Most objective historians consider the Iran nuclear deal to be a signature achievement of the Obama Administration. It was not a perfect deal, but it satisfied most of the concerns of most of the nations upon most of the terms that most of the participants considered to be important and which all could then embrace. It was accomplished at a historic table that had never been assembled before. And all of the nations agreed that it was a brilliant diplomatic feat that clearly belonged to the United States, attributable in substantial part to the skill of Secretary of State John Kerry and the international leadership of President Barack Obama.
So, with his eyes tightly shut and his fingers plugging both ears, Trump stepped right up to kill the deal.
After refusing to admit that Iran was in full compliance with all terms of the agreement, and against all advice from the moderate voices from everywhere, Trump abruptly announced in May of 2018 that he was pulling the United States out of the deal. Trump followed this in early November with the re-imposition of stringent economic sanctions against Iran. The thinking, as announced by Trump, is that this will force the Iranian leaders to come back to the table and agree to a stronger agreement.
Never mind that strict sanctions have been tried before and seldom work. Never mind that so far, there has been no indication of any interest by Iran in cooperating with any of Trump’s unilateral demands. Never mind that so long as the present Ayatollah remains as supreme leader, there is little likelihood of any change, no matter what the more moderate voices might want.
The tragic consequence is that Trump paid no attention to what Hassan Rouhani, the moderately inclined, Scottish trained lawyer who is the current president of Iran, had managed to accomplish on his end in bringing about the adoption of the deal by Iran. Trump seems to ignore or be oblivious to the progress that has been made within Iran and to the consequences to that progress that will probably result from his actions.
Rouhani had been the lead negotiator for Iran during the negotiations of 2003-2005, when a temporary suspension of the nuclear program was arranged. He resigned from the effort in 2005 when the ultra-conservative hard-liner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was elected president of Iran. In 2013, Rouhani beat the conservative successor designated by Ahmadinejad to become the seventh president of Iran. He then convinced the supreme leader to stay out of the way to the renewed negotiations for a nuclear compromise. He installed the more moderate Mohammad Javad Zarif as Iran’s foreign minister, to head the negotiations for Iran. The sudden moderation in the leadership of Iran, away from the hawkish doctrinaire of Ahmadinejad, and with the tacit agreement of the supreme leader to keep silent, the way was paved for the negotiations to be restarted.
Although Rouhani had faced stiff resistance from within Iran throughout the years of negotiations, with the announcement of a successful agreement and the anticipated cessation of economic sanctions, Rouhani’s popularity in Iran shot up. He was re-elected president over the more conservative candidate backed by the Ayatollah in 2017. For the first time in over 35 years, ever since relations with Iran were cut off in 1980, a pathway appeared for the possibility of reopening discussions with the west.
It was only an expectancy, for the supreme leader, the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is a hard line, hawkish cleric who, under the complicated political structure that no one in the west seems to understand, can exercise controlling influence over the presidency and parliamentary operation of the country at any time. Rouhani had persuaded the Ayatollah to step aside during the negotiations, but the ultra-conservative factions continues to be strongly critical of any deal made with the international powers. But at least the formal agreement was a step in the right direction.
Trump’s action ends any chance of this progress. Although Rouhani continues in his efforts to work with Russia, China, and the European powers to salvage any part of the deal that he can, and he has announced that Iran would continue to adhere to the requirements of the deal, Rouhani’s domestic opponents are clamoring for his resignation. One conservative news outlet likened him to the disgraced former British prime minister Neville Chamberlain. Despite the steps by the E.U. and other nations to uphold the deal, Iran’s economy is in severe stress. Iran’s currency has plunged in value against the dollar, bringing huge price increases in everything from cell phones to medical supplies. Many European companies are abandoning Iran rather than risk being curtailed by the United States. Given the rift between the Rouhani faction and the conservative followers of the Ayatollah, it is unlikely that any meaningful capitulation to Trump’s demands will occur.
The huge problem is the lack of a realistic, attainable declaration of policy by the United States towards the middle East. This whole thing was a hipshot from Trump without listening to any advice and without any evaluation of consequences. His foreign policy for the Middle East is so muddled with exceptions and inconsistencies as to be unintelligible. Trump’s declaration to Iran is an unrealistic statement of demands – it is not an invitation to negotiate, it is a demand for capitulation, and one that most observers predict is destined to fail.
So much remains uncertain. What is our policy towards Europe going to be as events unfold in Iran? What will we do if the European allies do not back the U.S. but continue to work against us to maintain open trading channels with Iran? Will the U.S. actually apply sanctions against its own allies if this happens? What of the waivers that the U.S. is granting (to South Korea, Japan, India, China, Taiwan, and Turkey, among others) – what is the basis for these exemptions and how long will these last? What will the reaction be of those not receiving waivers? With the sanctions and exceptions, and the workarounds coming out of Europe, it is obvious that there is going to be a ton of money to be made – some legitimately and barrels full under the tables. Is anybody watching the money?
Unless Trump is persuaded to change direction and moderate his demands, it appears the inevitable result will be an unstable Iran in the midst of an unstable middle East, with the same problems we face in North Korea, only worse. The economic impact of the continuation of sanctions by the United States, without participation by the rest of the Western powers, will serve only to impoverish Iran, drive an impenetrable wedge into relations with the United States, and cement relations with Russia and probably China.
The upshot of it all? It is a mess, and unlikely to improve anytime in the foreseeable future.