President Trump has defied pleading from his European allies and carried out his election promise to scrap the nuclear deal with Iran negotiated by his predecessor, Barack Obama. The Europeans are determined to try to keep the deal alive but risk having US sanctions imposed on their own companies if they succeed. And there I a much bigger fear. Some seasoned observers believe that increased tension in the Middle East as a result of the President’s action could even lead to war. Mr Trump himself dismisses all these fears. He claims he can negotiate a broader, better deal that will promote peace in the region. So was he right to ditch the deal?
The 2015 deal negotiated by President Obama and European countries with Iran and backed by China, Russia and the United Nations Security Council, was intended to stop Iran from gaining nuclear weapons. Iran had always denied (and continues to do so) that it had any wish to acquire nuclear weapons but few took their word for it. In the first place there seemed to be little other justification for their programme to enrich uranium. After all, the country is awash with oil and they hardly need nuclear power for their domestic energy needs. Secondly, their ballistic missile programme seemed to confirm the suspicion. And thirdly, their strategic position made the ambition to acquire nuclear weapons both plausible and reasonable from their own point of view. They face an enemy (in Israel) that already has a nuclear arsenal and so Iran might well come to the same conclusion as North Korea: the only way for their beleaguered regime to survive was to possess a nuclear defence. And despite their denials, evidence emerged that they were indeed moving in this direction.
The fear was that if Iran were allowed to become a nuclear power, the Middle East would become a very much more dangerous place. Israel especially would feel under threat since hardliners in the Iranian regime have expressed the wish to see Israel annihilated. But also other countries antagonistic to Iran (notably Saudi Arabia) would feel obliged to follow suit. The danger of war as this process unfolded seemed highly likely.
The imposition of economic sanctions against Iran seemed to be having no effect on halting Iran’s progress to becoming a nuclear state and it was feared that unless a deal were negotiated, sooner or later the only option left to prevent it would be a military one.
This is what led President Obama and his European allies to pursue the deal that was eventually signed in 2015. In simple terms, the deal imposed severe restrictions on Iran’s ability to hold stocks of enriched uranium as well as an inspection regime to ensure compliance, in exchange for the lifting of many of the economic sanctions imposed on it, especially on its ability to export oil.
But the deal was immediately and widely criticised, not least by Donald Trump. Critics pointed to the sunset clauses in the agreement, which implied that Iran’s ability to have nuclear weapons was merely delayed and not curbed for good. Critics objected too that the deal didn’t even touch the ballistic missile programme or Iran’s ‘malign’ activism in the region, through its support for Hamas and Hizbollah and its interventions in Iraq, Syria and Yemen, all on the side opposed to Saudi Arabia and Israel. Defenders of the deal acknowledged these limitations but argued that no deal would have been possible had an attempt been made comprehensively to settle all these issues. At least Iran’s nuclear ambitions were stalled for fifteen years and inspectors have verified on nine occasions since 2015 that Iran is complying with the terms of the deal.
This was the case put to Trump in person in Washington recently by President Macron of France and Chancellor Merkel of Germany and echoed on the US news channels by Britain’s foreign secretary, Boris Johnson. But President Trump was having none of it. He said on Tuesday: ‘It’s clear to me that we cannot prevent an Iranian nuclear bomb under the decaying and rotten structure of the current agreement. The Iran deal is defective at its core. If we do nothing we know exactly what will happen. In a short period the world’s largest state sponsor of terrorism will be on the cusp of acquiring nuclear weapons’.
The President unilaterally tore up the agreement and vowed to re-impose ‘the highest level of economic sanctions’ on Iran. He was backed by Israel, whose prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, said: ‘Israel fully supports President Trump’s bold decision today to reject the disastrous nuclear deal with the terrorist regime in Tehran.’
Iran’s leaders reacted with fury, accusing him of lying, of making ‘silly and superficial’ remarks and of making a mistake of historic proportions.
Germany, France and Britain put out a joint statement expressing ‘regret and concern’ at the decision, adding: ‘Our governments remain committed to ensuring the agreement is upheld and will work with all the remaining parties to the deal to ensure this remains the case, including through ensuring the continuing economic benefits to the Iranian people that are linked to the agreement’.
But this may be easier said than done. Iran has said it would require cast-iron guarantees from the Europeans that they too would not break the agreement. But perhaps more significantly, European companies might well risk American sanctions being imposed on them too if they continue to trade with Iran in defiance of the renewed US sanctions regime. In short, Europe might soon find itself facing the choice between on one hand keeping the deal going and risking US retaliatory action, or on the other, abandoning the deal itself.
The European view is that if the deal is allowed to wither, the Middle East will be a much more dangerous region. In the first place, it will strengthen the hand of the hardliners in Tehran who never supported the deal and want to pursue a much more anti-Western policy in the region. That will almost certainly involve reviving the nuclear weapons ambition and that could provoke Israel to take military action to stop it.
But President Trump takes a completely different view. He believes Iran will come straight back to the negotiating table, allowing him to agree a new deal that is much more comprehensive. He said: ‘The fact is, they are going to want to make a new and lasting deal, one that benefits all of Iran and the Iranian people. When they do, I am ready, willing, and able. And great things can happen for the peace and stability that we all want in the Middle East.’
To many, this seems not just wishful-thinking but not even what his administration may be after. They point to the remarks of his new national security adviser, John Bolton, who had said before he moved into the White House that America should seek regime change in Iran. Even if that isn’t the President’s aim, they say, the very fact that he has torn up a carefully-negotiated agreement means that it will be all the harder for him to persuade the Iranians to sign a new one. And that goes too, they say, for his attempts to get North Korea to dismantle its nuclear arsenal. Isn’t North Korea now likely to conclude that it makes more sense to keep hold of its nuclear weapons than rely on a deal with an American president who is so cavalier with deals his country has entered into?
So, was President Trump right or wrong to dump the Iranian deal? Do you think it is now more or less likely that Iran will eventually acquire nuclear weapons? Do you think the Middle East is more or less dangerous now than it was? Should Britain and its European allies continue to try to keep the deal going? Do you think they can? And what chance do you think there is that President Trump can now negotiate a better deal with Iran?
Let us know your views.