Trump sends aggressive signal to Iran

14th October 2017

The decision of US President, Donald Trump, to de-certify the international deal with Iran has brought condemnation across the world.  Jane Green assesses the likely consequences.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has repeatedly found that the Islamic Republic of Iran has not contravened the terms of the 2015 nuclear deal agreed with Western powers.  There is no indication from the United States State Department that Iran has not been in compliance with the deal.

Donald Trump knows this but is prepared to go down the path of de-certification in order to once again open up the prospect of conflict with Iran and reinforce the role of the United States in the Middle East.

In his remarks to the press announcing US strategy towards Iran, Trump asserted that the

“Iranian regime has committed multiple violations of the agreement. For example, on two separate occasions, they have exceeded the limit of 130 metric tons of heavy water. Until recently, the Iranian regime has also failed to meet our expectations in its operation of advanced centrifuges.”

This is not a position that accords with that of the IAEA, charged with inspection under the terms of the Iran deal.  According to a written statement by IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano,

“Iran is now provisionally implementing the Additional Protocol to its Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement with the IAEA, a powerful verification tool which gives our inspectors broader access to information and locations in Iran.  So far, the IAEA has had access to all locations it needed to visit.”

To some extent, the deal is a sideshow.  Formally, the 2015 deal is an international agreement, which cannot be undone by the actions of one signatory.  The UK, Russia, France, China and Germany, have all indicated that they remain committed to the deal.  Only the reactionary government of Israel and the dictatorship in Saudi Arabia have endorsed the action of the United States.  However, there is no doubt that Trump’s action sends a clear statement of intent.

Trump’s action passes the question of whether to re-impose sanctions back to the US Congress where, it is widely reported, there is unlikely to be an appetite to unpick the agreement and risk fall out with partners in Europe.  However, the US House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committeein the past week has made clear its intention to ‘tighten up’ the workings of the 2015 agreement.  This would include a unilateral expansion of the remit of the deal, to cover new areas such as Iran’s ballistic missile programme and its support for allies and proxies elsewhere in the region.

The unravelling of the deal then is already on the radar of lawmakers in the US.  This could mean that the opposition of European powers could soon be undermined and the deal quickly fragmented, in spite of their defence of it in the first 24 hours after Trump’s remarks.

The importance which Trump attaches to ramping up action against Iran is reflected in his comments concerning the role of the Iranian regime in supporting terrorism across the Middle East and beyond.  Trump claims that,

“The regime remains the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism, and provides assistance to al Qaeda, the Taliban, Hezbollah, Hamas, and other terrorist networks. It develops, deploys, and proliferates missiles that threaten American troops and our allies. It harasses American ships and threatens freedom of navigation in the Arabian Gulf and in the Red Sea. It imprisons Americans on false charges. And it launches cyberattacks against our critical infrastructure, financial system, and military.”

For a regime which has been economically on its knees due to the sanctions imposed by the West, Trump ascribes a remarkable level of influence.

Inside Iran, President Hassan Rouhani does support the deal as a means to free the Iranian economy from the constraints of sanctions and give his government some economic breathing space.  While Rouhani is characterised as a moderate in the West he has done nothing to change the appalling human rights record of the Iranian regime.  However, Rouhani has no interest in direct conflict with the United States and will work to avoid it, in spite of his poor record on domestic issues.

The Rouhani government though is only one player in the Iranian political scene.  The Supreme Leader, Ayotollah Ali Khamenei, wields ultimate power in the theocratic system, with the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) as the means of enforcement.  There can be no doubt that more conservative elements within the Iranian regime would not be against adopting a more adversarial position with the United States, which could ultimately lead to an escalation of tensions in Iran and the wider region.

There can also be little doubt that Trump’s claim that,

“The execution of our strategy begins with the long-overdue step of imposing tough sanctions on Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps…I am authorizing the Treasury Department to further sanction the entire Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps for its support for terrorism and to apply sanctions to its officials, agents, and affiliates.”

will play into the hands of the hardliners in Tehran.

For Trump and his backers in the US, undermining the deal is just one element of the wider strategy to tackle Iranian support for Hamas and Hezbollah and to shore up US regional hegemony.  It is also about US pique at the fact that Iranian support for President Assad has helped roll back US and Saudi led intervention to stoke civil war and conflict in Syria.

In the Middle East regional power balance the US continues to back its long standing allies in Israel and Saudi Arabia.  While these two regimes are not comfortable bedfellows in other respects, they are united by their support from the United States and their mutual condemnation of the Islamic Republic of Iran.  Anything that the US can do to undermine the Iranian regime will be supported in Riyadh and Tel Aviv.  Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, was first out of the blocks to applaud Trump’s statement.

Hardline conservatives already control the White House in the United States.  Tightening the terms of the deal and stepping up economic sanctions can only increase the likelihood of hardline conservatives gaining more overt support in Iran.  For the people of Iran and the people of the Middle East these are not good outcomes.  For all its flaws and limitations the existing deal is at least a step in the direction of détente.  For the people of Iran any threat to peace is a threat to the ongoing struggle for democracy inside Iran.  Any threat to the struggle for democracy in Iran is a threat to the stability of the entire Middle East.

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