15th October 2017
President Donald Trump begins the undoing of the Iran deal
The decision of US President, Donald Trump, to de-certify the international deal with Iran has brought condemnation across the world. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has repeatedly found that the Islamic Republic of Iran has not contravened the terms of the 2015 nuclear deal agreed with Western powers. There is no indication from the United States State Department that Iran has not been in compliance with the deal.
Formally, the 2015 deal is an international agreement, which cannot be undone by the actions of one signatory. The UK, Russia, France, China and Germany, have all indicated that they remain committed to the deal. Only the reactionary government of Israel and the dictatorship in Saudi Arabia have endorsed the action of the United States. However, there is no doubt that Trump’s action sends a clear statement of intent.
Trump’s action passes the question of whether to re-impose sanctions back to the US Congress where, it is widely reported, there is unlikely to be an appetite to unpick the agreement and risk fall out with partners in Europe. However, the US House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee in the past week has made clear its intention to ‘tighten up’ the workings of the 2015 agreement. This would include a unilateral expansion of the remit of the deal, to cover new areas such as Iran’s ballistic missile programme and its support for allies and proxies elsewhere in the region.
The unravelling of the deal then is already on the radar of lawmakers in the US. This could mean that the opposition of European powers could soon be undermined and the deal quickly fragmented, in spite of their defence of it in the first 24 hours after Trump’s remarks.
Inside Iran, President Hassan Rouhani does support the deal as a means to free the Iranian economy from the constraints of sanctions and give his government some economic breathing space. While Rouhani is characterised as a moderate in the West he has done nothing to change the appalling human rights record of the Iranian regime. However, Rouhani has no interest in direct conflict with the United States and will work to avoid it, in spite of his poor record on domestic issues.
The Rouhani government though is only one player in the Iranian political scene. The Supreme Leader, Ayotollah Ali Khamenei, wields ultimate power in the theocratic system, with the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) as the means of enforcement. There can be no doubt that more conservative elements within the Iranian regime would not be against adopting a more adversarial position with the United States, which could ultimately lead to an escalation of tensions in Iran and the wider region.
For Trump and his backers in the US, undermining the deal is just one element of the wider strategy to tackle Iranian support for Hamas and Hezbollah and to shore up US regional hegemony. It is also about US pique at the fact that Iranian support for President Assad has helped roll back US and Saudi led intervention to stoke civil war and conflict in Syria.
In the Middle East regional power balance the US continues to back its long standing allies in Israel and Saudi Arabia. While these two regimes are not comfortable bedfellows in other respects, they are united by their support from the United States and their mutual condemnation of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Anything that the US can do to undermine the Iranian regime will be supported in Riyadh and Tel Aviv. Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, was first out of the blocks to applaud Trump’s statement.
Hardline conservatives already control the White House in the United States. Tightening the terms of the deal and stepping up economic sanctions can only increase the likelihood of hardline conservatives gaining more overt support in Iran. For the people of Iran and the people of the Middle East these are not good outcomes. For all its flaws and limitations the existing deal is at least a step in the direction of détente. For the people of Iran any threat to peace is a threat to the ongoing struggle for democracy inside Iran. Any threat to the struggle for democracy in Iran is a threat to the stability of the entire Middle East.