Trump’s risky gam­ble on Iran

Kuwait Times - - ANALYSIS -

Ten­sions between Iran and the United States are es­ca­lat­ing rapidly. Over the week­end, Ira­nian and US navy war­ships en­gaged in yet an­other round of shadow box­ing in Ara­bian Gulf. Last week Congress slapped ad­di­tional sanc­tions on in­di­vid­u­als and com­pa­nies as­so­ci­ated with Iran’s bal­lis­tic mis­sile pro­gram and sup­port for ter­ror­ism. Iran, in re­sponse, test-fired a rocket into space. Forces backed by Wash­ing­ton and Tehran con­tinue to wage proxy wars across the Mid­dle East from Syria to Ye­men.

There is, how­ever, one area where pres­sure has eased between Iran and the West: Tehran’s nu­clear pro­gram. To date, the In­ter­na­tional Atomic En­ergy Agency (IAEA) has re­ported seven times that Iran has met its com­mit­ments un­der the deal. Amer­ica’s part­ners in the ne­go­ti­a­tion, the EU, Rus­sia and China, have af­firmed Ira­nian com­pli­ance as well. So has Trump’s own ad­min­is­tra­tion - twice.

But Trump wants to aban­don the deal re­gard­less of whether Iran con­tin­ues ob­serv­ing the terms of the Joint Com­pre­hen­sive Plan of Action (JCPOA). He was re­luc­tant to cer­tify Iran’s com­pli­ance with the ac­cord, and the New York Times re­ported last week that he told his ad­vis­ers that he would like to find a rea­son to scut­tle the multilateral agree­ment.

If Trump pur­sues this course, his ac­tions all but as­sure an in­crease in hos­til­i­ties with Tehran. It could force the Ira­nian lead­er­ship to be­lieve that nu­clear weapons are es­sen­tial for their sur­vival. This is pre­cisely the sit­u­a­tion that the United States faces presently with North Korea, which vir­tu­ally holds East Asia hostage be­cause of its nu­clear ar­se­nal.

The sim­i­lar­i­ties between Trump’s 2017 re­sponse to the Barack Obama-led Iran ac­cord and Ge­orge W Bush’s re­ac­tion in 2001 to the Agreed Frame­work with North Korea that Bill Clin­ton signed are strik­ing. Then as now, a neo­phyte pres­i­dent was de­ter­mined to chart a new course in for­eign pol­icy to dis­tin­guish him­self from his pre­de­ces­sor. Then as now, Bush launched a com­pre­hen­sive pol­icy re­view of the North Korea dossier.

At the time, the Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion claimed to have ev­i­dence of a covert ura­nium en­rich­ment pro­gram, which would have vi­o­lated the deal. Rather than build­ing an in­ter­na­tional coali­tion to force Py­ongyang to strictly ad­here to the terms of the Agreed Frame­work, the Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion chose to aban­don diplo­macy.

By 2005, re­al­iz­ing that Py­ongyang was closer to pro­duc­ing a nu­clear weapon, Bush sought to ne­go­ti­ate a more com­pre­hen­sive dis­ar­ma­ment agree­ment but it was too late. Per­haps see­ing what hap­pened to Sad­dam Hussein’s Iraq, the lead­er­ship in North Korea was de­ter­mined to ac­quire nu­clear weapons as an in­sur­ance pol­icy for its sur­vival. One year later, they tested their first weapon.


Un­like North Korea in 2001, there is lit­tle doubt that Iran is com­ply­ing with the terms of the ac­cord to de­vote its nu­clear pro­gram to peace­ful pur­poses in re­turn for the lift­ing of nu­clear-re­lated sanc­tions. The JCPOA man­dates a strin­gent in­spec­tion regime by the In­ter­na­tional Atomic En­ergy Agency to en­sure that Iran can­not en­gage in ac­tiv­i­ties that con­trib­ute to the de­sign and de­vel­op­ment of a nu­clear ex­plo­sive de­vice, and for­bids Iran from pur­su­ing nu­clear weapons in per­pe­tu­ity. While no arms con­trol agree­ment is with­out flaws, the ques­tion that Trump should be ask­ing is: What are the al­ter­na­tives?

With­out the nu­clear deal, Wash­ing­ton and its al­lies would have less ac­cess to and fewer con­straints on Tehran’s nu­clear pro­gram. So long as Iran re­mains in com­pli­ance with its JCPOA com­mit­ments, any steps by the US to un­der­mine its own obli­ga­tions un­der the deal will be deemed as “go­ing rogue” by the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity. This would erode the abil­ity of fu­ture US ad­min­is­tra­tions to ne­go­ti­ate cred­i­bly with friend or foe for fear that Wash­ing­ton could aban­don its com­mit­ments when­ever a new pres­i­dent moved into the White House. This is a stark dif­fer­ence from Pres­i­dent Obama’s ap­proach to en­gag­ing Iran bi­lat­er­ally and mul­ti­lat­er­ally, and hav­ing al­lies in Europe and Asia in agree­ment with Wash­ing­ton on sanc­tions and ne­go­ti­a­tions. Europe is much keener on keep­ing the Iran deal in place, and Trump’s in­tran­si­gence could cause irreparable harm to the transat­lantic re­la­tions.

If Iran were to make the same cal­cu­la­tion as North Korea - that Wash­ing­ton’s goal is not to limit its nu­clear pro­gram, but rather to exit the nu­clear deal as a pre­text to regime change - Tehran could view nu­clear weapons as a de­ter­rent, much like Py­ongyang did a decade ago. This could put the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion in the avoid­able po­si­tion of launch­ing mil­i­tary strikes that might plunge Amer­ica into an­other Mid­dle East war. — Reuters

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