Imagine the president of the United States of America sitting in the White House Situation Room with his top national security advisers and deciding that there are not enough threats to US national security. There are not enough wars and humanitarian crises around the world. The United States is bored. Imagine the president deciding to manufacture a new national security crisis that will directly threaten America, its allies and the world.
Sounds like the work of fiction, right? Unfortunately, not. President Trump announced his decision for the United States to violate the diplomatic agreement that is currently preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon – and with that decision Trump produced a new, unnecessary crisis.
Let’s quickly go over how we got here. Just a few years ago, Iran was working to get a nuclear weapon, and making progress. After years of a sustained, highly coordinated campaign of sanctions backed by most of the world, the economic pressure forced Iran to come to the negotiating table. The United States, the European Union, the United Kingdom, Germany, France, China and Russia got Iran to agree to stop its nuclear weapons program and to never attempt to get a nuclear weapon.
In the almost three years since the deal was signed, not only has the IAEA confirmed that Iran is complying with the deal, but the Trump administration – the very administration now violating the deal – has repeatedly verified Iran’s compliance. The US secretary of defense, James Mattis, said the verification mechanisms in the deal are “robust”, and the head of the IAEA called them the “world’s most robust”.
But forget the facts and the details. Trump wants out. So now what?
The most consequential result could be an eventual war with Iran that engulfs the Middle East. Iran could kick out inspectors and develop a nuclear weapon. Iran could ramp up its support for terrorism and proxy wars. Arab states like Saudi Arabia could try to get their own nuclear weapons and respond to Iranian escalation with more escalation in Syria and Yemen. And all of that could lead to more conflict in the Middle East, including potential wars with Israel and the United States.
At a time when Trump has already created a rift with allies in Europe over climate change, trade and more, Trump’s violation of the Iran deal doesn’t just put the screws to Iran – it puts the screws to Europe as it faces new potential US sanctions. These are the very allies that the United States needs not only for all manner of global challenges, but also for the new deal with Iran that Trump supposedly wants to pursue. Treating one’s allies as adversaries is not a recipe for success. And sure enough, very quickly after Trump’s announcement, the leaders of the United Kingdom, Germany, and France jointly announced their “continuing commitment” to the deal.
Likewise, the numerous other countries that were essential in pressuring Iran into talks for the nuclear deal – China, Russia, India, Japan, among others – seem even less likely to help. Many of them need oil from the region to fuel their economies, and it took years of painstaking diplomacy to get these countries to reduce their economic ties with Iran in the years leading up to the 2015 nuclear agreement. It seems highly unlikely that they would do so again when there is no evidence of Iran violating the agreement.
And if the US goal is now to force Iran to make a “new and lasting deal” – as Trump put it – why would Iran agree to negotiate when it believes the word of the United States is good for nothing?
So where does that leave the United States? Alone, with a self-inflicted wound that will injure others as collateral damage.
The best-case scenario is that Iran remains in the agreement for now (which Rouhani immediately indicated Iran would) as the other parties continue to comply in the face of potential US sanctions, which tanks US relations with allies and partners around the world.
The worst-case scenario is war.
There was – and still remains – a much better path. The United States could continue to ramp up its activities to push back against Iran around the region. It could start working with allies and partners now to develop plans for continuing to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons when parts of the deal expire years from now.
The nuclear deal is not perfect, but it reduces the chances for conflict, and achieves a key goal that the United States, Israel and allies had long sought: stopping Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. And yet, in dumping the deal, Trump has offered no alternative to achieve this goal.
It’s not clear that Trump is looking for more violent conflict. But his decision to pull the United States out of the Iran deal very well could place the lives of more Americans – and people around the Middle East and beyond – in danger. And all for nothing.
By: Michael H Fuchs