By David K. Shipler
President Trump’s decision to violate the Iran nuclear accord is giving rise to competing forecasts: Iran’s moderates will be discredited, the hardliners will gain sway, the country will resume its rush to develop nuclear weapons and spark a nuclear arms race in the region, Iran’s military actions outside its borders will increase, and the United States will no longer be trusted to keep its word in international agreements. Or, Iran’s economic suffering will worsen, leading to regime change as Trump hopes, and curbing the country’s support of bad actors from Hezbollah in Lebanon to Houthi rebels in Yemen. Or, in yet another possibility, the United States will be isolated, for better or worse, as Europe finally acts in unison to go its own way.
Most of these scenarios depend on the behavior of Iran, which has become the Middle East’s Number One Nuisance. To paint a picture, it’s worth listing some of the opportunities missed and the new ones that have now arisen.
1. Seeing vividly the divided American views on the nuclear agreement, which had so little support that President Obama could not even submit it to the Senate for ratification, and then hearing Trump’s promise to scuttle it, Iran might have tempered the two activities that generated the most resentment and opposition: its ballistic-missile development program and its strategy of expanding its influence into Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Gaza, Yemen, and elsewhere. Instead, the Revolutionary Guard and other hardline factions, which control those cross-border policies, increased arms transfers and moved military assets into Syria in what looks increasingly like a forward deployment threatening Israel.
2. Iran might have toned down its anti-Israel rhetoric and avoided marching into confrontation with Saudi Arabia, which simply reinforced conservative Americans’ resentment over ending sanctions against Tehran.
3. Trump might have invoked his supposed affinity for Russian President Vladimir Putin to encourage pressure from Moscow on Tehran to restrain itself, especially in Syria, where Iran’s presence is leading to escalating Israeli-Iranian military clashes. Contrary to what Trump seems to think, diplomacy is not a dichotomy between a love fest and a punch in the mouth. It’s more like jazz, as Hillary Clinton has noted, with a theme accompanied by improvisation that weaves in and out of discordant and harmonious passages. Of course, the plus for Putin in Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal is the new wedge it drives between the US and Europe, a victory in Russia’s strategy of divide-and-ascend.
4. Instead of rejecting new negotiations, Iran could have opened the door to talks on limiting its ballistic missile program and its regional meddling. And instead of keeping an ill-considered campaign promise, Trump could have tacked a little and linked progress in those unrelated areas to continuation of the nuclear deal, which was working because of intrusive inspections. It might seem illogical to make a nuclear agreement hostage to other behavior—Soviet-American arms control treaties never depended on both sides standing down from their support of proxies, for example—but in this case, Iran’s freedom from economic sanctions meant more money for malicious regional entanglement. Opponents of the nuclear deal were not wrong to see a connection there.
5. In sum, Iran’s political/religious class could have turned a more dramatic corner after the nuclear deal by adopting a conciliatory, benign presence in the Middle East, focusing on its own economic recovery, liberating internally, and granting the moderates led by President Hassan Rouhani the scope needed to lead the country into full engagement with the West. Instead, Trump’s withdrawal from the accord makes Rouhani look like Iran’s Chamberlain for naively trusting the United States.
1. Since the nuclear deal is still endorsed by its other signatories—China, Russia, the European Union, Britain, France, and Germany—a concerted diplomatic effort to bring Iran to heel on both ballistic missiles and external meddling could be conducted. It would have to be led by Russia, which surely sees the importance of preventing Iran from resuming its nuclear program. Russia would have no advantage in a nuclear-armed Iran swaggering around the Middle East. If Trump had clever advisers (there are none visible), they would be approaching Putin on this issue with all due intensity.
2. The European Union, led by Germany and France, has a chance to chart its own course and leave the United States at the margin, where Trump supporters voted to place their country on the global stage. As the US has stepped aside as leader of the trans-Atlantic partnership, America First has come to mean America Alone, and there is obviously no merit in Europeans’ trying flatter Trump into a concession on Iran, or educate him on what is actually in the deal so he stops misrepresenting its provisions. After more than a year of enduring appeals of cautionary wisdom within his own administration, he has fired most dissenters and created a bubble in which he does not have to hear contrary opinions. So Europe, where there’s no disagreement over the Iran deal, has an opportunity to get its act together, stand up for itself, and muster its economic power to curtail American influence. Inside the Western democratic world, a counterweight to the US is sorely needed.
3. If common sense prevailed as a guide to self-interest, the specter of Iran on the cusp of nuclear weaponry would provoke countries in the Middle East to pull the region back from the brink. Instead of rushing to get nuclear arms themselves—Saudi Arabia might be first—Iran’s neighbors could take the responsibility, without depending on outside leadership, to reduce tensions with Iran and head off what could be a devastating arms race. Israel, which already has undeclared nuclear weapons (and probably biological and chemical weapons), also has a stake in lowering the temperature.
4. In sum, this is an opportunity to demonstrate the virtue of cooperation over bullying, of diplomacy over warfare. If Russia, China, and the European Union can persuade Iran to stay in the deal, to continue permitting inspections, and to refrain from nuclear development—and if businesses throughout the world can evade the American sanctions to continue trading with Iran—it would be a victory for the cooler heads of peacemaking. It might also lead to more diversification of economic power away from the US and to a reduced reach of the American banking system. Taking the US down a peg wouldn’t be so bad during the Trump era.If the new opportunities sound utopian, they are. Rarely do nation states with diverse agendas seize positive opportunities. But occasionally they do.