US president unlikely to abandon ‘worst deal ever’

Fading out. A staff member removes the Iranian flag from the stage during the 2015 Iran nuclear talks in Vienna. (Reuters)


2017/04/30 Issue: 104 Page: 15


The Arab Weekly
Gareth Smyth



London - US President Donald Trump’s decision to rewrite a letter from the State Department to Congress suggests where the administration’s Iran policy review is heading. While the original draft declared Iran in compliance with its 2015 nuclear agreement with world powers, the one sent on April 18 criticised Teh­ran’s regional role.

This sidesteps the contradiction between Trump’s campaign at­tacks on what he called the “worst deal ever” and the advice he has subsequently received from inside and outside the United States not to abandon it. The deal can stay, Trump suggests, if Iran makes concessions and not just on the nuclear programme.

As president, Trump at first sug­gested that the nuclear agreement should be better enforced but the problem was that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) had on six occasions certified that Teh­ran had complied and had judged an excess of heavy water, a key el­ement in the nuclear process, to be “slight” and rectified. Any renego­tiating of a multilateral agreement requires wider support, which is not apparent.

When the Trump administration put Tehran “on notice” after Iran’s ballistic missile tests in Febru­ary, Russia and China denied that Tehran had violated UN Security Council Resolution 2231, which, in endorsing the nuclear agree­ment, barred “any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons.”

Amending the resolution needs Security Council agreement, while tightening monitoring, perhaps demanding access to Iran’s mili­tary sites, requires assent from the 34-country IAEA board.

Hence the growing notion of the United States going it alone, offer­ing Iran a stick of further sanctions and a carrot of easing US non-nu­clear sanctions, which deter inter­national banks from Iran dealings. The case for heightened US pres­sure before renegotiations has been argued in Foreign Affairs magazine by Ali Vaez, senior Iran analyst at the Brussels-based International Crisis Group.

Citing an unnamed Iranian official, Vaez asserted that Ira­nian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei signalled willing­ness to renegotiate by suggesting in November that Iranian negotiators had overlooked important details during nuclear talks.

Iran would make concessions, runs Vaez’s argument, in return for Washington easing sanctions dating to the 1980s relating to links with Palestinian groups and Hezbollah in Lebanon. The United States could sharpen the choice with new sanctions.

Through “a realistic better-for-better deal,” Vaez writes, Trump “could succeed on several fronts: A more durable nuclear accord, a framework for managing differ­ences with Iran, and perhaps even a more stable Middle East.”

Elana DeLozier, chief executive officer of the Sage Institute for Foreign Affairs and former nuclear analyst for New York’s Counterter­rorism Bureau, was sceptical.

“Trump might try to ratchet up pressure through additional non-nuclear sanctions,” she said, “but it may not be realistic to expect the US to lift non-nuclear sanctions in return for Iran making foreign pol­icy changes.

“Politics was never on the nu­clear table before and I don’t imag­ine Iran would want it to be now. Moreover, Iran is unlikely to com­promise on its ballistic missile pro­gramme as it sees this as a matter of sovereignty.”

DeLozier said she doubted unilat­eral US action was a route to a new deal. “Trump is ratcheting up pres­sure through sanctions and Iran is ratcheting up pressure through these ballistic missile demonstra­tions,” she said.

“So where does that lead? I don’t see a nuclear-deal-style ne­gotiating table in Trump’s future or a ballistic-missile negotiating table in Iran’s future.”

Could Trump stiffen sanctions with military pressure? Attention focuses on Yemen and the waters of the Arabian Gulf. In Yemen, Trump administration officials have launched dozens of missiles and promised to bolster Saudi-led forces supporting the UN-recog­nised government against Iranian-backed rebels.

As for the Gulf, Trump said dur­ing his campaign that Iranian ves­sels would risk being “shot out of the water.” In a recent naval inci­dent, a US destroyer fired a warning flare at an Iranian vessel. Although US Navy statistics suggest “unsafe and/or unprofessional” interac­tions with Iranian forces have not increased since last year, they have attracted more publicity. In Janu­ary, a US destroyer fired warning shots at four Iranian vessels.

Few doubt the dangers. The Ara­bian Gulf is a crowded sea — one-third of global seaborne-traded oil passes through the Strait of Hor­muz, which Iranian commanders have often threatened to close. Iran’s naval security here rests with the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, which has a strong ideologi­cal commitment.

But is there a strategy on either side? Does Trump see a means to make Iran change course, with or without an agreement? How far might he go?

Military pressure on Iran is a “fool’s errand,” said Sam Gardiner, a former US Air Force officer who has taught at the US Naval War College.

“We saw George Bush attempting to pressure Iran for two terms,” he said. “Has Iran changed behaviour because of Israeli military pressure? No. Did Iran agree to nuclear nego­tiations because of military pres­sure? Not likely. Maybe economics and sanctions but not military pres­sure.”

Analysts have long argued that closing Hormuz benefits no one. Gardiner warns that the Trump ad­ministration may not appreciate this.

“It’s in everyone’s interest to keep open the Gulf but this doesn’t mean everyone is able to see this,” he said. “I can envision the admin­istration concluding that since the US has become mostly energy in­dependent it isn’t necessary.”


Gareth Smyth has covered Middle Eastern affairs for 20 years and was chief correspondent for The Financial Times in Iran.


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