Some of Donald Trump’s words and actions, however egregious, can be attributed to some clear motive, such as pleasing his base or protecting himself. A few are downright mystifying. Prominent among these are the US president’s belligerence towards Iran. Ever since he came to power, Trump has been determined to undo the 2015 nuclear deal with that country despite many of his top advisors counseling him against it.
Over the last week, US secretary of state Rex Tillerson and the chairman of the joint chiefs, General Joseph Dunford have both affirmed that Iran is still honouring its commitments.
But that has not stopped Trump. In his UN General Assembly speech on September 19, the US president called the deal with Iran an ‘embarrassment’ and ‘one of the worst and most one-sided transactions the United States has ever entered into.’ On Saturday he tweeted that ‘Iran just test-fired a Ballistic Missile capable of reaching Israel’ when in fact it had simply released old footage of a failed missile test from January.
On October 15, Trump is supposed to tell congress if Iran is still complying with the deal. As this blog had noted, during the last review three months ago, Trump agreed to certify Iran’s compliance only with the greatest reluctance. There’s no telling what Trump will do in October, but he enjoys little international leverage with which to pressure Iran. The other five signatories to the deal- China, Russia, Germany, the UK, and France- continue to support it.
Trump’s most likely recourse, even if he does not formally declare Iran non-compliant, is to impose sanctions on its oil exports. President Obama had done just that in 2012, successfully cutting Iranian crude exports by about a million barrels a day to 1.5 million. But this only worked because the US was able to build a large coalition of buyer nations (including India) that was willing to switch from Iran to other suppliers.
But the current occupant of the White House cannot repeat his predecessor’s performance. There will be little support for fresh sanctions as long as Iran continues to comply with its end of the deal. Major buyers like India, China, and the EU are likely to ignore US pressure and continue to do business with Iran. The end result of such an ill-thought out move could be that the US stands alone while Iran continues to wage its cold war against Saudi Arabia in the Middle East.