Whatever the rhetoric around President Trump’s attempt to trash the Iranian nuclear deal, his withdrawal cannot be based on concern over Iran developing nuclear weapons. The truth is, that even if Iran had at some point planned to develop nuclear weapons – and that has never been definitively proved – the terms of the deal removed any possibility of that happening. Since the signing of the agreement, Iran has complied with all aspects of it – a fact verified repeatedly by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) which conducts the inspections.
Trump began his withdrawal speech with the words: “Today, I want to update the world on our efforts to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.” These are empty words. Not only has he stepped away from the deal that does just that, he is now taking a course of action makes Iranian nuclear weapons more likely, not less. If the other signatories to the deal can’t make it work, then the decision may be taken in Iran that nuclear weapons are ‘necessary’ for their security.
Of course, this is the argument which Britain uses to justify its own nuclear weapons possession. And it’s the argument which North Korea made when it withdrew from the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty after George Bush named it as part of the ‘Axis of Evil’. It saw what happened to Iraq – which didn’t have nuclear weapons – and concluded that it had a ‘deterrent’ need to develop nuclear weapons. Iran may well conclude the same. And that would just be the start of it: Saudi Arabia has already announced it will go down the nuclear road if Iran develops the bomb. Add to this the fact that Israel already possesses nuclear weapons – outside of any inspections regime – and the Middle East will be a nuclear disaster waiting to happen.
The obvious question remains: if you are concerned about a country developing nuclear weapons, why withdraw from an agreement which prevents it from doing so? One is forced to conclude that the withdrawal is not about nuclear weapons; it is about knocking back Iran’s role as a significant regional power, reducing its military power and its political influence. The US may argue that re-imposed sanctions will bring that about, but it seems far more likely that US hawks are gambling on Israel taking provocative military action which the US can then move in on, with overwhelming military force. The scenario appears to be set up to corral Iran into a war, with two nuclear-armed powers. In withdrawing from the agreement, Trump, in President Macron’s words, is ‘opening a Pandora’s box, which is tantamount to war.’
We have seen US wars on the Middle East – indeed, our era has been defined by them – but the dynamic towards war is different on this occasion. Whereas Bush built his coalition of the willing, Trump has gone against his chief allies; even Britain is no longer hanging on the US coat-tails. Trump has added this unilateral withdrawal to others – most notably the Paris climate agreement – and demonstrated his contempt for international law and institutions. The Iran nuclear deal is a formal international agreement, endorsed by the Security Council of the United Nations, and it cannot be set aside without undermining the UN and the international community.
The big question now is whether the remaining signatories to the deal can keep it in place without the US. They have certainly expressed the intention of doing so but it may come with a heavy economic price. The US will punish foreign companies operating in Iran if they have business dealings with the US or use dollar transactions. French Finance Minister Bruno Le Marie has complained that it is ‘not acceptable’ for the US to play ‘economic policeman of the planet’. True, but Trump will nevertheless economically brutalise the EU and other signatories to prevent them trading with Iran. The outcome of such tactics is unknown – destabilising at the very least – but it appears that Trump doesn’t really care. He is out on a limb, with just Israel and Saudi Arabia as partners, risking war of terrible proportions, trashing the longstanding western alliance.
But Trump’s concerns – and ambitions – don’t lie only in the Middle East. On the contrary, his new defence strategy states that the US will compete for dominance against its long-term strategic competitors – Russia and China – now designated as ‘revisionist powers’ that wish to reshape the world consistent with their ‘authoritarian model’. ‘Rogue regimes’ are still a focus for concern but the ‘war on terror’ is downgraded – no longer the central military priority. The new approach extends Obama’s focus on China to encompass the entire Eurasian landmass. With the emphasis now away from asymmetrical warfare with non-state actors to war with major powers, the risk of nuclear confrontation and war is increased.
So how does Iran fit in? Is this the last phase of Bush’s war on the Middle East? Or knocking out a key Russian ally in the soft underbelly of the Eurasian landmass? Whatever the rationale, the danger of this moment cannot be underestimated.