by Esfandyar Batmanghelidj
With the news that John Bolton will be Trump’s new national security advisor, the death of the Iran Deal is all but assured. Bolton has vocally advocated for war with Iran, which he sees not as an option of last resort but as the only appropriate course of action.
Add to Bolton’s hiring the impending arrival of Mike Pompeo as Trump’s new secretary of state and it is clear that the president will have no shortage of cheerleaders for his more destructive impulses. It is almost impossible to see how Trump would do anything other than fail to renew sanctions waivers and effectively withdraw from the Iran Deal on May 12.
The sudden ascendency of Bolton and Pompeo has also exposed how poorly the governments of France, Germany, and the United Kingdom have handled their negotiations with the Trump administration on a “fix” for the Iran deal. By seeking to appease Trump by extracting greater concessions from the Iranians on security matters clearly outside the bounds of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the Europeans have exposed their weakness, degraded trust with the Iranians, and wasted valuable time negotiating with administration officials who have since left their positions.
Even if by some miracle Trump were to once again waive sanctions in May, the politicization of the Iran deal is so complete that the waivers themselves will cease to have real meaning. The evidence is clear that the current posture of the Trump administration towards Iran, now turning towards an even more hostile stance, has been sufficient to dissuade the majority of possible trade and investment in Iran.
Moreover, Trump’s Treasury Department has failed to issue a single new license for commercial activities in Iran to date. Sanctions attorneys note that even applications that would have been “no-brainers” in the Obama years are currently being denied under Trump. The Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) has long been staffed by pragmatic civil servants whose commitment to sanctions enforcement was based on the creation of a predictable and clear regulatory environment. Today, however, the letter of the regulations no longer suffices to determine the permissibility of commercial activities in Iran.
By any conventional assessment, then, the Iran deal is dead. But what conventional analysis fails to recognize is that the Iran deal cannot be killed. The JCPOA is not merely an arms control agreement or a pact that sought to deliver sanctions relief. It is a historic acknowledgement of several undeniable truths about Iran and its place in the world.
The first truth is that Iran is a mighty geopolitical actor. Despite the recent claims of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman to the contrary, Iran does not need a large military force or diplomatic clout to carry weight in the international system. Accidents of geography (such as the keystone position between Europe, Russia, and China) and accidents of history (such as the legacy of the Iraq war) have only served to increase the strategic position of Iran in the Middle East and within the larger Eurasian landmass. The collapse of the Iran deal will do nothing to change these geopolitical realities, and the necessity for Europe, Russia, and China to continue to engage Iran may even be heightened should the United States return to a pronounced confrontational stance.
The second truth is that an increase in Iran’s international engagement is a reliable bet. Demographic and economic factors are necessarily pushing Iran towards greater diplomatic and economic outreach. Whereas a foreign policy of engagement was once the begrudging choice of a revolutionary government, today engagement is a political necessity driven by structural factors. The eighteenth largest economy in the world cannot grow larger in any manner other than through greater international trade and investment. Cognizant of this, Iranians overwhelmingly support greater engagement with the international community because they believe such trade and investment will improve their livelihoods.
Moreover, the Iranian people are now their own ambassadors to the world, linked to the international community in the digital domain. Although the nuclear deal may seem like the creation of the Rouhani administration, and in particular the brainchild of Javad Zarif, the impulse that drove Iran’s government to seek a win-win agreement at the negotiating table derives from the aspirations and ambitions of the Iranian people, whose resilience will outlast the collapse of this particular agreement. Washington may sow uncertainty, but in the inertia of these forces a kind of certitude will persist. These forces will outlast Trump, as they will outlast their opponents in Iran as well.
The third truth is that the United States has little leverage over Iran. The debate over the viability of the Iran deal in the face of a U.S. withdrawal overstates the importance of American policy as a strategic consideration for Iran. On one hand, the deal’s collapse, and the costly snapback of sanctions, precipitated by the U.S., would suggest that Trump retains great power to constrain Iran. But seen another way, the debate around the deal shows that the JCPOA is the sole mechanism through which the United States currently enjoys substantial leverage over Iran. The U.S. had so successfully isolated Iran in the sanctions period that the creation of the JCPOA represented a rare instance in which it increased its leverage. When Trump withdraws from the agreement, he will remove his only “free” means to seek changes in Iranian behavior. The remaining options, mostly military options, will come at a great toll to the United States.
Trump is old and has a few years left in his term. The forces that brought the JCPOA to fruition may have been interrupted by his erratic governance and distorted worldview, but those forces will certainly outlast him. The imminent demise of the Iran deal should not obscure the fundamental reality of what the JCPOA was—a reminder to the international community that it must deal with Iran and that dialogue can be fruitful if conducted on the basis of trust and mutual goals. Even if the JCPOA falls apart, the lesson cannot be dismissed.
There remain reasonable actors in Europe, Russia, China and the wider international community who understand that they will need to continue constructively dealing with Iran in many arenas. There are many more “Iran deals” to be struck, in politics and commerce, both big and small. For the many hundreds of potential deals Trump will scupper with his actions, thousands more wait to be concluded as a matter of political and economic necessity and through the endeavors of those who still believe in the promise of diplomacy.