The nuclear deal with Iran is often referred to as the ‘P5+1’, but now it is now missing the one. After years of threats, Donald Trump has finally announced the end of the nuclear deal despite several last-ditch efforts by European leaders and appeals from US lawmakers. Trump announced the imposition of pre-2015 economic sanctions, thus violating the original agreements and leaving the deal in tatters, at least for the moment.
Yet, in doing so, Trump is flying against the tide of public opinion. Not only is the European Union set to defy him, but a majority of Americans actually support the deal and even members of his own party wanted at least some forethought to what comes next. Even Trump’s base isn’t as riled up over the deal as it is over health care, gun, immigration and so on. So why now?
There are several reasons. Shredding Obama’s legacy is certainly a powerful motivation on Trump’s part, spurred on by his pivot toward Netanyahu and his new advisors John Bolton and Mike Pompeo, both of whom are extreme anti-Iranian hawks. While’s Trump’s desire to tear up the deal was pretty muted in the early days, it was still there. Now, he has torn up another milestone of Obama’s legacy and possibly cheered up many Republicans who opposed the deal in the first place.
The problem is, no one else is happy to see the deal being shattered. The administration doesn’t have an answer to the question ‘what next?’ and if it does, it’s a tricky one. Doesn’t the US now step up its military forces? Does it impose even harsher sanctions? Will Iran attempt to build a nuclear weapon anyway? If it does, what do we do?
It also sets Trump on yet another collision course with several powerful factions. The first is Europe which has been adamant that the deal is a good thing and has been willing to salvage it. It is even possible that they will defy US sanctions, creating a major rift in the trans-Atlantic alliance, but it’s is doubtful whether the deal will survive America’s withdrawal. Europe will try its best, but banks and financial bodies with a stake in the US will be reluctant to oppose sanctions.
It will certainly be a blow to Boris Johnson, Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron who all urged Trump to keep the deal in place. They have already been bruised by Trump’s various attacks on their nations, his disparaging remarks about the NATO alliance and his tantrums on Twitter. Once again, trying to engage with Trump proves pointless. If it came down to war or even escalation, how deep will Europe’s defiance run?
Trump’s decision is also a mixed blessing to Iran who has suffered street protests against government rule. Destroying the deal might weaken anti-government protests, providing the old excuse that the West has loaded their economic trouble on them, while dealing a body blow to the moderate faction in Iran. Hassan Rouhani got a lot of credit for creating the deal and now he’s taking the flak. This is bad for America because if the moderates lose their grip, the hardline faction, backed by the Revolutionary Guards, will take over and tensions in the Gulf will get that much worse.
In fact, Trump is ironically creating a possible future war with Iran by stoking extremists in both the US and in Iran. He is also giving Iran the excuse to restart their nuclear weapons programme. With the agreement in place, Iran was abiding by the terms but now, all bets are off. If a nuclear bomb is created, how will Trump answer it?
Speaking of nuclear bombs, what will happen with North Korea now? Like Iran, they will feel anxiety over Trump’s backpedaling, wondering whether they can trust the man to stick to a deal. It would hardly be surprising if North Korea used the deal’s destruction as an excuse to back out of talks or escalate tensions again. To both nations, nuclear weapons are the key to long-term stability and a deterrent against foreign aggression, at least in their eyes. To give them up, especially to a reckless liar, would be madness.
Of course, Iran is not wholly innocent and its influence in the Syrian Civil War is well-established. Its other actions are a little less clear-cut, but it would certainly not surprise anyone if actions in Yemen have Iran’s fingerprints over them. Having said that, Iran is not the only destabilizing factor. Saudi Arabia and Israel also have blood on their hands and their own acts are hardly encouraging for peace in the region. Netanyahu might cheer Trump’s decision, but it’s doubtful his people will thank him for leading them into a war with a growing regional power.
In fact, Trump is doing it again: letting his own reckless actions stir up tensions in an already volatile region and almost pushing for a major conflict. Whatever Iran’s actions, it makes no sense to throw the baby out with the bathwater and treat them like the big bad again. To do so will only encourage further turmoil, both in the Middle East and elsewhere.
Perhaps Europe can keep the deal alive and perhaps the moderates might stick around long enough for common sense to return to the White House. Maybe, just maybe, a new president will renegotiate the deal. It’s a hell of a long shot though. America might regain its sense, but it might never again command trust and respect from its allies nor will its future dealings with old enemies go so smoothly.
Obama worked long and hard to craft the deal and now it is shattered by broken promises and bad faith. Whatever happens now, Trump must own the events that follow.