It is probably fair to say that President Donald Trump surprised few people Tuesday when he formally announced his decision to withdraw the United States from the multilateral deal designed to restrain Iran’s nuclear program. Those who support the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, have long argued that an imperfect deal with Iran is better than no deal at all. They warned that America’s withdrawal would re-ignite a volatile international situation that only the JCPOA has kept from boiling over. These same people have stubbornly ignored the reality that the deal itself is – and always was – a toothless agreement, doomed to fail in realizing its ultimate purpose.
The Iranian regime has barely maintained power, over the past couple decades. Though the country and culture are ancient, Iran’s people are mostly young. Some 60% of Iran’s population is no older than 30. Iranians, for the most part, are not willing subjects of their hardline Islamist leaders and, as much as any country in the region, Iran is ripe for reform and a more secular, less repressive, style of government.
The Wild Card: Iran’s Domestic Strife
Although the establishment media in the United States has chosen to pay almost no attention to the country’s restless population, civil strife and public demonstrations have continued for some time and show no signs of abating. Economic sanctions, which could have further squeezed and weakened the power of the ruling Mullahs, were greatly eased under the terms of JCPOA. Withdrawing from the agreement gives the United States the power to levy expanded sanctions against Iran; curtailing its military and paramilitary transgressions, its sponsorship of terrorism, and its not insignificant ability to generate revenue from oil and arms-related sales. Tighter sanctions also weaken the regime’s standing in the eyes of the Iranian people.
If the Iranian regime were to be overthrown – a prospect that is not, by any means, beyond the realms of possibility – the JCPOA would be rendered meaningless. The installation of a new Iranian government would necessitate its complete renegotiation. This, of course, is not a sound justification for abandoning the deal but it remains a possible eventuality. The real weaknesses in the agreement were the inability to fully verify Iran’s compliance and the so-called ‘sunset clauses.’ These clauses ensured, for Iran, the lifting of certain constraints after a period of some years. In reality, then, the JCPOA was always only temporary. To use a much over-used analogy, it was a way for former President Barack Obama and his European co-signers to kick the can down the road.
Donald Trump just picked that can up, crushed it and – as any responsible citizen would – tossed it into the nearest trash receptacle.
The Trump Doctrine
“The United States no longer makes empty threats,” the President said in his somewhat brief announcement. While signaling the almost immediate imposition of more sanctions on Iran, he left the door open to a “real, comprehensive, and lasting solution to the Iranian nuclear threat.”
It appears likely that the deal itself will remain in place, since the United Kingdom, France, Germany, and even Iran have all indicated their intention to stick with it. Trump’s decision does not suddenly plunge the world into further chaos. Neither does it bring Iran closer to attaining nuclear weapons. Mostly, it signifies a continuation of the Trump Doctrine, which is to speak loudly, carry a huge stick and deal with both friends and enemies directly, rather than within the constraining framework of multilateral agreements. The president’s success, or lack thereof, in dealing with North Korea will certainly put an intriguing new spin on speculation over the direction of US-Iranian relations, going forward.