Washington has no plan for post-Iran deal diplomacy

Washington has no plan for post-Iran deal diplomacy
Comment: The ultimate danger of 'tearing up' the deal is diplomatic isolation, and a slow march towards military conflict, writes Marcus Montgomery.
8 min read
11 Apr, 2018
Trump speaks at a 'Stop the Iran nuclear deal' protest in 2015 [Getty]
The Iran nuclear deal - or the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) - is seemingly in its eleventh hour.

By 12 May, President Donald Trump must again decide the fate of the deal, but this deadline is different than the ones that have passed over the past several months because the May deadline affects the very heart of the JCPOA: Iran's sanctions relief.

Trump must decide if he will waive the broad sanctions that were originally frozen as part of the deal between Iran and the six other signatories to the deal (ie, the US, UK, France, Germany, Russia, China, and the European Union).

Trump has long criticised the deal - perhaps for no other reason than it was his predecessor's doing - and with the new and anticipated arrivals of Iran hawks, John Bolton (National Security Advisor [NSA]) and Mike Pompeo (nominee for Secretary of State), conventional wisdom suggests the president will refuse to waive the sanctions.

If Trump refuses to renew the sanctions relief afforded to Tehran under the JCPOA, then Iran would basically have signed a deal to restrain its nuclear power capabilities in exchange for nothing from the United States.

Washington's European allies have dispatched negotiators to work with their American counterparts in order to work out a deal that might placate the president and address the issues both sides consider problematic Iranian behaviour.

Read more: The Iran deal is dead; long live the Iran deal

But it is unlikely that the sides will reach an agreement that Trump would like, let alone commit to maintain, and most of the so called "moderates" in the administration have been sent packing (NSA HR McMaster and Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson) or are being ignored, making it all the more likely Mr Trump will scuttle any last minute proposal to "fix" the deal.

If for no other reason than sheer unpredictability, refusing to waive the sanctions that were agreed upon under the deal is a dangerous proposal. The deal is not perfect and does not address all of Iran's problematic behaviour in the region, but the United States stands to lose a lot by breaking its end of the bargain.

What next?

In all reality, the reimposition of sanctions does not immediately ensure the end of the deal. Indeed, Iran could agree to maintain the deal with only the Europeans, Russians, and Chinese, especially if the Trump administration carves out exemptions that would shield certain industries from the newly imposed sanctions.

There are also rumblings of a plan to reimpose sanctions, but delay enforcing them for four to six months in anticipation of Iran and the Europeans more readily acceding to US demands in an effort to keep the JCPOA alive.

Most of the so-called 'moderates' in the administration have been sent packing or are being ignored

The more likely scenario, however, is the "hard withdrawal" tactic where Trump reimposes those sanctions that he can enact unilaterally, followed by a full-court press in Congress to reenact sanctions under its power. In addition, to maximize pressure, the administration could seek to impose secondary sanctions that not only target the Iranian economy, but that also punish third party entities around the globe that do business in the United States, or utilise US technology, for trading with Iran.

If the United States opts for a full-throated embrace of reimposing sanctions, Iran is undoubtedly going to pull out of the deal, scuttling the agreement altogether.

Tehran could also make good on its threats to reignite its nuclear weapons programme and boot the international nuclear watchdogs from its territory. The problem is, the president seems to know very little about what an effective non-proliferation strategy would look like and his incoming advisors have offered few, if any, coherent plans to address a nuclear Iran, short of military force.

The dangers in reneging on the deal

War hawks and anti-Iran advocates in and around Washington have aired a laundry list of reasons why the United States is better off without the nuclear deal and how the United States can act with impunity to dictate Iranian behaviour, including the use of military force.

While some of their suggestions may hold true, I would caution that these voices are suffering from a lack of tragic imagination; more can go wrong than what they are envisaging.

Take first the commonly aired idea that all of the other signatories will get on board with the United States once it reimposes secondary sanctions for fear of losing access to the US economy.

The United States stands to lose a lot by breaking its end of the bargain

No state would risk entry into the US financial system just to secure access to Iran's paltry economy, pundits opine.

But the Europeans have, in fact, disregarded US sanctions - and demands - before. In 1982, President Ronald Reagan was forced to revoke sanctions on a Russian gas pipeline project to western Europe after allies such as France and West Germany refused to abide by them.

These were very different circumstances, for sure, but the point is that it could happen again. Not to mention the current administration might be trying to use secondary sanctions that would potentially hit European countries, Russia, and China, all at the same time that the world is at a standoff over Trump's authorised trade tariffs and likely retaliation from China.

Keeping with the isolation the United States could face, any diplomatic efforts aimed at rallying the international community to levy punishment against Iran when it inevitably reboots its nuclear weapons programme will be monumentally difficult.

Veto-wielding states, Russia and China, will have little-to-no incentive to pass any resolution punishing Iran at the UN Security Council. It was, in fact, only after the major powers and major economies in the world agreed to levy crippling sanctions on Iran did they agree to negotiate on their nuclear programme.

The president seems to know very little about what an effective non-proliferation strategy would look like

It could take years - and might very well require a new US president - to impose wide-ranging and effective sanctions and force the Iranians back to the negotiating table. At that point, they could possess a nuclear stockpile.

Devoid of economic and diplomatic tools, it would seem the United States could inadvertently find itself in a military standoff with Tehran.

Keep in mind that the United States shares a number of hostile arenas with the Iranians and groups that, if not a direct proxy of Iran, are certainly sympathetic to what they may see as Tehran's just struggle against the United States.

Reneging on the deal and destroying what, if any, little good faith is left between the Trump administration and the Iranian regime will sufficiently close off any avenue that could be used to deconflict any incidental contact in the Gulf, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and to some extent, Yemen.

More alarming, however, is the rhetoric coming from the most hawkish anti-Iran voices in Washington. It seems this circle is fully aware that this administration is too sporadic and diplomatically bankrupt to generate the kind of international support necessary for addressing Iran's troubling behaviour peacefully.

That leaves really one option if the United States is going to definitively address Iran's nuclear programme: Military strikes.

Indeed, pro-military intervention minds like NSA John Bolton, Secretary of State Nominee Pompeo, and Senator Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas) revel in the thought of addressing Iran's nuclear capacity through the use of force. Bolton and Cotton have asserted on multiple occasions that the United States, perhaps with the help of allies like Israel, can simply sustain a bombing campaign sufficient enough to level Iran's mature nuclear energy infrastructure.

First and foremost, as Senator Cotton should best understand, a bombing campaign intense enough to sufficiently address Tehran's nuclear capabilities would almost certainly require Congress to authorise the use of force - a daunting task to say the least.

But the hubris that Cotton, Bolton, and others exhibit comes not from the willingness to flex the United States' military muscle, but from the impunity with which they think Washington can act.

The theocratic regime in Tehran makes every calculation with the intention of preserving its rule. Would it simply stand by and watch its nuclear programme - the one thing it sees as a cudgel against US-Israeli-Saudi ambitions to overthrow their rule - be rendered useless?

It would certainly turn not towards conventional military capabilities, but more likely to the aforementioned proxy groups and other forms of unconventional warfare to threaten US interests throughout the region.

If Donald Trump and his team decide to renew sanctions, but do so in a coordinated and careful way, then the fallout from the United States breaking its end of the deal could be contained, especially if the European, Russian, and Chinese signatories are left free to implement the deal.

But seeing how unlikely that is with this president and his new anti-Iran hawks, the ultimate danger of "tearing up" the deal comes in diplomatic isolation and a slow march towards military conflict, particularly because the administration has presented no coherent plan for the day after.

Marcus Montgomery is a Junior Analyst for Congressional Affairs at Arab Center Washington DC.

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