When Donald Trump tweeted in early 2016, “the Iran deal is terrible”, few took him seriously. A little over two years on, Twitter is a medium for diplomacy, Donald Trump is President, and America is withdrawing from the Iran Deal. This should not come as a shock. Not a single Republican supported the Obama-era accord, and Trump has surrounded himself with its most vociferous critics, bringing in John Bolton, author of ‘To Stop Iran’s Bomb, Bomb Iran’ as National Security Adviser, and arch-hawk Mike Pomeo as Secretary of State.
Nevertheless, a schmoozing visit from the French President, and a beseeching appearance on Trump’s favourite TV show, Fox and Friends by the British Foreign Secretary, gave some hope that an accord might still be struck. There is clearly a growing consensus that television is the best way to influence the President, with John Oliver, host of Last Week Tonight, running an advert on Fox in the DC area, pointing out that the Iran Deal stops Iran from enriching uranium for ten years.
There is clearly a growing consensus that television is the best way to influence the President
All to no avail. With little success undoing his predecessor’s domestic policy, President Trump has struck another blow against Obama-era foreign policy; adding Iran to Paris on the list of deals reneged upon. Its other signatories, Britain, France, China, Russia, Germany and Iran, have all pledged their continuing support for the treaty. With the Iranian currency in free fall, and peace on the horizon in the Koreas, there are repercussions of the United States’ withdrawal to be explored, and the potential opportunities that might arise, as well as those that have been lost.
A Disjointed Front: Europe and the US divided
In his 1801 inaugural address, Thomas Jefferson proclaimed “peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none”. Those who do not understand the totality of an ideology often pursue the part that they do understand with special zeal in an effort to compensate. The most notable example of this is the Bolshevik interpretation of Marx and Engels, which the latter himself remarked upon. The evocation of Jefferson by American isolationists is another. The United States is no longer entangled in the Iran Deal, but at what cost?
From the onset of Trump’s presidency, there has been a slightly peevish belief among European diplomats that they are being neglected. Following Trump’s criticism of NATO, support for ‘Brexit’ and rejection of the Paris Climate Deal, this new challenge to multilateral diplomacy appears to confirm European fears. The United States is in diplomatic retreat all over the world. Trump campaigned on overturning the Trans-Pacific Partnership, gifting China greater economic and political roles in the region. So much for Obama’s ‘Pivot to Asia’.
In Syria, it is Russia, not the US or the UN pulling the strings. Now, Europe has been left in an uneasy partnership with America’s chief adversaries. Evidence that European leaders are making their own pivot east is mounting. In January, French President Macron and gave the Chinese premier a stallion on a state visit. The gesture showed a keen effort by the French to engage Chinese culture, and was enthused over by experts for its symbolism of enduring friendship. Wishing to be free of entangling alliances is one thing when you have honest friendship to fall back upon. It is quite another when you turn your back on those friends. By reneging on the Iran Deal, Washington has presented China with another opportunity to lead on the world stage.
The Remaining Options:The road to war
Trump has eschewed a multilateral approach, opting to ride the political tandem with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who welcomed “Trump’s bold decision today to reject the disastrous nuclear deal”. The US will likely return to a policy of imposing sanctions on Iran, but their effectiveness may be attenuated by this unilateral approach. Cuba has survived fifty years of American blockade without succumbing to regime change, and regime change is now surely the objective. There will be no way back for the United States with the Mullahs of Iran; they trusted the ‘great Satan’ once. They will not do so again. In Israel and the Whitehouse, the hope will be that Tehran begins enriching uranium again.
This could justify a military response: striking Iran’s nuclear facilitates. Trump has lamented the deal’s impermanence because it is a ten-year hiatus rather than an end to enrichment. Yet airstrikes on Iran’s well-protected nuclear sites offer an even less permanent solution. For the United States, there is little to be gained from a war with Iran, but US support for conflict may play to Israel’s short term strategic advantage. It would provide a veneer of legality for Israel to attack Iranian forces in Syria, and reduce the flow of arms to Hezbollah, (Iran’s regional proxy). From an Israeli perspective, Hezbollah’s victory in the Lebanese elections means that if war is to be fought, the sooner it comes the better.
In the near future, the Shi’ite militia’s ability to attack Israeli civilians may sway public opinion against confrontation.* But although bombing Iran is almost certainly not in America’s interests, it might be in Trump’s. With peace on the horizon between North and South Korea, a strike on Iran that appeared decisive, however short term, might be enough for Trump to win re-election. If the President can give the impression of back-to-back victories against the last two Axis of Evil countries, showing both guile and force, he may stand a fair chance in 2020.
The Alternative: revolt from within
“Leave some strength for peace… groping we pray, lord, turn us again, and confer on us a victory”. So wrote the poet Anne Ridler at the outbreak of the Second World War. Should it come to war between Iran and the United States, an American victory is preferable, but it will not last. The hardest path; that which requires the most strength, is not the path to war, but it may be the path to regime change. All of Washington’s remaining options are highly confrontational. The period for diplomacy is over. But the Trump administration has a chance to capitalise on Iran’s currency crisis, and they should take it.
In the first three months of 2018, the Iranian rial fell 37% against the US dollar. This has been caused by uncertainty surrounding the Iran Deal. The situation is likely to worsen following Trump’s announcement, but it will stabilise. As such, decisive action is key. The crisis has forced ‘reformist’ President Rouhani to alienate his natural constituency; the upper middle class, by forbidding foreign currency trading, and limiting the amount of foreign money that can be kept in the Bank of Iran to €10,000. Iranians can only buy €1,000 a year, severely limiting the ability of middle class families to leave the country. Saeed Ghasseminejad, of the Foundation for Defence of Democracies, suggests this will push them towards the pro-democracy movements.
Iranians can only buy €1,000 a year, severely limiting the ability of middle class families to leave the country.
As an isolated incident this might not matter, but coming off the back of growing unrest among Iran’s religiously conservative working class, who have taken to the streets in recent months, the potential for a regime toppling coalition to form is there. Now free from the obligations of the Iran Deal, the US can put sanctions on Iran’s central bank, intensifying the country’s financial woes. Whether America’s dislocation from the International Community over Iran will hobble such an effort remains to be seen. It would take a mammoth diplomatic push to get Europe back behind sanctions. Yet Trump has a fleeting chance. Perversely, if Washington acts with speed and aggression, it may still avoid a war, by causing a revolution. The question is, is that what they really want?
*At the time of writing, Israel had not yet carried out an assault on Iranian positions in Syria.