This September was an important month for President Donald Trump. It was the first time he stood in front of the UN General Assembly and talked directly to such a large gathering of world leaders and senior foreign officials. He started by bragging about the big changes he has brought to the US but moved swiftly – and aggressively — outside US borders.
In rhetoric reminiscent of George W. Bush’s “axis of evil,” Bush began by harshly criticizing North Korea. He then moved to Iran and delivered a diatribe that mixed up a variety of issues, including the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the landmark nuclear deal, which Trump has called the “worst” ever negotiated.
Trump also attacked Iran’s domestic political system, calling its elections phony and a guise, but never mentioned that most American allies in the region have never held a single popular vote. He then moved on to complain that Iran funds terrorist organisations such as Hezbollah and bolsters the Assad government in Syria. Trump omitted the fact that Iranian-supported People’s Mobilization Forces (PMF) in Iraq are on the forefront of fighting ISIS in the region, while America’s Arab allies, as Trump previously pointed out in tweets, are the ones supporting radical Islamist groups and bombing civilians in Yemen.
Harsh critics of the nuclear deal have said that they expected the JCPOA to control and moderate all aspects of Iran’s foreign and domestic policies. However, the architects of the agreement have made it clear from the start that the JCPOA was exclusively about the nuclear issue, not Iran’s involvement in Syria, its support for proxies, its ballistic missile development or record on human rights.
“Trump is looking at the entire situation in Iran, not just its nuclear program, when deciding on the deal,” National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster has said. However, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky) has correctly stated, “Most of the complaints about Iran don’t have anything to do with the agreement. They complain about ballistic missiles and other things, but that’s not part of the agreement.”
The fate of the JCPOA will be a crucial test for US-Iran relations and could determine whether the United States gains an opportunity to discuss with Iran other issues of concern. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has made clear that his mistrust of the US would be further solidified if the US fails to implement the nuclear deal and any sorts of negotiations or concessions on the side of Iran on the nuclear or other issues would be ruled out.
It is surprising how the US is failing to keep the one promise it has made to Iran, but expects Iran to magically transform its behavior and national interests. No wonder that Iran conducted a new we ballistic missile test shortly after Trump addressed the UN.
Trump should know that Iran has a much more capable economy and scientific sector compared to North Korea; therefore expanding the range and payload of Iranian missiles shouldn’t be too hard.So far, Iran has been careful not to build or test missiles beyond the 2500-3000 kilometer range, but that could change if US provocations continue. Iran has also threatened to resume higher levels of uranium enrichment if the US walks away from the JCPOA while insisting that it will not build nuclear weapons. Still, fear that it was getting closer to having that capability would rise. As one expert has warned, “Tank JCPOA and we’ll be rerunning DPRK [North Korea] movie in couple of years.”
As this analyst has previously written for IranInsight, Khamenei has been pessimistic from the start that the US would live up to its commitments. It would be dangerous to prove him right. By backing down from the deal, the Americans are also killing any chance there might be to engage the North Koreans through diplomacy. Iran, which has long had diplomatic relations with North Korea, might even have been able to play a role in negotiations with North Korea, which Japan understands, but unfortunately Trump does not. Judging from his exchange of schoolyard taunts with the young leader of North Korea, the chances for diplomacy appear rather slim.
In considering Trump’s approach to Iran, it’s important to remember that the JCPOA is not a bilateral agreement, but a UN Security Council resolution that is supposed to bind all members of the UN.
Other parties to the negotiation among the P5+1 have made it clear that they will stick with the deal even if the US pulls out. EU High Representative for Foreign Policy Federica Mogherini has stated that Iran is in full compliance with the JCPOA and there is no need to renegotiate something that is working. British Foreign Minister Boris Johnson and his German counterpart,Sigmar Gabriel, have also signaled continued support for the deal. Growing European investment in Iran, such as a new deal with a British firm to build a 500 million Euro solar plant in Iran, alongside new contracts with Danish and Austrian banks to finance projects and French investment in Iran’s petroleum and automotive sectors suggest that European capitals are going to stand by the JCPOA whatever Trump decides.
On the other side, only Israel is openly standing with the US in demands to “fix or nix” the JCPOA in the words of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In case anyone forgets, Netanyahu was just as prophetic and seemingly sure of himself 15 years ago in talking about Saddam Hussein and his purported nuclear weapons. He told the US Congress 14 years ago that the only way to remove that danger was to “dismantle his regime” and that “taking out Saddam’s regime would have enormous positive reverberations in the region.” We all know how that turned out.
It’s important to recognize that the JCPOA puts requirements on all sides. Iran has kept its side of the deal and delivered what it was required from it before it saw major benefits, contrary to what some US officials have wrongfully claimed. On the other side, the international community has been doing well too, apart from the recent games played by the new US administration. If the US cannot keep its promises, how does it expect Iran to trust it and go forward with any new negotiations? From Trump’s discourse about Iran and North Korea, it’s quite clear that diplomacy is not the goal, but rather armed conflict.
President Hassan Rouhani, who addressed the UN a day after Trump spoke, took a more moderate approach and largely refrained from name-calling. He talked about how the age of zero-sum games is over and attacked the American approach towards the world obliquely, noting that, “a few actors still tend to rely on archaic and deeply ineffective ways and means to preserve their old superiority and domination.”
Sirous Amerian is a PhD Candidate and tutor at the Centre for Defence and Security Studies, Massey University in New Zealand. He received his MA in Indian Studies from the University of Tehran working on Sino-Indian-American trilateral relations. While in Iran, he worked as a Policy Analyst for the Institute of Iran Eurasian Studies (IRAS). He tweets at https://twitter.com/AmerianS