So Trump violated the Iran deal, now what?

So Trump violated the Iran deal, now what?
Comment: Israel and Saudi Arabia are the only winners in a situation that leaves the US significantly weakened, write Behnam Gharagozli, Jon Roozenbeek and Adrià Salvador Palau.
6 min read
The EU is already discussing how to mitigate the consequences of his decision [Getty]
Yesterday, President Donald Trump announced that the US will be leaving the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), commonly known as the Iran nuclear deal.

The consequences of his decision will
reverberate throughout the international diplomatic landscape for years to come, regardless of how the other signing parties might react.

Trump's unilateral withdrawal from the deal comes as little surprise, acting - as has - on a longstanding campaign promise. 

In addition, recent accusations levelled by Benjamin Netanyahu against Iran that it had lied about its nuclear programme struck a chord in Washington, not least because Trump has surrounded himself more and more with Iran hawks, such as national security advisor John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. In Trump's own words:

"At the heart of the Iran deal was a giant fiction, that a murderous regime desired only a peaceful nuclear programme. Today we have definitive proof that this Iranian promise was a lie. Last week, Israel published intelligence documents [...] conclusively showing the Iranian regime and its history of pursuing nuclear weapons."

Trump, and other opponents of the JCPOA are especially miffed at the deal's sunset provisions; some restrictions on Iran's nuclear programme are due to expire in 2030.

Trump has essentially allowed Tel Aviv and Riyadh's interests to dictate American foreign policy

This, the deal's critics argue, will give Iran free rein to continue pursuing nuclear weapons after their expiration. It is also true, however, that the parties to the deal might renew it anytime during the next decade, automatically extending such provisions. The idea that Iran will definitely pursue a nuclear weapon after 2030 if nothing is done about the sunset provisions today, is at best misleading.

Another possible reason for Trump's decision is to distract from his domestic quagmires.

With the Mueller
investigation into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia picking up speed, and the recent FBI raid of Trump's personal lawyer Michael Cohen's office ruffling his feathers, Trump is becoming increasingly embroiled in legal troubles.

Israel's Benjamin Netanyahu, meanwhile, is facing
similar problems with corruption charges at home. In cases like these, an external threat can be an excellent antidote to domestic disapproval, and both Trump and Netanyahu are certainly no strangers to deflection.

However, despite Netanyahu's keynote-like presentation of 'intelligence findings' on Iran's past nuclear dealings last week, it's safe to say that Trump didn't cancel the deal because Iran is secretly building a nuclear weapon.

In his announcement, Trump avoided accusing Iran of building a nuclear weapon right now and instead pointed to its "history" of deceit.

This was also acknowledged by EU representative for foreign affairs Federica Mogherini: "What I have seen from the first reports is that Prime Minister Netanyahu has not put into question Iran's compliance with the JCPOA commitments, meaning post-2015 nuclear commitments."

The question on everyone's mind right now, is of course, "what comes next?".

First of all, the US' decision to violate the deal doesn't automatically make it defunct.

The other parties to the JCPOA (ie. China, Russia and the EU) have made no indication they will pull out of the deal, and the EU is scrambling to do what it can to preserve it

There are scenarios in which all signatory parties, despite their other geopolitical disagreements, continue along the same path, just without the US.

Iran has said that it would stay in the deal even if the US leaves, contradicting its previous position. The other signatories, particularly the EU and Russia, are anxious to let the deal stand.

Iran could use this willingness to extract concessions from the EU, Russia and China that would compensate for the loss of revenue gained from trading with the US.

Trump has severely damaged American credibility, strengthened hardliners in Iran and marginalised its moderates

Iran might also decide to sit it out for a while until Trump is gone; after all, it's Trump, not the entirety of the Republican party, that cancelled the deal.

Given that the renewal of US sanctions against Iran effectively means that American companies are
banned from the money spigot, economic pressures on Trump (or his replacement) may be sufficient to prompt the US to reconsider its decision.

Trump has a history of making strong statements and then backing away from them (on the
NRA and gun control, TPP and others). It's also not unthinkable that Trump would eventually decide not to actually get out of the deal, but merely balk a few times and demand some cosmetic changes.

Read more: Netanyahu's Iran gobbledynuke

Another scenario to consider is the growing possibility of on the ground conflict. In his speech, Trump insisted on Iran belonging to "its people"; a proud nation held hostage by a dictatorship, and his allusions to regime change were palpable. Given the proliferation of pro-Israel Iran hawks in Trump's cabinet, attacks on Iran through America's proxies and allies in the region, are not entirely unthinkable.

Despite this disconcerting prospect, an all-out war is unlikely.

Much more probable is that Trump's actions will strengthen hardliners both in Iran and in the US, and put diplomacy-oriented moderates on the sidelines.

By getting out of the deal, the US is giving up crucial leverage that will be hard to regain

After all, they were the ones who pushed for and negotiated the agreement in the first place. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is unlikely to sanction another round of negotiations with the US in the near future, thus putting Iranian president Hassan Rouhani in a tough position.

Meanwhile, the US is isolating itself by deliberately disengaging from the international community. By getting out of the deal, it's giving up crucial leverage that will be hard to regain.

What is worse, the
sanctions that Trump has bragged about imposing on Iran suffer from the law of diminishing returns.

One of the big reasons why Iran came to the negotiating table to agree to the JCPOA was because of multilateral
sanctions that were coordinated among the United States and the international community. It's unlikely that Trump will be able to rally support from international partners for another round of sanctions.

In short, by unilaterally withdrawing from the JCPOA, Trump has severely damaged American credibility, strengthened hardliners in Iran and marginalised its moderates, left the US with a flimsy set of alternatives to approach the issue, and put Iran in a position to extract additional concessions from the remaining parties of the deal to remain in the JCPOA.

The only winners in this move are Israel and Saudi Arabia, which want to see a weakened Iran so that they can expand their influence throughout the Middle East.

The US is isolating itself by deliberately disengaging from the international community

Trump, by failing or refusing to understand the mechanics behind the JCPOA, has essentially allowed Tel Aviv and Riyadh's interests to dictate American foreign policy in the region, hardly a way to Make America Great Again.  


Behnam (Ben) Gharagozli received his BA with Highest Distinction in Political Science from UC Berkeley and his JD cum laude from UC Hastings College of the Law. While at UC Hastings, he served as Development Editor of the Hastings International and Comparative Law Review.

Follow him on Twitter: @BenGharagozli

Jon Roozenbeek is a PhD candidate at the Department of Slavonic Studies at the University of Cambridge. He studies Ukraine's media after 2014. Before coming to Cambridge, he worked as a freelance writer, editor and journalist.

Adrià Salvador Palau Is a PhD candidate in the Distributed Information and Automation Laboratory at the University of Cambridge. He has written several journalistic articles about politics and international relations. He is interested in how data science can be used to better understand political dynamics.

Follow him on Twitter: @adriasalvador

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.