by Mitchell Plitnick
Donald Trump rarely tries to hide his intentions. When he intends to do something reckless that will seriously compromise not just US security but that of the entire world, he is not shy about sharing.
The prime example of this is Trump’s determination to destroy the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the deal struck between the P5+1 and Iran to limit Iran’s nuclear program. He made it clear during the 2016 presidential campaign that he wanted to do away with the Iran deal, and he’s been clear that this is still his intention. But until now, his own advisors have been able to restrain him, and Trump has twice been forced to acknowledge that Iran has been complying with the deal.
Last week, however, Trump sent a clear message: the president of the United States is insisting that his staff find a way for him to de-certify the deal, even though Iran is not in material breach of the agreement and no one, even in the United States, has been able to make the case that it is. As Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian-American Council (NIAC) put it, “The tangible danger of Trump’s malice on the Iran deal—as well as the danger of the advice of the ‘adults in the room’—became further clarified this week as tidbits of the reality TV star’s plans began to leak.”
Those plans center around trying to get the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to demand access to non-nuclear military sites to look for evidence of Iranian non-compliance with the JCPOA. Access to those sites was an Iranian red line during negotiations, and the agreement to omit that access from the deal was an important component in getting the deal done.
No country would ever allow unfettered access to its military sites, of course. But, should there be evidence of suspicious activity at such sites, the JCPOA does include provision for the IAEA to either gain access to those sites or declare Iran in violation of the deal. The problem for Trump is that there is no such evidence.
Trump has signaled his intention to push for those extraordinary inspections. The idea is that if Iran refuses he would have his excuse to pull out of the deal. It would seem difficult for him to get this done, however, as such a demand would require the support of at least five of the eight members of the Joint Commission overseeing the deal (US, EU, Russia, China, the UK, France, Germany and Iran).
The Consequences of a Unilateral US Pullout
Paul Eaton is a retired US Army general who was previously the commanding general of the Coalition Military Assistance Training Program, where he was responsible for training the Iraqi military. Speaking to a group of media and activists organized by J Street, one of the leading groups supporting the JCPOA, Eaton said, “With every passing day, the United States’ capacity to influence the policy of others is diminished. (Unilaterally withdrawing from the JCPOA) would provoke a very expanded, full court press, of European engagement. The JCPOA is part of a broader EU strategy of engagement in the region,” and the Europeans are not prepared to pull out of it or renegotiate it.
Speaking on the same call, Ellie Geranmayeh, a senior policy fellow for the Middle East and North Africa Program at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said, “Europe, at a very high ministerial level is urging Trump to stay on board with the JCPOA. The EU has been trying to open engagement with Iran, particularly because they feel they have a government in place in the Rouhani administration that can push for engagement on areas where there are differences, for example on Lebanon.
“Also, the region is very different now from 2012,” Gernmayeh continued. “The failure of the Arab Spring, the resurgence of ISIS and other groups and increased activities by rivals like Saudi Arabia [have changed the strategic landscape]. So, Europe believes that it is no longer possible to ignore or try to exclude Iran. This is very different from the Trump view, where he called on nations to isolate Iran. And this is not just about the Iran deal, but on maintaining international norms and institutions, given the deterioration of relations with the US due to Trump administration policies on these and other issues.”
Not Just A Trumpian Fantasy
Still, this idea of a special inspection of Iranian military sites cannot be dismissed as the fantasy of a president who does not understand how these matters work. It is apparently the plan that the “adults in the room” have come up with to try to satisfy their boss. As Laura Rozen reports, those adults include Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Secretary of Defense James Mattis, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, and the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Bob Corker (R-TN).
But Rozen also cited an anonymous European diplomat who told her that “the Europeans support robust implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, including IAEA inspections, but not as a pretext to collapse or renegotiate the deal. A renegotiation of the deal is not in the cards.”
This seems likely to be the European response going forward no matter how much the United States dislikes it. Unless Iran breaches the agreement, there is simply no incentive for European leaders to challenge the JCPOA in any way. There is no major groundswell of opposition to it in Europe, as there is in the United States. Rather, Europeans have a great interest in expanding business opportunities in Iran. Although such opportunities exist for US businesses as well, they are constrained by political concerns over doing business with Iran.
But Trump seems determined to go forward with a very hostile program toward Iran, and, although a baseless US pullout from the JCPOA seems unlikely, even the so-called “adults” are pushing for a pretext for a pullout. Such an act does not seem likely to attract European support. Instead, it will leave the United States isolated, break the nuclear arrangement and provide a very reasonable basis for Iran to restart the pursuit of a nuclear deterrent in earnest.
That would be an obviously disastrous outcome, and one that could very well lead to war.
Major General (ret.) Amram Mitzna, the former deputy director of Israel’s intelligence agency, the Mossad, said on J Street’s media call, “The worst-case scenario is that Iran might have the feeling that they are free not to comply with agreement. This would be very bad. Threatening to not reconfirm the agreement, might give the Iranians a feeling that US is not willing to participate in what’s going on in the Middle East. To Israel, the idea that Iran will go back to pursuing a nuclear device, is a big storm.”
Clearly, Israel, and quite likely Saudi Arabia, would not sit idly by while Iran pursued a nuclear weapon. They would surely push the US to take military action against Iran or threaten to do so themselves. As Mitzna pointed out, the deal has already pushed back the time Iran would need to acquire a nuclear device from a month to a year. But that year would surely witness a strong push, both by the Middle East allies of the United States and by hawkish forces domestically, for an attack on Iran.
That would be a tragic course. Mitzna said that “Iran is a huge country and it will be very difficult to gain a military road to preventing a nuclear device.”
But it seems that Europe will hold fast, so Trump is not going to have the cover he needs. It will therefore be imperative to amplify voices of reason so that they can be heard through the noise of the many other issues Trump’s administration has raised.
“Everyone is aware of Trump’s inclinations so there will be debate about whether the requests for inspections is valid. If they determine that requests are not valid, Trump will find it difficult to push forward with them,” Geranmayeh concluded. “Iran is being tested daily by statements coming out of the White House, and their patience with this administration will only go so far even though they are aware and don’t want to fall into the trap of the Trump administration.”
Photo: Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (courtesy Department of Defense)