On May 8, President Donald Trump framed the withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) as a dire necessity, calling attention to the “rotten structure of the current agreement” and promising a new era of allied engagement to devise a more robust deal to constrain Iranian ambitions in the region. Trump’s decision, however, is strategically incoherent.
On the one hand, he is preaching the old neoconservative rhetoric – doubling down on hawkish policies towards Iran, signalling regime change, and undertaking unilateral US actions against Iran without the support of key historical allies. On the other, he is practising Fortress America on the cheap – pledging to reduce American commitments to the Middle East, announcing removal of troops from Syria, and demanding US allies in the Middle East share the financial burden of American security umbrellas.
If President Trump does indeed wish to “renegotiate” a better deal, he will find it very difficult to do so without international support. No countries – outside the literal handful of Saudi Arabia, Israel, the UAE, and Bahrain – have supported the US withdrawal from the JCPOA. On the other hand, most of the rest of the world are staunchly supportive of the nuclear deal. The EU High Representative pledged to preserve the JCPOA and underlined the importance of common interests and multilateral approaches to resolving outstanding international issues.
The amount of capital – human, diplomatic, and financial – that the US spent, to enable the “toughest multilateral sanctions in history,” in the words of former US Secretary of State John Kerry, is difficult to overestimate. These costs included committing vast internal bureaucratic resources to pursue a complex sanctions regime, and in the international arena, engaging in lobbying campaigns with heavyweights such as China and Russia to pass UN Security Council resolutions against Iran that these countries strongly opposed. Fifteen years of heavy costs incurred by the US and allies have been wasted for no tangible return, all while reopening the Pandora’s box of nuclear non-proliferation concerns regarding Iran.
The deal will likely limp on in the short run, sustained by the diplomatic perseverance of the EU and Iranian calculations. However, in the future, the EU will likely be unable to maintain this role in the face of forceful US dissent. In other words, their ability to provide significant economic relief to Iran against the likely wave of US secondary sanctions will be minimal and thus result in the dismemberment of the deal.
The result of these actions will be a stung but not seriously weakened Iran exploiting divisions within Western allies, some of whom are anxious to slap band-aids onto what remains of the deal. Iran will also adopt a more aggressive regional posture to dispel notions that the deal has weakened them and due to the ascendance of domestic hardline political currents which were opposed to the deal from the outset.
Iran is unlikely to take this standing still, aware that European powers will be unable to provide their promised economic relief. Stymied in its nuclear programme, it is likely to escalate its presence in Syria and its support for militia groups across the region, including in Iraq, to increase its leverage against the American military presence that surrounds it in the Middle East. The termination of the nuclear deal has almost certainly put a flint to the regional tinder at a time when international arbiters and great power diplomacy are in short supply.
If Trump expects Iran to abandon its regional activities – including over ballistic missiles and engagement in Iraq and Syria – it may find Iran moving towards the other extreme: furthering those measures to increase its security guarantees. Iran would only be willing to potentially trade off some of those behaviours if it believed that the US could be trustworthy in upholding its end of the bargain and had no inclination towards regime change. Since none of those prerequisites exists, Iran is unlikely to engage in a new “grand bargain” with a power that just unilaterally pulled out of an international deal to which Iran was complying as testified by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and all European powers.
Ayatollah Khamenei’s next move, as indicated in a recent speech, will be to extend and exploit this moment of hardline vindication to undermine the credibility of the Europeans by turning all eyes on the EU powers and placing the onus on them for economic guarantees. This puts Iran in the clear, allowing it to use the US violation and withdrawal from the agreement – alongside European ineffectiveness – to move beyond the deal. This move is likely eastwards. Ayatollah Khamenei has voiced a preference “for East over West”, in particular towards Russia and China, rival great powers that may offer a counterbalance to the US. As Russia’s interests within the region increasingly coincide with Iran, the Iran-Russia partnership will further constrain the US’ space to manoeuvre and come to dictate the nature and pace of regional developments, such as the Syrian war.
Finally, the withdrawal marks a turning point in the post-revolutionary history of modern Iran as the first major bitter experience of the country’s youth with the US and the first direct public negotiation with America – inflaming Iranian nationalism, undermining the value of engaging the West and shifting the domestic discourse to a hardline position. The Iranian public will bear the brunt of the re-imposed sanctions regime, and as polls earlier this year indicated, are placing the blame squarely on the US. This is a gift to hardline Iranian elites as it undermines the platform of moderate President Hassan Rouhani. Not only have hardliners been vindicated, but the likely shift towards hardline ascendancy in Iranian politics suggests a closing of the door on diplomacy with the West.