October 6, 2017
On September 19, President Trump addressed the 72nd Session of the United Nations General Assembly. He called the Iran nuclear deal an embarrassment to the US and said, “I don’t think you’ve heard the last of it – believe me.”
Yesterday, the Washington Post reported that President Trump is expected to announce next week that he will “decertify” the international nuclear deal with Iran, saying it is not in the national interest of the United States and kicking the issue to a reluctant Congress. According to the Washington Post, Mr. Trump would hold off on recommending that Congress re-impose sanctions, which would constitute a clearer break from the pact. The decision would amount to a middle ground of sorts between Trump, who has long wanted to withdraw from the agreement completely, and many congressional leaders and senior diplomatic, military and national security advisers, who say the deal is worth preserving with changes if possible.
The intention to engage Iran was made clear by President Obama in his landmark Cairo speech on June 4, 2009, well before the election of Hassan Rouhani:
“…For many years, Iran has defined itself in part by opposition to my country, and there is indeed a tumultuous history between us. In the Middle of the Cold War, the United States played a role in the overthrow of a democratically-elected Iranian government. This history is well known. Rather than remain trapped in the past, I have made it clear to Iran’s leaders and people that my country is prepared to move forward. The question, now, is not what Iran is against, but what future it wants to build…”
President Rouhani’s election provided the opportunity to put the intention into practice. And, once the deal was signed, Mr. Rouhani described it as a “golden page” in his country’s history opening new windows for Iran’s engagement with the world.
The JCPOA is not a bilateral agreement between Iran and the US. It is a multilateral one between Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany. It has been supported by the entire international community with few exceptions. In announcing final agreement on the JCPOA, EU High Representative Federica Mogherini said that with courage, political will, mutual respect and leadership they were able to deliver what the world was hoping for: a shared commitment to peace.
The deal’s most notable international critics have been Israel and Saudi Arabia. Israel’s criticism went beyond the parameters of the deal and personally targeted President Obama. Some of this criticism could also be attributed to the President’s more nuanced policy on Palestine. With Iraq and Syria conveniently out of the way, PM Netanyahu wished to see Iran pushed further into a corner whereas the JCPOA represented the just opposite. And, Saudi Arabia, on top of being Iran’s traditional regional rival is bogged down in the war in Yemen wants a distraction.
None of this is to say that Iran has been a benevolent regional power. Iran’s meddling in Turkey’s internal affairs following the Islamic Revolution is well-known. Yet, the election of President Rouhani, a moderate by Iranian standards, was an opportunity which the Obama administration seized. Beyond nuclear non-proliferation, Washington saw the deal also as an investment in forces of moderation in Iran. Unfortunately, however, when the deal was signed, the Arab spring turmoil had already led not only Iran but also other regional countries to take a sectarian approach to advance their narrow interests. In other words, the Iran nuclear deal came five years late. In the meantime, regional countries had already collectively and miserably failed in meeting the challenges of the Arab spring.
At present, the Middle East is by far the most unstable region of the world. Iraq and Syria face an uncertain future. ISIS may have been dislodged from its strongholds in Iraq but beyond a shadow of doubt it will not disappear. The Kurdistan Regional Government’s referendum has added to Baghdad’s many challenges. The battle for Raqqa is still continuing with civilians continuing to pay a high price. Libya is far from achieving internal peace. The war in Yemen is continuing to claim innocent lives. And the regional chaos is providing fertile ground for extremism and terrorism. And, beyond the Middle East, there is the problem of North Korea representing a failure for nuclear non-proliferation. In brief, opening a new front against Iran would plunge the region into further instability with worldwide implications. So, international attention needs to focus primarily on creating some semblance of stability in Syria and Iraq, not on opening new battle grounds.
The Iran nuclear deal was about nuclear non-proliferation. The IAEA has officially certified on more than one occasion that Iran has fulfilled its obligations under the JCPOA. Perhaps this is a good time for President Trump to listen to America’s traditional allies on the merits of the JCPOA and to pay more attention to gun control in the US.