How Iran might benefit Donald Trump's decision to withdraw from the JCPOA?

May 24, 2018 - 12:36

Iranians are justified in being angry about Donald Trump’s decision to violate the terms of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the Iran nuclear deal. After all, Iran has kept to its obligations; thanks to Trump, the United States has not.

Trump’s speech was venomous, vindictive and not factual. But, it was also clear that the real source of his hatred is not Iran, but Barack Obama. Indeed, Donald Trump’s approach to governing seems principally driven by insecurity about his own inadequacies as compared to his predecessor.

While anger is justified, it rarely a good basis for responding. At this stage, Iran would do well to think strategically before fashioning a response.

Iran entered in the JCPOA — which involved commitments beyond those required by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty — for two main reasons. First, to gain relief from crippling economic sanctions and, second, to end its international isolation. Both goals are still achievable and, with the right strategy, Iran may end up in a stronger position internationally than at anytime since the creation of the Islamic Republic.

The United States is not a significant source of trade or investment for Iran. Being unable to sell or buy directly from the United States will not have a big impact on the Iranian economy. The problem for Iran is the so-called secondary sanctions — the inability of non-American companies to access in the American market or use the U.S. banking system if they do business with Iran. But, secondary sanctions are a game that two can play. The European Union collectively has an economy larger than that of the United States. China, also a party to the JCPOA, is the world’s second largest economy.

If the United States can use secondary sanctions on European and Chinese businesses to promote its foreign policy objective of hurting Iran, the Europeans and Chinese can retaliate with secondary sanctions aimed at preserving the agreement. Iran might reasonably work with Europe, China and Russia to foil U.S. secondary sanctions.

Such arrangements might even enhance the economic value of the nuclear deal to Iran since many European companies were unwilling to invest in Iran under the JCPOA because of remaining U.S. sanctions.

Iranians were understandably disappointed that the European signatories to the JCPOA seemed supportive of Trump’s desire to renegotiate the deal. Of course, the European leaders knew full well this would not happen. Their statements of support for Trump’s goals were simply part of an effort to get him to stay with the deal. With the U.S. out of the deal, France, Germany and the UK will have to persuade Iran to stay in. This puts Iran in the position of being able to demand additional concessions on economic and security issues.

Iran’s second goal is signing up to the JCPOA was to end its international isolation, an isolation orchestrated by the United States. Here Donald Trump is Iran’s best friend. In the eyes of many — including America’s allies — it is the United States that is the rogue nation. By all accounts — including U.S. intelligence — Iran was abiding by the JCPOA. Iran kept its word; under Trump, the United States did not.

French President Emmanuel Macron invested more than any foreign leader in developing a relationship with Donald Trump. In 2017, he invited Trump to the Bastille day celebrations and put on the kind of grand reception that only the French are capable. The easily flattered Trump was flattered. (By contract, UK Prime Minister Theresa May had to back off her invitation for a Trump state visit. The U.S. president is so toxic in Britain that a visit could bring down her minority government.).

There was nothing that Macron wanted to accomplish more than to persuade Trump to stay in the Iran deal. As he said, he failed for U.S. domestic reasons (i.e. Trump’s obsession with humiliating his predecessor.). Indeed, Macron has nothing to show for his cultivation of Trump — not on the environment, trade, or anything else.  Almost certainly, he will now try a different tack. With the United States itself isolated, the French President is the natural leader of Europe and the free world. And to accomplish Europe’s objectives, Macron will likely chart an independent course. And, almost certainly part of that will be to find ways to keep Iran in the JCPOA.

In anger, Iran might be tempted to pull out of the JCPOA. This is exactly what Trump hopes will happen. It would put Iran on the same level as the U.S. By remaining in the Agreement, Iran is in a position to extract significant economic concessions from Europe as well support from China.

An ever more isolated Trump will continue to diminish U.S. leadership in the world. Iranians might consider a simple point: when your enemy is about to jump off a tall building, there is no need to push.  

Peter W Galbraith is a former U.S. Ambassador to Croatia and the author of several books on the Iraq War including The End of Iraq: How American Incompetence Created a War Without End.

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