Donald Trump had one job. On Monday, he was supposed to tell his congress whether Iran was complying with its obligations under the nuclear deal. This was a routine procedure, one repeated every three months, ever since the deal was struck in 2015. By all accounts, Iran was fulfilling its commitments: Trump’s own advisors told him so last Wednesday, making his job easier. But according to reporting in The New York Times, the US president hesitated, and instead chose to argue with his secretary of state, defense secretary, and national security advisor, spending ‘55 minutes of the meeting telling them he did not want to.’
Trump eventually seemed to relent, while his advisors agreed to work out a new strategy to deal with Tehran. But when presented with the updated strategy proposal on Monday morning, Trump resisted once again, according to an official quoted in the story. The US president agreed ‘only late in the day after a final meeting in the Oval Office, in effect telling his advisers that he was giving them another chance and this time they had to deliver.’
Barely twelve hours after the White House certified Iran’s compliance, the US government announced sanctions against 18 individuals and entities involved in ‘missile development, weapons procurement, and software theft.’
The new sanctions are primarily directed at Iran’s ballistic missiles programme. On June 18, Iran fired seven Zolfaghar missiles at ISIS targets in Syria in retaliation for ISIS attacks in Tehran on June 7. The missile attack also seemed to serve as a signal to Iran’s arch rival Saudi Arabia, which is well within the range of Iran’s weapons.
This is the second time Trump has certified Iran’s compliance, but his reluctance seems only to have grown. There’s little telling what he will choose to do during the next review, three months from now.
It’s also not clear what Trump has against the nuclear agreement. While he has, with characteristic eloquence, called it a “bad deal”, the US president has not mentioned any specific reservations, aside from the perception that the lifting of sanctions gives Tehran more room for maneuver, both geopolitically and economically.
It’s important to note here that the 2015 deal was only intended to end Iran’s potential to build nuclear weapons, not address its behaviour in the region. While the agreement allows the US to impose new sanctions like the ones announced on Tuesday, it prohibits countries from reinstating old sanctions imposed before the nuclear deal.
Trump seems to be considering two options. One is to ignore his advisors and scrap the deal, perhaps in three months’ time. This would be a disaster. Iran would resume enriching uranium and try to develop nuclear weapons it can mate with its ballistic missiles. Any American attack on Iran’s dispersed and well-protected nuclear facilities, even if successful, would not stop the Iranians from rebuilding their nuclear programme.
Trump’s second option seems to be to leave the nuclear deal intact and tighten the screws on Iran in other ways. Tuesday’s sanctions could be the first small steps towards inflicting pain on Iran comparable to the pre-deal years. Under such circumstances, there are indications Iran might feel it gained nothing from the deal and move to scrap it.
On Sunday Iran’s foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif told CNN’s Fareed Zakaria the US was violating the ‘spirit’ of the deal. On Thursday, Trump ironically echoed Zarif, saying that the Iranians were ‘not living up to the spirit of the agreement,’ and were ‘doing a tremendous disservice’ to it.
An Iranian decision to quit the deal would allow Trump to claim that country has acted in bad faith all along, and unleash a fresh round sanctions, not to mention military strikes.
However, there remains one fundamental problem with both options. The pre-2015 sanction against Iran worked because the US was able to get other countries (including a reluctant India) on board. If Trump sabotages the nuclear agreement, his diplomats will not find a sympathetic audience when they lobby the world to reimpose new sanctions. Russia, China, and India will say no, and even many of America’s NATO allies are likely to demur when they consider how shabbily Trump has treated them.
In May, Trump made high profile visits to Saudi Arabia and Israel. Apparently enamoured by his hosts, Trump has since vigourously sided with them. Last month he tweeted in support of Saudi Arabia’s blockade of Qatar, much to the dismay of his own officials.
Both Saudi Arabia and Israel have publicly opposed the nuclear deal, though in reality, they have benefited from it. Their real concerns stem from wanting to contain Iran’s growing influence in the Middle East. As one expert puts it, the real stakes are for ‘the regional balance of power, not the bomb.’
Saudi and Israeli concerns are not without basis and are shared by other countries in the region including Jordan and Lebanon. Iran effectively dominates the Iraqi government, it has raised and led militias to fight on the side of Bashar Al-Assad in Syria, and continues to be the chief sponsor of Hezbollah.
However, for Trump to gain leverage over Iran and influence its behaviour, he will need a far subtler approach. For one, he should stop railing against a 159-page agreement that we can be sure he’s never read. Two, Trump can continue to dangle carrots like the planned $3 billion contract for Boeing planes. Three, he can occasionally impose carefully targeted sanctions like the ones announced on Tuesday and remove them when possible. And finally, he can continue to support his country’s allies in the regions without necessarily taking sides in the Middle East’s interminable conflicts.