When he announced his decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal, Donald Trump spent more time criticizing the agreement for its failure to address Iran’s support for terrorism and its destabilizing regional activity, than he did on most of its other defects. For years, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Israel and other regional states made the same point. But under Barack Obama, their concerns were ignored. With Trump in office, however, these states have been able to point to a worsened regional situation as evidence that the deal has done more harm than good. Ultimately, his decision strongly suggests that the deal’s most fatal defect was to ignore Iran’s neighbors and their ability to successfully oppose it. But the remedy may be too late.
From the perspective of regional states, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), to go by its official name, has enabled Iran to advance its relentless campaign of regional expansion – out of which more lives have been claimed than through its nuclear and ballistic-missile program together. At the time of the deal’s negotiation, however, the Obama administration defended the omission from discussion of Iran’s destabilizing activity. It claimed that this allowed the US and its regional allies to counter Iran more forcefully on its sponsorship of terrorism, independently of any progress on the nuclear file.
In practice, however, Obama’s arguments have not held up. To begin with, the deal has not allowed for a more forceful confrontation with Iran on its destabilizing activity in the region. In fact, Obama was widely perceived as softening US policy on Iran’s support for terrorism out of fear that forceful action could jeopardize the deal. In December last year, Politico revealed that the Obama administration had blocked an investigation by the US drug enforcement agency into Hezbollah’s global drug trade, in effect shielding an Iranian-allied terrorist entity from prosecution. Many in the region also interpreted Obama’s failure to enforce a red line on the use of chemical weapons in Syria in 2013 as a concession to Iran to ensure its continued adherence to the negotiations.
The deal has also failed to turn Iran into a responsible state, and in fact appears to have achieved the opposite. It has provided Iran with a windfall of $10 billion in direct financial assets, according to The Wall Street Journal. This allowed it to ratchet up support for its proxies in Syria, Lebanon and Yemen. Due in part to this support, Syria’s president, Bashar Al Assad, has practically crushed his opponents, paving the way for an Iranian land-bridge that cuts across Iraq and Syria to connect to the Mediterranean. As a result, Iran has managed to expand its military presence in Syria, and is now building military bases and assembling launch sites for ballistic missiles not far from the border with Israel.
Because of Obama’s policy toward Iran and the deal, US relations with GCC states and Israel soured. In 2015, US-Saudi relations reached their nadir when Saudi Arabia announced military operations in Yemen without so much as a heads up to the US, a highly unusual move. Obama moved swiftly to mend ties with the GCC, convening a heads-of-state summit at Camp David later that year. Nevertheless, the absence of King Salman of Saudi Arabia and King Hamad of Bahrain from the summit sent a clear message on the extent of Gulf displeasure. Although the US and GCC states issued a joint statement following the summit, which encouraged GCC countries to mellow their criticism of the Iran deal, some of the US’s promises, including large-scale military exercises in the Gulf, never materialized. The Obama administration also sought to mend ties with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netenyahu, and in 2016 signed off on the largest military aid package ever to Israel, worth $38 billion. This succeeded temporarily in dialling down the criticism of the deal with Iran.
However, with Trump installed as US president, all bets on the future of the Iran deal were suddenly off. Israel, Saudi Arabia and the UAE spotted the opportunity and embarked on a lobbying effort to sway the new administration – including through their ties to Jared Kushner – against keeping the deal. Moreover, the departure of Rex Tillerson (whose stance on Qatar irked Saudi Arabi and the UAE) and the appointment of John Bolton and Mike Pompeo (both of whom have advocated nuking the deal) to Trump’s policy inner circle came at an opportune moment. And a week prior to Trump’s abandonment of the deal, Israel revealed a trove of intelligence that it claimed proved Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons, setting the stage for a US withdrawal. Immediately following Trump’s decision, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain issued statements that welcomed the US position.
However, despite its many defects, pulling out of the deal at this stage makes little strategic sense. The US has already squandered its financial leverage over Iran by paying upfront for the deal. And given the lack of support from the rest of the signatories to the deal for Trump’s decision, it may be difficult to implement global sanctions or assemble another international coalition to apply pressure on Iran. Moreover, if the Europeans fail to offer Iran enough economic incentives to keep it onboard, Iran is likely to resume enrichment in a few months, potentially setting off a nuclear arms race with regional competitors such as Saudi Arabia. The decision to scrap the deal may have made sense three or four years ago, but today it is highly uncertain that US withdrawal will lead to a safer, more stable Middle East.
Hasan Alhasan is a PhD researcher at King’s College London and the National University of Singapore, where his work focuses on Indian foreign policy in the Middle East. Previously, he served as a senior analyst at the office of the first deputy prime minister of Bahrain.
AFP PHOTO/BEHROUZ MEHRI