces into: http://edition.cnn.com/2017/10/13/politics/trump-iran-critics-ramifications/index.html

    1. Ivan,

      “Trumps advocating of cessation from the Iran nucleur deal is driven purely by his desire to roll back Obama’s achievements because he belittled him in public.”

      Why do you believe this? The Right has opposed every nuclear arms control agreement, as I said in this post. Why should their opposition to this one be considered as unique.

      And their Right has considered Iran one of the “axis of evil” since 9/11. “Real men go to Iran.” So their desire to replace diplomacy with sanctions — and eventually force — is consistent.

      Considering both — and the generals and defense contractors who are almost all of Trump’s nat security team — I don’t see why Trump’s “desire to roll back Obama’s achievements” provides any explanatory weight. This is just the Right using its electoral victory to advance their policies. I doubt if the most of the other GOP candidates in 2016 would have acted differently as President.

    2. C’mon Larry. Even most Republican Presidents would keep this deal in place. It’s only Trump who is a complete idiot who feels he has to appeal to his ‘base’

    3. Ivan,

      “Even most Republican Presidents would keep this deal in place.”

      Your supporting evidence for that claim? Let’s look at mine.

      Ali Gharib at The National (UAE newspaper): “On Iran, is Trump the most reasonable Republican candidate?“, 25 August 2015 — “If Mr Trump’s star falls back to earth, we’ll have another Republican front-runner who has vowed to ditch the Iran deal with no plan B.”

      Ashley Parker at the NYT: “Republican Candidates Assail Iran Agreements“, 17 Jan 2016.

      William Saletan at Slate: “Is Donald Trump the Only Leading Republican We Can Trust on Iran?“, 19 Jan 2016 — “The Republican front-runner is the sole serious GOP candidate who hasn’t promised to rip up the Iran deal on Day One.”

      There are hundreds of such articles written during the campaign.

    4. Ivan,

      The news media is flooded with those stories. Like this: “Trump is falling apart, and nobody knows what to do about it” in Salon — “A cry for help is coming from the White House. Even Trump’s inner circle say he’s unstable; the danger is growing.”

      I don’t know why anyone is surprised. I and a million others said that the job of President was both beyond Trump’s capacity and probably too stressful. The odds were high of him folding, screwing up so that he would be pressed to leave by the GOP leadership, or get sick/die.

      That the Left looks forward to this is yet another display of their folly. President Pence will prove a formidable far-right force, capable of wielding the GOP’s ownership of all three branches — plus most state and local govts. I’ll bet each day he prays that Trump lasts until 28 Jan 2019, so Pence can serve a full ten years in office. America might look quite different when he retires.

    5. I agree. I don’t think Pence would be much better and I think he is arse-licking Trump whilst preparing for his tilt at the Presidency. Hopefully 2018 mid-terms will castrate Trump but Democrats really need to start working on some viable candidates.

    6. During the campaign, one of the few good things I thought you could say about Trump is that he – and, perhaps, Rand Paul – would be the least likely to start a land war in Iran.

    7. SF,

      Lots of folks were taken in by his populist rhetoric, including his opposition to foreign wars. In this, as in so much else, he has proven to be a faux populist. Much as Obama was a faux progressive.

    8. Let’s see what Congress do. The GOP owes Trump nothing and he has alienated Mitch McConnell. My gut feel is thatvTrump is on his own on this one and the Republicans will keep the deal as it is. Europe, Japan and Russia are going to keep the status quo, and the first two are probably totally convinced that Trump is completely untrustworthy as an international partner.

  2. I’ve long wondered why we have not moved to rapprochement with Tehran given our common enemy of Sunni terror groups. Iran isn’t exactly a bucket of cuddly puppies but they seem both freer and more trustworthy than Saudi Arabia.

    1. SF,

      That is just one of the many great oddities of the mysterious Middle East.

      The terror groups attacking the West are largely Sunni. One of our two big allies in the ME are the Saudi Princes, who are also the largest supporters of those terrorists.

      Our primary activity in the region has been overthrowing secular western-like governments, which are replaced by Islamic theocratic governments. Women and Christians are among the big casualties of our “help”. Oddly, Christians and feminists in America are just fine with that.

      There is a simple explanation for all this. We live in the “crazy years” long ago described by Robert Heinlein.

  3. The Iran Deal, as I understand it, was that we would lift the sanctions give them stuff in exchange for them not doing something we probably couldn’t keep them from doing anyway and which it was pretty much in their interest to do whether we gave them stuff or not.

    So basically,Trump will now stop giving them stuff and they will do whatever it is that they were always going to do. I’m not seeing a problem here. At the end of the day, what actually has changed?

    1. Man who Laughs,

      “they will do whatever it is that they were always going to do. I’m not seeing a problem here. At the end of the day, what actually has changed?”

      That is not correct. There is little evidence that Iran was building a nuke before the deal (see the posts in the For More Info Section). The deal provided sufficient incentive for Iran to not start a nuclear bomb program.

      A newly belligerent US plus our cancelling the deal makes it likely they will go for nukes. I would if in their shoes, given the US proclivity for overthowing regimes for the flimsiest reason (e.g., Libya).

  4. “newly belligerent US plus our cancelling the deal makes it likely they will go for nukes. I would if in their shoes, given the US proclivity for overthowing regimes for the flimsiest reason (e.g., Libya).”

    So if the belligerent US overthrows regimes on the flimsiest of pretexts, then it seems to me that the Iranians, even if never did they ever have a nuclear program, always had a strong incentive to build that bomb. Because even if Obama was dealing in good faith (And remember who it was who brought down Colonel K in Libya), there was always the possibility that he would be replaced by one of those nasty belligerent Right Wing HardLIners who would repudiate the deal. So we were giving them stuff to give up a program they never had in exchange for a promise that they never had much actual incentive to keep. So even if I accept your analysis as correct, I still don;t think that the Deal ever that big of a deal. That’s the lesson of Libya. Sovereign nations have nuclear weapons All other live at the sufferance of the Great Powers. Maybe things shouldn’t be that way, but if I’m the Mullah Magoola, Supreme Poobah Of Iran, that’s how things look from my end. To quote Sergeant Barnes from Platoon, there’s the way it ought to be, and there’s the way it is.

    I’m sure the sanctions will not reimposed. Big Money wants trade with Iran, and the sanctions were never going to dissuade Iran from building a bomb if they saw it as an existential issue. So you can say that Trump hasn’t got a plan B, but on the other hand I don’t see that Obama ever had a plan A.

    1. The Man Who Laughs,

      “always had a strong incentive to build that bomb.”

      Your logic doesn’t matter. Assuming your world view is that of other nations is parochialism run wild.

      What matters is Iran’s logic. They had strong incentives not to do so. To maintain good relations with the rest of world is one reason. Also — Iran signed the nuke non-proliferation treaty — which they appear to take more seriously than the US does its obligations other UN treaties. Americans might find this odd, but such things are taken seriously by some others.

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