The United States Leaves the Iran Deal
What that means for American policy moving forward.
Tuesday, May 8th, President Trump announced that the US would be withdrawing from the JCPOA and reinstating sanctions on the Iranian regime.
What comes next is up for debate, though the likely outcomes don’t bode well for the US.
In the immediate aftermath of this announcement, nothing is likely to happen — it will be a slow bleed into a steady stream. The deal will continue to exist as intended. The Europeans will continue to comply with the deal, and it’s likely the Iranians will as well. However, the secondary sanctions will eventually become untenable for European firms, driving business and investment out of Iranian markets.
This is where the situation will devolve, and likely rapidly. With foreign investment fleeing Iranian markets, Iran will have no reason to continue with the deal, and with the US having already backed out, Iran will have the political capital to do so with minimal backlash from Europe, Russia, or China.
From there, Iran will likely pick up its nuclear program where it left off. It will continue to enrich and build up stockpiles beyond what was allowed under the deal. It will kick out inspectors and end the West’s best chances of monitoring the program and its progress.
For all of the Trump administration’s kicking and screaming, the US is leaving a deal that is, by almost all measures, working.
The Iran Deal is being nixed by the US for reasons almost wholly unrelated to the deal itself. The Trump administration and their clients in Israel and Saudi Arabia are tired of what they see as an evil regime in Tehran interfering in and instigating conflicts across the region in an attempt to reshape the power dynamic of the region. To be sure, the dynamic in the region has drastically changed over the past two decades, though the reasons for that shift are less one-sided than many behind this decision will have you believe, as I’ve discussed here.
This decision will do almost nothing to curb Iran’s actions in other parts of the Middle East. It will continue to fund and supply the Houthis in Yemen because it has been a massively successful investment to this point. They will continue to maintain a presence in Iraq via Shia militias, as they’ve seen the butt end of an aggressive Sunni regime in that country before. And they will continue to build up their military capabilities in Syria as part of their forward defense strategy of avoiding conflicts on their own territory.
So where, then, does US strategy go from here? As of this writing, the US has increased both the number of personnel operating in Yemen and the size of the role they’re serving. More pressing is Israel’s continued escalation of its actions in Syria and how Iran will respond to such escalation, as it has promised it will. As open conflict between Israel and Iran becomes more likely, the role the Trump administration sees itself playing in that conflict is questionable. Those close to the president have ardently supported the end goal of regime change in Iran, and a war between Israel and Iran may give them the opportunity to pursue that.
To understand how horrendously disastrous that endeavor would be, just imagine the invasion of Iraq in 2003 — but with even LESS international support.
It’s for this reason that withdrawing from the agreement has the potential to be such a disastrous foreign policy decision. It does almost nothing to address the things we don’t like about Iran, namely their regional pursuits, and it gives them the green light to do exactly what we don’t want them to be doing: researching, developing, and getting closer to a nuclear weapon.
While the JCPOA was far from perfect, it was the best check available on an ambitious nuclear program before it could truly get its legs fully under it. To see what happens when you pursue the hardline route of isolation and sanctions on a budding nuclear program, just look to North Korea.
During the Bush administration in the early 2000s, the decision was made to pursue a hardline strategy of sanctions and isolating the North Korean regime as opposed to negotiating a deal similar to the JCPOA. (Not surprisingly, John Bolton was a leading advocate of that decision). What we now have is a regime in possession of nuclear weapons and with far more negotiating power than it had just over a decade ago.
Iran’s actions in the Middle East need to be addressed and curbed; this point is as close to a consensus as you can reach in the foreign policy/national security community. However, the US needs to honestly address ways in which it can do that and the lengths to which it is willing to achieve those means. Withdrawing from the Iran deal and reinstating sanctions on the Iranian regime does not do that, and it only increases the chances of the US getting drawn into another long and disastrous conflict in the Middle East.