President Trump is trying to kill off the nuclear deal with Iran, but at the same time make the Iranians take the blame. Once again today he issued waivers reimposing strict economic sanctions on Iran, but threatened to pull out next time round unless Congress and European countries improve the terms of the agreement from the US point of view. He also announced sanctions against individual Iranian officials for alleged corruption and human rights abuses during the recent street protests in Iran.
But the real aim of US opponents of the nuclear deal signed by President Obama and others in 2015 is to make sure that Iran gets no “peace dividend” out of the agreement and is provoked into walking away from it. Probably, Iranian leaders are too clever to fall into the trap, but Iranian policy is the product of competing power centres in Tehran so what they will decide is neither certain nor necessarily very smart.
The hostility to the deal expressed by Trump already means that foreign banks and companies are deterred from doing business in Iran for fear that sanctions might be slapped back on at any moment. Whatever benefit ordinary Iranians thought they would get out of the deal by way of jobs and an improved standard of living has never happened.
Nor is it likely to: having denounced the deal so often since the presidential election campaign as “the worst in history” Trump is boxed in by his own rhetoric – not that he has ever shown the slightest discomfort at this. He is seeking unilateral changes in the terms of the deal on the US side and a radical re-negotiation on the part of the Iranians and Europeans, neither of which he is likely to get.
Whatever happens in the short term, the Iranian nuclear deal, or the Joint Comprehensive Programme of Action (JCPOA) as it is called, is beginning to resemble the stricken Iranian oil tanker currently adrift and blazing between China and Japan, which will sink or become a burnt-out hulk of no use to anyone.
But, just as Iran looks as if it is going to draw less and less economic benefit from the JCPOA, its political gains from agreement are increasing at home and abroad. President Hassan Rouhani can blame austerity, rising prices and unemployment squarely on Trump and the US. Spontaneous protests inspired by economic grievances that erupted across Iran in the days after 28 December can be demonised as plotted by or playing into the hands of foreign foes since the chief foe, in the shape of Trump, is cheering them on.
Another potential political benefit for Iran has become more evident in the last few days as the issue of the Iranian nuclear deal returns to the top of the news agenda. European states had put a lot of effort since Trump won the presidential election in 2016 into pretending that he was not “the mad woman in the attic” who had somehow taken control of the White House. There were hopes that Trump would simmer down or the great American ship of state would sail on under its own momentum, regardless of the weirdness of the new man at the helm. Foreign governments half-convinced themselves that if you held your nose and pretended that Trump was like other American presidents then he might become like one or else people would not notice that he was not.
But the pretence is getting pretty thin. Just how thin was visible this week as European foreign ministers met with their Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif, in Brussels with the supposed purpose of persuading Iran to curtail its destabilising activities in the Middle East that impact on the nuclear deal. But it did not look like that: if Zarif was indeed being held to account, he was showing no sign of discomfort as he sat beaming at the British, French and German foreign ministers and they beamed back at him. It looked much more as if Iran and the powerful European states, aside from Russia, which is already in the Iranian corner, were presenting a common front against the US in defence of the nuclear deal. “Strong consensus in Brussels today,” tweeted Zarif cheerfully. “Iran is complying with JCPOA.”
Trump may eventually sabotage the nuclear deal, but the US will pay a heavy political price. The Europeans are embarrassed by being pushed into the Iranian corner along with Russia and China, but they do not have a lot of choice on the JCPOA and, increasingly, on other issues. Reluctantly, they are deciding that Trump is the great destabiliser and a far more potent threat to the international order than any danger posed by Iran.
Remember that all those officials gathered in Brussels will all have spent part of their time in recent days reading in full, or in serialised excerpts, Michael Wolff’s devastating book, Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, which cites Trump’s senior aides as saying that he has the all-embracing egotism of a child seeking immediate gratification of its wishes and is incapable of doing his job as president of the US. It may be that the book, based on interviews with Trump’s intimates, will have less influence than it should in the US because the country is already so divided into pro and anti-Trump camps. But in the rest of the world, where there were still waverers who detected some method in Trump’s madness, the conviction is gelling that, as a spreader of chaos, Trump is unsurpassed and is more dangerous to the international peace than anything to be found in Tehran, Moscow or Beijing.
Some optimists hold that Trump may be just as much of a crackpot as his detractors believe, but the silver lining is that he is too chaotic and episodic to impact the world as much as he would like. They claim that, for all the foaming rhetoric coming out of the White House in 2017, the real damage done by Trump was less than many feared. This is a risky argument and, in the Middle East, neglects the fact that powerful people and countries who do not know what they are doing are manipulated and generally led up the garden path by others who know just what they want. For instance, Wolff says that “the president, ignoring if not defying foreign policy advice, gave a nod to the Saudis’ plan to bully Qatar.”
Sins of omission as well as commission have had a disastrous impact, such as the US failing to pressure Saudi Arabia to end the war in Yemen. All these ill-considered actions and inactions by Trump and his coterie pale in significance compared to the prospect of stoking a military confrontation with Iran. This would be a more serious war than the US and British invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003. Trump may not want a war with Iran or anybody else, but nobody is more likely than he to flounder into one through ignorance and wishful thinking.