Today, President Trump’s promised abjuration of President Obama’s hard-negotiated nuclear deal with Iran,the JCPOA, jointly agreed with Russia, China, UK, France, Germany, the EU, and the Security Council of the United Nations. All parties agree that Iran has held to the agreement, so Trump’s move is completely internationally illegal. His move is supported by exactly four other nations on the planet, and only them: Israel, Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Bahrain, a group that contains about 0.5% of the world’s population. Of course the percentage rises by a couple of percent when we add Trump supporters who applaud him keeping a campaign promise, even though most of them have no idea what this is really all about.
It is clear that Trump has mostly done this to undo something Obama did, although he also very much likes pleasing the leaders of three of those nations,who have managed to get his ear. But it is not even obvious that the undoing of this agreement will actually help these nations, even though they clearly think so. The least important of them, Bahrain, might get a slight gain given that it is a majority Shia nation ruled by an oppressive Sunni elite. Maybe putting Iran under economic pressure will reduced Iranian support for restive Bahraini Shia. But then, maybe the Iranians will respond by increasing their support. Both the KSA and UAE view themselves as jousting with Iran in the Persian Gulf, although Iran has never invaded or militarily threatened either. They were not in danger, so they will not be better off. of course, the Saudis blame Iran for the success of the Houthi rebels in Yemen, where the Saudis have been heavily bombing for three years, killing many civilians. But most serious sources say that the Iranians support for the Houthis has been minimal in material terms, if not nonexistent. But given how low that is, even a worsened economic situation in Iran seems unlikely to make them halt that minimum aid, and mostly the Saudis are scapegoating the Iranians for their failure to defeat the Houthis.
As for Israel, their main concern seems to be Iranian support for Hezbollah in Lebanon (and Syria) and Hamas in Gaza, although Hamas is a Sunni group. Based on Trump’s own statement yesterday, these are the main things he seems to be concerned about. He wants Iranian support for those groups reduced. Maybe that will happen, but while in the past Hezbollah did carry out terrorist actiffset ons in many places (Buenos Aires, for example), it is a long time since describing them as “terrorist” has been at all accurate. They have long since become part of the ruling coalition in Lebanon. They have been tamed, but the Israelisare very unhappy that they were unable to outright defeat Hezbollah the last time they invaded Lebanon. But even if Iranian aid to them is reduced, it is unlikely that that would make much difference to an outcome id they were to reinvade Lebanon. And it should be kept in mind that prior to the 1982 Israeli invasion the Lebanese Shia were largely sympathetic to Israel, and there was no Hezbollah. Just as with Hamas that they encouraged to offset the more moderate PLO, so the Israelis are themselves responsible for the very existence of Hezbollah.
Now it must be recognized that Trump’s reimposition of economic sanctions will have an impact on Iran. Even though none of the other nations in the JCPOA support Trump’s move, his threat to ban any company violating the sanctions from operating in the US is forcing some major European companies to leave Iran if they have much larger dealings in the US, even if their governments disagee with their moves. The most prominent companies leaving Iran now are Total and Peugeot from France and Siemens from Germany, although apparently some smaller companies with little business in the US will continue. Another round of sanctions in November will target Iranian oil exports, although there is reason to believe many nations buying oil from Iran will continue to do so then. Nevertheless, for all its illegality, Trump’s reimposition of sanctions will almost certainly damage the already struggling Iranian economy, with demonstrations against the regime periodically breaking out there.
Of course it would appear that what Trump and such aides as John Bolton and Mike Pompeo want, as well as the leaderships of the four nations listed above,is “regime change” in Iran. The short run reaction so far has been a rise in support for the moderate Rouhani government by its hardline opponents. As it is, the most likely outcome if the weakening economy weakens political support for the government will not be regime change but simply a takeover by the hardliners. This group contains many who never supported the JCPOA, and they may well then leave it and return to enriching uranium to a high level. This will increase the national security of any of those four nations? That it would not is seen by the support for the JCPOA given publicly by many retrired Israeli military and intelligence figures.
Needless to say, there has been heightened warlike rhetoric between Iranian and US leaders.I regret that Rouhani felt he had to indulge in the first round of this. Probably this is all just chest thumping noise, but it is clear that there are some among those four nations as well as in the US who would like the US to either bomb Iran or invade it. Given how much larger and more powerful it is than Iraq under Saddam Hussein, this looks extremely dangerous, in light of what a disaster the invasion of Iraq turned out to be. Of course, given that Iran is not involved in developing nuclear weapons and has remained in accord with the JCPOA, there is no such justification for such an invasion, which would probably end up creating major problems for the Gulf nations, if not Israel, although I think the Saudi leadership is too egomaniacally stupid and incompetent to figure this out.
Yet another irony is that if either through triggering some kind of successful democratic uprising that would overthrow the Islamic regime, or if one were to be installed a la Iraq after a “successful” invasion, this regime would demand to have civilian nuclear power, which is overwhelmingly supported by the Iranian population (although maybe aid to Hezbollah and Hamas would end). The opposition Greens, who were violently suppressed in 2009, supported civilian nuclear power. Iran has been working for it since Eisenhower initially provided US support for it in Iran to the Shah. In the end the outcome in terms of the nuclear issue, after who knows how much cost in lives and material, would be something like what we had with the JCPOA,a carefully monitored and controlled civilian nuclear program. But it is clear that Trump is not even thinking about any part of this aspect of the matter, so focused is he on scoring short run political points and pleasing a narrow set of allies against the vast majority of world opinion, as well as an agreement made by the US government.
I see little prospect this will end well and serious danger this could lead to a seriously bad outcome. I have said it before, and I say it again: abrogating the JCPOA with Iran is by far Donald J. Trump’s worst foreign policy mistake, even as few Americans realize it yet.