Activists rally in front of the White House to commemorate the second anniversary of the nuclear deal with Iran, July 17, 2017. (MANDEL NGAN/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)
Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, October 2017, pp. 20-21, 25
The Mask Is Off: Trump Is Seeking War With Iran
By Trita Parsi
SOMETHING EXTRAORDINARY has happened in Washington. President Donald Trump has made it clear, in no uncertain terms and with no effort to disguise his duplicity, that he will claim that Tehran is cheating on the nuclear deal by October—the facts be damned. In short, the fix is in. Trump will refuse to accept that Iran is in compliance and thereby set the stage for a military confrontation. His advisers have even been kind enough to explain how they will go about this. Rarely has a sinister plan to destroy an arms control agreement and pave the way for war been so openly telegraphed.
The unmasking of Trump’s plans to sabotage the nuclear deal began on July 17, when he reluctantly had to certify that Iran indeed was in compliance. Both the U.S. intelligence as well as the International Atomic Energy Agency had confirmed Tehran’s fair play. But Trump threw a tantrum in the Oval Office and berated his national security team for not having found a way to claim Iran was cheating. According to Foreign Policy, the adults in the room—Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster—eventually calmed Trump down, but only on the condition that they double down on finding a way for the president to blow up the deal by October.
Prior to the revelation of Trump’s Iran certification meltdown, most analysts and diplomats believed that Trump’s rhetoric on Iran was just that—empty talk. His bark was worse than his bite, as demonstrated when he certified Iran’s compliance back in April and when he renewed sanctions waivers in May. The distance between his rhetoric and actual policy was tangible. Rhetorically, Trump officials described Iran as the root of all problems in the Middle East and as the greatest state sponsor of terror. Trump even suggested he might quit the deal.
In action, however, President Trump continued to waive sanctions and admitted that Iran was adhering to the deal. As a result, many concluded that Trump would continue to fulfill the obligations of the deal while sticking to his harsh rhetoric in order to appease domestic opponents of the nuclear deal—as well as Trump’s allies in Saudi Arabia and Israel.
But now, assessments are changing. The tangible danger of Trump’s malice on the Iran deal—as well as the danger of the advice of the “adults in the room”—became further clarified two weeks later as tidbits of the reality TV star’s plans began to leak.
HOW TO WRECK A DEAL
Recognizing that refusing to certify Iran would isolate the United States, Trump’s advisers gave him another plan. Use the spot-inspections mechanism of the nuclear deal, they suggested, to demand access to a whole set of military sites in Iran. Once Iran balks—which it will, since the mechanism is only supposed to be used if tangible evidence exists that those sites are being used for illicit nuclear activities—Trump can claim that Iran is in violation, blowing up the nuclear deal while shifting the blame to Tehran.
Thus, the advice of the adults in the room—those who are supposed to restrain Trump—was not to keep the highly successful nuclear deal that has taken both an Iranian bomb and war with Iran off the table. Rather, they recommended killing it in a manner that would conceal Trump’s malice and shift the cost to Iran.
According to The New York Times, the groundwork for this strategy has already been laid. Senate Foreign Relations chair Bob Corker (R-TN) calls this strategy “radical enforcement” of the deal. “If they don’t let us in,” Corker told The Washington Post, “boom.” Then he added: “You want the breakup of this deal to be about Iran. You don’t want it to be about the U.S., because we want our allies with us.”
This is a charade, a rerun of the machinations that resulted in the Iraq war. It doesn’t matter what Iran does or doesn’t do. If it were up to Trump, he’d never have accepted that Iran was in compliance in the first place. He admitted as much to the Wall Street Journal. “If it was up to me, I would have had them [the Iranians] non-compliant 180 days ago.”
Sounding supremely confident of the “radical implementation” strategy, Trump added that “I think they’ll be noncompliant [in October].” In so doing, he further confirmed doubts that the process is about determining whether Iran is in compliance or not. The administration is committed to finding a way to claim Iran has violated the accord, regardless of the facts—just as George W. Bush did with Iraq.
POTENTIAL FOR BACKFIRE
But Trump’s confidence may be misplaced on two levels. First, abusing the inspection mechanisms of the deal may prove harder than Trump has been led to believe. The inspections are the cornerstone of the deal, and Iran’s ability to cheat on the deal is essentially non-existent as long as the integrity and efficiency of the inspections remain intact. But if Trump begins to abuse the mechanism to fabricate a conflict, he will end up undermining the inspections regime and actually enhance the ability of those in Iran who would like to pursue a covert nuclear program. Precisely because of the commitment of Europe and others to non-proliferation, they are likely to resist Trump’s efforts to tinker with the inspections.
Second, by revealing his hand, Trump has displayed his duplicity for all to see. That includes the American public, whose anti-war sentiments remain strong and are a key reason they supported the nuclear deal in the first place.
The American public knows the Iraq playbook quite well. Trump’s own supporters remain enraged by the disastrous war with Iraq. They know how they got played. It’s difficult to imagine why they would allow themselves to get played again by a president who has left little doubt about his intent to deceive.
Sanctions: Can Iran Avoid Taking the Bait?
By Shireen T. Hunter
THE U.S. HOUSE of Representatives has just imposed new sanctions on Iran as well as on Russia and North Korea. The Iran sanctions have been justified based on its missile development and its disregard of human rights, plus its so-called destabilizing activities in the Middle East.
Because technically these sanctions are not new, they cannot be strictly speaking considered a violation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). However, they will undoubtedly undermine the success of the nuclear deal. Already, the Trump administration’s hostile rhetoric and its constant attacks on the JCPOA, and even President Trump’s own statements to the effect that Iran has violated the spirit of the accord, have given new life to opponents of the deal in Iran.
These opponents, meanwhile, have become emboldened in their attacks on President Hassan Rouhani, frequently pointing out the weakness of the JCPOA from Iran’s perspective and, in general, questioning the wisdom of trusting America. After the announcement of the congressional sanctions, some hard-liners have claimed that the Rouhani government’s passivity in the face of what they see as U.S. provocations has been responsible for new U.S. pressure and threats against Iran. For example, one commentator claimed that Washington can continue to pressure Tehran because it does not pay any price for such behavior.
Such statements ignore the fact that Iran will suffer much more than the United States in any real confrontation. Nevertheless, if the JCPOA doesn’t deliver any concrete results, such arguments might become more popular among Iranians and thus weaken President Rouhani’s position.
The JCPOA’s detractors in Congress and within the Trump administration would indeed like to see Iran jettison the agreement and thus provide a casus belli to those who favor a military strike on Iran, possibly as an initial step toward a change of the country’s political system and leadership.
For instance, Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, reportedly believes that the United States should not be the first to exit the JCPOA because in doing so it will lose European backing. Instead, Corker maintains that, through increased pressures, the United States should force the Iranian government to initiate withdrawal from the agreement. Nor is this a very imaginative approach. It is a common practice both in individual interactions and among collectivities to force a competitor’s decision by testing its patience and forcing it to do something self-destructive.
Having by all accounts adhered to its JCPOA commitments, Iran understandably feels frustrated and dismayed at the hostile statements and actions emanating from various quarters in the United States, including the president himself.
However, the worst thing Iran can do is to react impulsively to U.S. actions and statements. In particular, Iran should avoid any tit-for-tat response to America’s actions. Hard-liners in Iran will put enormous pressure on the Rouhani government to take retaliatory measures against America to safeguard the country’s national pride and dignity. However, such measures are more likely to hurt Iran than America. In fact, the only result of such measures would be to strengthen the position of anti-Iran groups within U.S. political institutions and circles, potentially hastening some sort of U.S. military action against Iran. Needless to say, the material and human costs for Iran of even a limited military encounter with the U.S. would far outweigh the cost of sanctions.
Under these circumstances, Iran’s leadership must resist calls for either withdrawal from the JCPOA or even symbolic retaliation against America. This will not be easy given the political line-up in Iran, but it is the only wise and safe option for the country.
Of course, if the Trump administration and the U.S. Iran hawks are determined to wage a war against Iran, such Iranian caution would not be sufficient to dissuade them. But it might make it more difficult for the U.S. administration to move in that direction. For example, European countries and other permanent members of the U.N. Security Council would be reluctant to support such a venture if Iran exercised caution and restraint.
In addition to exercising caution, Iran should try to open channels of communications if the U.S. shows a willingness to do so as well. Some reports claim that Oman has already been passing messages between the two countries. If true, Oman, as usual, would be a worthy mediator.
However, for such efforts to succeed, both Iran and the United States should avoid excessive pride. The U.S. should not insist that Iran essentially admit defeat and repent, and Iran should not see compromise with America as against its national pride. Meanwhile, European states should also shoulder their responsibilities vis à vis the JCPOA and advise America to do so as well. In particular, they should try to dissuade the U.S. from engaging in another Middle East war that will exacerbate their economic and refugee problems.
If the stars align in this fashion, some good might come out of a very bad situation. Otherwise, the clouds of war might again gather in a region that is already devastated by decades of strife.