This past week, after securing the Infinity Stones he needed, Donald Trump pulled the US out of the Iran Nuclear Deal (pictured below):
I wrote a piece about the pros and cons of the deal, formally titled the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). I did my best to cover the essential points, so check it out if you want a refresher on what the deal was.
I’m not here today to talk about the pros and cons of leaving the JCPOA. That’s a fact we’re going to live with, like it or not. Today I’m going do something I rarely do: tell what I think happens next.
Some things worth considering:
1.) For now, the JCPOA still exists, just without the US.
Other nations besides the US were involved in negotiating the JCPOA. I’m not aware of any others yet that have expressed a desire to leave it. The EU has signaled a desire to try to salvage it without the US, and Iran seems to wish to try. But they themselves might leave it if those negotiations fail. China and Russia may also make efforts.
The US is reimposing the sanctions that the JCPOA lifted. But as I pointed out before, US business with Iran is a very small portion of their economy. It would be very surprising if Iran budged just from US sanctions.
Most of these points I’ve heard others make, but it brings me to my next, central point, which I have not heard anyone make yet:
2). We should expect a campaign of “maximum pressure” similar to that against North Korea.
This will involve military threats.
One reason is that more pressure will be required to make Iran want to negotiate with the US after a breach of our commitment.
I also want to say a word about trust in this matter: the JCPOA wasn’t built on trust, as President Obama correctly pointed out. Why should its replacement require it?
Also, though, a pattern is emerging of the way Donald Trump conducts diplomacy, the same way he conducts business transactions. He employs all available leverage, even if it means entering into (or beyond) ethical gray areas, and certainly beyond the realm of nicety. And especially when he considers the other party’s concerns invalid, as he seems to in Iran’s case.
Do you remember when the Obama administration, discussing the JCPOA negotiations, said, “all options are still on the table.” And people gasped because this vaguely implied a threat. I think almost no one remembers that, but the tweets we will see over the next year or so will be much more memorable.
I’m going to skirt the question of just war theory, and ask: will “rocket man/fire and fury” rhetoric work to bring Iran to renegotiate?
If you’ve read what I wrote about Trump’s threats against North Korea, you might be surprised by my answer here. I think gunboat diplomacy in the vein of Commodore Matthew Perry (pictured below making landfall on his famous voyage), has less chance to backfire here.
It’s morally debatable, but I expect it to have more effect than in the North Korean situation, and it could compensate for the disunity of the sanctions system. Why so?
North Korea’s nuclear program was already up and running. Iran is far less able to inflict strategically meaningful damage with any sort of counter attack. The “tough” approach had more chance to backfire with North Korea because of its existing WMD capabilities, and it appears not to have backfired. The fact that this approach was even employed against a nuclear-armed state also tells Iran, “racing for the bomb won’t save you.”
Iran doesn’t even have a protector the way Syria does with Russia. The response to airstrikes on Iranian nuclear program targets would likely resemble the response to strikes on Syrian chemical program targets: angry words, maybe also some flare-ups with Hezbollah. Except unlike in Syria, the US wouldn’t have to de-conflict the airspace with advance warning. The only question of effectiveness is whether the intel is correct and complete, and whether the bombs get deep enough.
I’m not sure this is how it should go down, just how it would go down. And the Iranians realize this. They can think far enough ahead to avoid it, hence one nudge toward renegotiation.
3.) And then what?
If the Trump administration really wants a deal that addresses the JCPOA’s weaknesses in the nuclear area (military site inspections, inspections on short notice, ballistic missile development), AND addresses Iran’s regional proxy activities, they really have their work cut out. If they really want the best deal possible, they’ll need to bring a new multilateral effort to bear, much like China was brought into the sanctions regime against North Korea. I could see the administration using tariffs and NATO as bargaining chips to try to bring Europe back on board.
US and Israeli pressure by themselves seem unlikely to achieve much better than the JCPOA.
And if the administration really wants regime change, they’ve already laid the groundwork for a half-cocked casus belli down the line.