by Shemuel Meir
For many the combination of the words “Donald Trump” and “nuclear weapons” is the stuff of nightmares. “If we have nuclear weapons — why don’t we use it?” asked Trump during his presidential campaign. In his view nuclear weapons is akin to conventional weapons, which means they can be used to promote U.S. interests. This is the man who on January 20th, 2017 will be in control of the largest nuclear arsenal in the world. Nuclear weapons are “monarchic,” such that the president of the U.S. is the sole decision maker over when to use them.
Equally worrying was Trump’s imploring Japan and South Korea — both of which enjoy America’s nuclear umbrella under a NATO-type defense treaty — to forgo the alliance with the U.S. and to arm themselves with nuclear weapons in the face of North Korean threats. The “proposal,” whose significance would be dismantling the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) — the most universal treaty in the world, and the foundation of the global nuclear order.
But what about the Middle East? During his speech at the annual AIPAC conference in March of this year, Trump declared that the number one priority of his administration would be to “dismantle the agreement with Iran, which is a disaster.” People from Trump’s inner circle (though not Trump himself) added that the “bad deal” needs to be torn up on the first day of his presidency.
These issues, alongside additional strategic topics, are at the top of the priority list among Trump’s “first day” team, which views undoing Obama’s legacy as its top goal. The uncertainty over whether Trump will make good on his campaign promises make it difficult to truly analyze the current situation. It’s important, however, to raise the issues in light of what may come.
It is especially important to follow and see who will be appointed to Trump’s National Security Cabinet. The assumption that he will appoint neoconservatives does not bode well for the stability of the Middle East and the rest of the world. For instance, rumors that John Bolton will be appointed secretary of state. Bolton is among the harshest opponents of the Iran deal. In his article last week, Bolton ignored the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) reports, according to which Iran is keeping its end of the deal, instead arguing that it is continuing to develop nuclear weapons. His conclusion is that the nuclear deal signed in July 2015 must be annulled. Bolton continues to stick to the doctrine of “regime change,” which will bring about the downfall of the regime in Iran. In the past he proposed forgoing the diplomatic route and egged on Israel to attack the Islamic Regime’s nuclear facilities. Thus appointing level-headed officials with experience in the field may send a calming message to the international community, much like Ronald Reagan’s closest advisors did in the 1980s.
Trump has three options vis-a-vis the Iranian question: to leave the deal as is (this would be the most optimal decision), to rip it up, or to negotiate an amended deal. One of Trump’s advisors already attempted to calm things down by telling the BBC that Trump will not throw out the deal. But his comments are not enough. The advisor said that Trump will “re-evaluate” the deal and send a new version to Congress in order to “improve” it.
Doing so would mean negotiating a new deal. Trump’s advisor was ostensibly using innocent, diplomatic language. A majority Republican Congress and a strong group of neocons that seek to torpedo the Iran deal could spell the end of the agreement. We are already witnessing the return of the “bad, failed deal” narrative, along with calls to reach an “improved” one.
An anti-Iran cabinet could convince President Trump to get rid of the nuclear deal (not a treaty ratified by the Senate) with the stroke of a pen, by signing an executive order that would nullify Obama’s orders, which removed U.S. sanctions against the Islamic Republic.
But this path may put the U.S. on a path toward head-on collision with its European allies. Thus the administration would likely prefer to kill the deal “softly” through legislating new, harsh sanctions. The House of Representatives already renewed discussions on legislating sanctions in the days following the elections. Opponents of the deal prefer to add new sanctions, since doing so would not require using mechanism of the UN Security Council to renew sanctions. Congressional activism on the issue could lead Iran to withdraw from the deal and causes its collapse.
An additional way to torpedo the deal would be to invent “violations of the deal” despite the IAEA’s reports, which have clearly established that Iran is meeting all the clauses of the deal, which called on the Islamic Republic to dismantle its enriched uranium stockpiles from 10 tons to 300 kilograms, decrease the number of centrifuges from 19,000 to 5,000, and blocked Iran’s path to a plutonium bomb following the dismantling of the core of the pressurized heavy water reactor in Arak.
Opponents of the deal have already began attempting to torpedo the deal by bringing up the Associated Press leak of the IAEA report, according to which Iran strayed from the amount of heavy water allowed it by the deal. Opponents claimed that temporarily exceeding by less than a thousandth of the allowed celling (100 kilogram of the allowed 130 tons heavy water) is a severe breach of the agreement. We are expected to hear about a great deal of temporary technical deviations as if they were critical “violations” of the agreement. The repeated claim by opponents of the deal that Obama capitulated and ignored those violations do not hold water. The United States and the IAEA have not moved an inch from their demands that Iran meet all the clauses of the nuclear agreement.
The Iran deal is a year old and its opponents are doing everything in their power to bring about its nullification. Thus there will be a need for a political and analytical base to stop them. The High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs Federica Mogherini was quick to sent a message to Trump about the obligation of all sides to maintain an agreement that has proven itself thus far. It is unlikely that Russia, which is a signatory to the deal alongside the U.S. and other world powers — a fact that is entirely ignored in Israel — will bring about its dissolving. Paradoxically, the purported honeymoon between Trump and Putin may well end up bolstering the deal.
One person who understood well the danger of calling to rip up or renegotiate the Iran deal was none other than Prince and former head of Saudi intelligence Turki al-Faisal. The day following the elections the prince announced publicly that Trump cannot rescind the agreement. Al-Faisal knew how to read the political map; it’s unlikely that Netanyahu will be pleased by the Saudi response.
We must be vigilant and block all claims by opponents of the deal, especially in light of the attempts to exploit purported intelligence leaks. These kinds of leaks have become popular in previous crises throughout the Iranian nuclear saga. These would include signs of violations (in the eyes of the opponents) that may appear by conservative think tanks, AIPAC, and Sheldon Adelson — Trump’s biggest supporter and a close friend of Prime Minister Netanyahu. The prime minister was one of the leading forces in opposing the deal, and is remembered by his mantra: “A bad deal and a historical mistake.”
The IAEA’s oversight — the most invasive in nuclear history — of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, the Additional Protocol added to the oversight of Iran’s undeclared military sites, along with intensive American intelligence — a new situation in the Iranian nuclear sphere, entirely different from the past.
The Iran deal is beneficial to Israeli security, and thus must be safeguarded. Firstly, it removed the existential threat hovering above Israel. The deal blocked Iran’s path to a nuclear weapon, and prevented the emergence of an arms race in the Middle East. Without an Iranian nuclear weapon, Saudi Arabia and Egypt have no incentive to obtain nuclear weapons, thus preventing a domino scenario. The deal also closed off the chapter of pre-emption strikes scenarios on Iran’s military targets and reduced the risks for a new and long regional war. A possibility that could become relevant should Iran deal be ripped up.
Shemuel Meir is a former IDF analyst and associate researcher at the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University. Today he is an independent researcher on nuclear and strategic issues and author of the “Strategic Discourse” blog, which appears in Haaretz, where this article was first published in Hebrew. Reprinted with permission from +972Magazine.