On October 13th, President Trump refused to certify that Iran was complying with the Iranian Nuclear Deal Framework negotiated between the United States, Iran and various other powers in 2015. The agreement is not repealed, however. After the President’s announcement, congress was given a 60 day window to respond with sanctions on the Iranian government for noncompliance.
The President has extraordinary disdain for this framework. During his campaign, he repeatedly called it, “the worst deal ever.” While by no means a perfect agreement, scrapping it would push the Middle East into even greater instability, embolden hardliners in Tehran, erode American credibility on the world stage and increase the risk of another war in the region.
The most potent criticism of the Iran deal is that the agreement will not stop Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. However, the chief intent of this agreement was to stop such a scenario from occurring in the first place, and given its provisions, it does an adequate job in fulfilling that role.
Under the agreement, inspectors from the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency, the IAEA, have access to regular inspections of 18 Iranian nuclear sites. IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano claims, “we have the strongest verification regime in Iran” in regards to these provisions.
On seven separate occasions, the IAEA has claimed that Iran’s stockpiles of enriched uranium do not exceed the cap set by the framework. The organization also reported that Tehran disabled thousands of centrifuges that could be used to construct a nuclear weapon. Even before America’s decertification, the White House declared Iran to be in full compliance on two separate occasions.
Indeed, the rationale behind the Trump administration’s decision has little to do with the provisions of the nuclear agreement itself. US Ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, pointed to Iranian arms smuggling, ballistic missile tests, support of Hezbollah in Lebanon and Houthi rebels in Yemen as justification for decertification. She argued that these actions undermined US national security.
Of course, none of these actions are in violation with Iran deal. The framework only entails Tehran giving up the path to a Nuclear weapon in exchange for the lifting of sanctions. Ambassador Haley’s concerns have far more to do with geopolitical posturing.
For the sake of argument, let’s assume that the administration is correct in viewing these actions as destabilizing. In a responding effort to sanctions in projecting strength and saving face, Iranian foreign policy will further pressure US interests in the region. The Iranians could hasten development and testing of ballistic missile systems and strengthen ties with regional proxies such as Hezbollah to send a message that sanctions will not cripple their power projection capabilities.
This anger has potential to grow considering that the US recently imposed and expanded sanctions on Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps under the justification that it was a terrorist organization. The IRGC is not just a military force, it also plays a significant role in Iran’s domestic economy, building infrastructure and financing businesses among other activities. This round of sanctions is particularly alarming since it targets any group or individual that does business with the IRGC. Considering that 5,000 business alone are engaged with the Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Khatam al-Anbiya construction company, these sanctions will cast a wide net over the Iranian economy.
While Iranian anger and backlash at the grass roots level will ensue, these sanctions will incentivize the Iranians look for economic partnership and trade elsewhere, further isolating the US. Already, Russian and Chinese investment in the Islamic Republic has generated significant growth in the domestic economy. In hopes of becoming the transport crossroads of Eurasia, Iran has ramped up infrastructure development with Chinese and Russian help. In August, the Russia and Iran signed a $2.5 billion deal in railcar production. In an ambitious effort to recreate the ancient silk road, China has also invested heavily in Iran. As the country’s largest trading partner, the world’s second largest economy is busy modernizing roads, rail and other infrastructure projects to link Iran with central Asia and China. In addition to the Russians and the Chinese, the Europeans have no interest in isolating Iran economically. When President Trump resorted to decertification, the EU scrambled to save the Iran nuclear agreement due in part to major stakes European companies now have in the Iranian economy. Airbus alone intends on investing £25 billion in Iran.
Therefore, sanctions will embolden Iranian opposition to US interests in the region due to perceived economic warfare on our part and a feeling of confident security due to other powers’ continued economic integration with the country. In other words, we will experience the negative impacts of sanctions-heightened tension-without any positive impacts of isolation since we are the only major power pushing for sanctions. Far from isolating Iran, sanctions only isolate us and reduce leverage in working with partners on Iran due to a wide divergence of economic policy toward the Islamic Republic.
Indeed, sanctions and withdrawal encapsulates a loss of American brokerage capital on the world stage. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif commented, “Nobody else will trust any U.S. administration to engage in any long-term negotiation because the length of any commitment, the duration of any commitment, from now on with any U.S. administration would be the remainder of the term of that president.” Why would the Iranians have any incentive to come back to the negotiating table given the short term nature and inconsistency of our commitments? This lesson bodes for other crises in the world. President Trump makes no secret of his anger toward North Korea’s recent nuclear and missile tests. Why would this pariah state have any incentive for reducing its nuclear stockpile after witnessing this spectacle with Iran?
Perhaps the President’s decision chiefly stems from an intense anger toward his predecessor and by extension, his legacy. I disagree with much of President Obama’s policies, however I am willing to admit he was not wrong in every area. His deal with Iran was in fact perhaps the best decision in his entire presidency. Without it, relations between the rising power of the middle east and the United States are destined to reach an abyss. Iran will hunker down and foster a mindset of increasing resentment to the US that will generate a crescendo instability through fault lines between the two powers such as Iranian intervention in Syria and support for Hezbollah in Lebanon. As Iran adapts to what increasingly resembles a middle east cold war, America will have little influence in forcing Iran’s hand long term, given its powerful military and economic support networks throughout Eurasia. President Trump should take a step back and adapt a more flexible, open mindset in US-Iranian relations that is not bound by blind hatred of everything his predecessor has done.