Commentary | 17 October 2017

Iran nuclear deal: ‘Trump’s approach can hurt US interests’

Originally published in The Australian (Photo: Office of the Supreme Leader)

Originally published in The Australian (Photo: Office of the Supreme Leader)

Donald Trump’s decertification of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action doesn’t kill the nuclear agreement but, along with other anti-Iran measures, it does everything to send a message to Tehran that there is a new, more aggressive policy approach to US-Iranian relations.

This should come as no surprise to anyone who has followed the Trump campaign; however, for observers of the present administration there are also valid concerns that loud rhetoric will not be backed up by sound policy. The devil, as they say, is always in the detail and from what we’ve seen to date it’s fair to say that Trump is not a details man.

The decision to decertify not only feeds into Tehran’s paranoia that Washington cannot be trusted and has a policy of regime change, it also places the White House at odds with its European allies as well as with key members of the administration such as Defence Secretary Jim Mattis and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Joseph Dunford.

Mattis and Dunford are on record as saying respectively that the agreement is in the US’s security interest and that Tehran is complying with it. And the leaders of Britain, France and Germany issued a joint statement following Trump’s speech reaffirming their support for the agreement. Hardly a sign that they are likely to work with the US administration to “address the agreement’s many flaws”, as the President boldly claimed in his speech.

By decertifying an agreement that he has twice previously certified and that the International Atomic Energy Agency (the body charged with monitors compliance) affirms is being complied with by Iran, Trump shifts the onus on to congress to decide on the next move.

The certification process is not part of the multilateral agreement but a US domestic requirement: the President has to certify to congress every 90 days that the JCPOA is being complied with and that the agreement remains in the vital national security interests of the US. In other words, the fact Tehran is complying with the agreement is not sufficient for the President to recertify it. Yet the reasons he gave for not certifying it were rather vague. He spoke of his disdain for it and the “factual record” of Iranian behaviour that he outlined in his speech. Yet he never claimed that Tehran wasn’t complying with the agreement.

Congress now has 60 days to decide whether to reinstate statutory sanctions. It is under no obligation to do so and it is not known exactly what action it will take. Trump has indicated that if he can’t reach an agreement with congress, he may terminate US participation in the JCPOA.

Yet the agreement would stand. Weakened certainly, but if the Europeans and Iran continued with it, Washington would become isolated on this key issue and the impact of any unilateral sanctions on Iran as a way of changing its behaviour would be much reduced.

Tehran already has indicated that it will brook no renegotiation of the JCPOA and, given the Europeans also have indicated that they have no interest in revisiting a multilateral agreement they regard as being complied with, there are no other viable ways at present to curb Iranian nuclear activities.

Regardless of Trump’s rhetoric, a congress dismayed by many of the White House’s actions to date may well call the President’s bluff and waive any further action on this particular issue. Or it may try to be seen to back the President by calling for action to be taken against Iran after those aspects of the agreement subject to various sunset clauses have run their course.

Given that there will be new administrations in Washington and Tehran by that stage, though, this would simply be a case of substituting style for substance.

So the speech may well prove to have been a move by Trump to be seen to act on his claim that he has inherited the “worst deal ever” without suffering the conse­quences of an abrogated agreement. The substance, rather than the symbolism, of a new policy designed to counter Iranian influence in the region is likelier to be provided by two other approaches referred to in the speech.

The first of these relates to Iran’s ballistic missile program. Trump’s complaint that Iran is acting “against the spirit of the agreement” is really centred on this issue. As part of the JCPOA, the UN resolution regarding Iran’s nuclear-capable ballistic missiles was modified from the strict “shall not undertake any activity” to the much looser “called upon not to undertake any activity”. Iran subsequently has undertaken ballistic missile activity that it claims is unrelated to nuclear capability; although this is legally permissible, Washington considers it breaches the spirit of the accord.

During his speech, Trump promised to “address the regime’s proliferation of missiles and weapons that threaten its neighbours’ global trade and freedom of navigation” and that “key house and Senate leaders are drafting legislation that would amend the Iran nuclear agreement review act to strengthen enforcement (and) prevent Iran from developing an intercontinental ballistic missile”.

Yet it is difficult to see what, if any, practical deterrence this will represent as long as the Iranians claim not to be in breach of any international agreements. Washington already has an active program of unilateral sanctions to address Iranian behaviour in this regard, yet it has achieved little.

Last July the US sanctioned 18 Iranian individuals and entities following Tehran’s testing of ballistic missiles. And following Trump’s speech the US Treasury sanctioned three Iranian and one Chinese-based company tied to Iranian missile development.

Despite this, Iran last month publicly announced the successful testing of a new ballistic missile with a range of 2000km, capable of reaching Israel and Saudi Arabia. But there are already signs that a more realistic approach to the issue of missile defence than simply seeking to deny its development by Iran is in hand.

This week’s announcement of a $US15 billion ($19bn) deal to sell Saudi Arabia an anti-missile defence system is the likely defensive response to Iran’s ballistic missile development.

The third element of Trump’s approach has been his focus on rolling back Iranian influence in the region and in pursuit of this aim he has focused on action against Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. This was a group he described during his speech as “the Iranian Supreme Leader’s corrupt personal terror force and militia”. There was initial talk that the IRGC would be listed as a proscribed terrorist organisation, but the US Treasury designation that followed the speech in essence sanctions the corps for supporting one of its subsidiaries, the Quds Force. While the designation freezes any IRGC assets under US control, it is difficult to tell what impact, if any, the designation will have on the Revolutionary Guard as a whole.

It is an enormous organisation with more than 120,000 personnel across three services, as well as 90,000 in the domestic paramilitary Basij force. Compulsory military service for Iranians can mean conscription to the IRGC. But it also has significant business interests in the fields of construction, agriculture and telecommunications, among others, and has been accused of encroaching on the activities of the Iranian private sector as a result of the preferential treatment its business arm receives.

With Iran’s extensive assistance to the Assad regime in Syria and the role of the IRGC in the local and some regional allies’ economies, designating the IRGC may well make economic activities more difficult for companies linked to it, particularly in the case of partners who have business interests in the US. It would not inhibit the activities of Iran’s private sector, and such a move could conceivably assist President Hasan Rowhani, who has tried to limit the IRGC’s business arm.

Rowhani has been very public and very strident in his criticism of US actions, given he and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif are champions of the JCPOA, but any diminution of the IRGC’s economic strength would likely be privately welcomed by both.

This shadow war between the US and elements of the IRGC and its regional allies has been playing out in anticipation of Trump’s announcement. Coincidences can occur but in the international security field they are rare. Just last week Washington announced a $US12 million reward for two senior Hezbollah figures, the first such announcement in more than a decade. Shortly afterwards, one US serviceman was killed and another injured when an explosively formed projectile hit their vehicle on the main supply route in Saladin province in Iraq.

Such a weapon hasn’t been used in more than five years in Iraq, and its target and timing make it reasonable to assume it was designed as a message to Washington ahead of Trump’s announcement: that as long as US forces remain in the region, they remain exposed to Iran’s forces and various allied militias.

Taken as a whole, Trump’s grand Iran strategy announcement is neither grand nor well-thought-out, nor likely to be successful. He is new to Middle Eastern politics, but if his aim is to contain Iranian influence in the region, he would be better served by following Theodore Roosevelt’s dictum: “speak softly and carry a big stick”. Regional leaders respect strength but need room in the public sphere to save face by acquiescing quietly. Trump’s rhetoric without policy substance assists neither policy outcome.

He may well have sounded tough, but this approach leaves his opponents in the region no room to move. Much of Iran’s attraction in the Arab world is the result of discriminatory policies towards Shia populations in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, or the unwillingness of Arab states such as Saudi Arabia to compete diplomatically or economically with Iran in Iraq.

Without pressuring regional states into competing in the soft power game at which Iran appears more adept, Trump ignored a large part of the problem. At the same time he has left it to congress to make the difficult decisions.

With multiple Middle Eastern hot spots continuing to fester, a North Korea with an apparently accelerated ballistic missile program, and Russia and China trying to flex their muscles and portray themselves as reliable long-term partners, the international community needs to believe that Washington represents a strong, stable and trustworthy guarantor of international security.

So for the President to denigrate agreements signed by his predecessor and try to renegotiate their provisions does nothing to build confidence in American guarantees.

And this is certainly against the vital national security interests of the US.