Steven Si­mon

The New York Review of Books - - Contents - Steven Si­mon

Eve of De­struc­tion

When Pres­i­dent Trump with­drew the United States last May from the Joint Com­pre­hen­sive Plan of Ac­tion (JCPOA), the nu­clear deal con­cluded in 2015 be­tween Iran and the P5+1 (the five per­ma­nent mem­bers of the United Na­tions Se­cu­rity Coun­cil plus Ger­many), and reim­posed US eco­nomic sanc­tions in Au­gust, the po­ten­tial con­se­quences for the Mid­dle East were im­me­di­ately clear. Iran might even­tu­ally re­act by re­sum­ing the nu­clear en­rich­ment ac­tiv­i­ties that had spurred the sig­na­to­ries to ne­go­ti­ate the deal. That, in turn, could pro­voke at­tacks on Iran by the United States, Is­rael, or both, pos­si­bly in co­or­di­na­tion with Saudi Ara­bia and the United Arab Emi­rates. As­sert­ing that it was merely im­ple­ment­ing the will of the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity, the US–Is­rael–Sunni coali­tion would at­tempt to de­stroy Iran’s nu­clear-re­lated in­fra­struc­ture. The neu­tral­iza­tion of Iran’s air and shore de­fenses to clear a safe path for the as­sault would re­quire highly de­struc­tive at­tacks far be­yond the sus­tained air cam­paign needed to elim­i­nate its dis­persed, cur­rently de­ac­ti­vated, nu­clear in­stal­la­tions: the heavy-wa­ter plant at Arak, the ura­nium hex­aflu­o­ride stor­age fa­cil­ity at Natanz, and the deep un­der­ground cen­trifuge cas­cades within the moun­tain at For­dow. The tar­gets would also likely in­clude mil­i­tary bases where the United States sus­pects that nu­clear work is be­ing car­ried out as well as re­search, de­vel­op­ment, and test­ing fa­cil­i­ties for ballistic mis­siles. These would not be pin­prick at­tacks. They could con­tinue for days or even weeks as dam­age as­sess­ments were con­ducted and fur­ther strikes en­sured that there was noth­ing left of the in­stal­la­tions but rub­ble. Given the vast dis­par­ity be­tween US com­bat power and that of its re­gional al­lies and Iran, it is cer­tainly pos­si­ble that Iran’s lead­ers would choose not to re­sist mil­i­tar­ily and would in­stead seek to ex­ploit the at­tacks as un­pro­voked ag­gres­sion to gain Euro­pean, Rus­sian, and Chi­nese diplo­matic sup­port and per­haps even the re­con­sti­tu­tion of its civil nu­clear in­fra­struc­ture. This would at least avoid a re­gional war. The United States could be iso­lated diplo­mat­i­cally, but for the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion that would scarcely con­sti­tute pun­ish­ment. And al­though Iran would prob­a­bly move as quickly as pos­si­ble to­ward a re­newed nu­clear ca­pa­bil­ity, the suc­cess of the first round of strikes would give the at­tack­ers con­fi­dence in their abil­ity to elim­i­nate it again.

It is equally pos­si­ble that Iran would re­sist mil­i­tar­ily de­spite its in­fe­rior ca­pa­bil­i­ties. Its op­tions are am­ple. There are many Amer­i­can civil­ians in Iraq, in ad­di­tion to the 5,200 US mil­i­tary per­son­nel de­ployed there in sup­port of Iraqi forces, and they would be vul­ner­a­ble to Ira­nian re­tal­i­a­tion. In­deed, Tehran must al­ready be con­fig­ur­ing its as­sets in Iraq to fa­cil­i­tate a rapid re­sponse to a US at­tack. With the for­ma­tion of a new govern­ment in Bagh­dad now un­der­way fol­low­ing the Iraqi na­tional elec­tions in May, it has the op­por­tu­nity to press for the ap­point­ment of min­is­ters with strong links to Iran who would be in­clined to help it strike US tar­gets in Iraq. Iran is ca­pa­ble of car­ry­ing out at­tacks on Amer­i­can per­son­nel in Afghanistan and Syria as well. It could press Le­banon’s Hezbol­lah to at­tack tar­gets in Is­rael, en­cour­age Houthi mis­sile at­tacks against Saudi Ara­bia from Ye­men, and strike both Saudi Ara­bia and the UAE with cruise mis­siles.

Ter­ror­ism is also an op­tion: the Ira­nian-backed at­tack against the US Air Force hous­ing com­plex in Kho­bar, Saudi Ara­bia, twenty-two years ago took place at a time of sim­i­lar ten­sions be­tween the two coun­tries. Con­gress was de­bat­ing the Iran-Libya Sanc­tions Act and had re­vived the Iran Free­dom Sup­port Act af­ter two failed at­tempts at pas­sage, and the Clin­ton ad­min­is­tra­tion had is­sued ex­ec­u­tive or­ders tight­en­ing sanc­tions on Iran. It was also en­gaged in a vig­or­ous diplo­matic ef­fort to per­suade Iran’s trad­ing part­ners to cut com­mer­cial links.

Any of these Ira­nian ac­tions would de­mand a US or al­lied mil­i­tary re­sponse. Given the tenor of the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion—and the as­sertive pos­ture of its al­lies to­ward Iran—es­ca­la­tion would be in­evitable and aimed at some sort of vic­tory. The re­sult­ing spi­ral, if un­con­trolled, would cul­mi­nate in US at­tacks against Ira­nian regime tar­gets and “in­stru­ments of regime con­trol”—that is, the in­ter­nal se­cu­rity ser­vices that keep the regime se­cure and sup­press dis­sent. No one knows ex­actly how this would play out. If past is pro­logue, the US would win mil­i­tar­ily but find it hard to con­vert op­er­a­tional vic­tory into a durable po­lit­i­cal suc­cess. In any case, the cost to all the com­bat­ants would be high.

War with the Is­lamic Repub­lic, how­ever, is not the only pos­si­ble re­sult of the US with­drawal from the nu­clear deal. Ira­nian pres­i­dent Has­san Rouhani has been neutered po­lit­i­cally by his fail­ure to de­liver re­lief from eco­nomic sanc­tions. His suc­ces­sor, when the next pres­i­den­tial elec­tion is held in 2021, could be some­one to his right, such as Saeed Jalili, a for­mer sec­re­tary to Iran’s Supreme Na­tional Se­cu­rity Coun­cil and adamant ad­vo­cate of nu­clear power. If so, the US will have achieved regime change in Iran, just not the kind it was aim­ing for. Trump’s ad­vis­ers, how­ever, be­lieve that a com­bustible mix of Ira­nian eco­nomic de­cline, wide­spread con­tempt for the cler­i­cal regime ap­par­ent in na­tion­wide protests, and in­dis­crim­i­nate govern­ment re­pres­sion will pro­duce an up­ris­ing that sweeps away the forty-year legacy of the Is­lamic Rev­o­lu­tion. In the best case, from the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s per­spec­tive, the dis­rup­tive ef­fect of sanc­tions on a mis­man­aged econ­omy and plung­ing cur­rency will suf­fice to pro­voke re­bel­lion. The use of mil­i­tary force in re­sponse to Iran’s re­sump­tion of its nu­clear pro­gram would add to pres­sure on the regime by demon­strat­ing its vul­ner­a­bil­ity and en­cour­age pop­u­lar re­sis­tance by sig­nal­ing the pos­si­bil­ity of US sup­port for an­tiregime vi­o­lence. If a new Ira­nian regime were sec­u­lar and pro-Amer­i­can, it would be swiftly em­braced by the West and in­te­grated into a peace­ful re­gional or­der. This is a stir­ring vi­sion. But the logic be­hind it im­plic­itly equates a tough regime backed by the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Guard Corps with that of the Shah, whose will to power crum­bled in the face of enor­mous demon­stra­tions and whose mil­i­tary de­serted him in the cri­sis.

Other con­se­quences could in­clude dif­fi­culty in ne­go­ti­at­ing fu­ture arms con­trol or non­pro­lif­er­a­tion agree­ments, as a re­sult of Trump’s dis­missal of the JCPOA as a “po­lit­i­cal agree­ment” bind­ing only on the ad­min­is­tra­tion that signed it; the weak­en­ing of the

transat­lantic al­liance against the back­drop of a resur­gent Rus­sia; the risk of re­gional nu­clear pro­lif­er­a­tion should Iran, un­con­strained by the JCPOA, sprint for a bomb; the strength­en­ing of China and Rus­sia; and the ero­sion of the dol­lar as a re­serve cur­rency as a re­sult of sec­ondary sanc­tions im­posed by the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion on firms that vi­o­late US sanc­tions on Iran.

Be­fore the US with­drawal from the nu­clear deal, the transat­lantic al­liance was fray­ing but still vi­able. This di­ag­no­sis is now sub­ject to change. Walk­ing away from the agree­ment was a grave af­front to the Euro­pean gov­ern­ments that had worked hard to ne­go­ti­ate it. For the Bri­tish, French, and Ger­mans, the JCPOA tran­scended a mere tech­ni­cal ar­range­ment reg­u­lat­ing Iran’s nu­clear pro­gram. It was a sym­bol of a new Euro­pean abil­ity and de­ter­mi­na­tion to al­ter the course of in­ter­na­tional de­vel­op­ments in a way that served a se­ri­ous, shared in­ter­est. Even though the pact was pri­mar­ily be­tween the United States and Iran, Euro­peans spoke of the JCPOA with pride, in part be­cause it was such an un­likely achieve­ment given the mis­trust among the par­ties, the stag­ger­ing com­plex­ity of the diplo­matic co­or­di­na­tion in­volved in es­tab­lish­ing a P5+1 po­si­tion, the in­tri­cacy of the tech­ni­cal is­sues, and the high bar the P5+1 set for an ac­cept­able out­come. For Ger­many, par­tic­i­pa­tion con­firmed its sta­tus as a Euro­pean power with global in­ter­ests.

Thus Amer­i­can rejection of the JCPOA was not sim­ply a mat­ter of dis­card­ing an agree­ment with Iran; it was a re­pu­di­a­tion of a Euro­pean ef­fort to re­al­ize its am­bi­tions, demon­strate com­pe­tence, and em­brace a co­her­ent iden­tity just as pow­er­fully en­tropic forces were jeop­ar­diz­ing these goals. The far right is as­cen­dant in Italy, Greece, Poland, Hungary, Slove­nia, and the Czech Repub­lic. The United King­dom’s planned with­drawal from the Euro­pean Union has weak­ened the po­lit­i­cal cen­ter. Right-wing par­ties in Europe are bet­ter or­ga­nized and more adroit at neu­tral­iz­ing the cen­ter-left as well as the cen­ter-right than their coun­ter­parts in the United States, which has de­voured the cen­ter-right while in­vig­o­rat­ing the left.

As the po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist Ivan Krastev shows in Af­ter Europe (2017), the prin­ci­pal at­tribute of con­tem­po­rary rightwing gov­ern­ments in Hungary, Poland, Italy, and Aus­tria is that they ground their le­git­i­macy in op­po­si­tion to Brus­sels. They have two mo­bi­liz­ing is­sues with which to blud­geon their lib­eral op­po­nents: aus­ter­ity and im­mi­gra­tion. Ger­many, un­der An­gela Merkel, is par­a­lyzed by its deep com­mit­ment to aus­ter­ity and open­ness to refugees.1 In­spired by the Bri­tish Con­ser­va­tive Party’s oblit­er­a­tion of the In­de­pen­dence Party, her cen­ter-right base sees its best op­tion for un­der­min­ing the far-right Al­ter­na­tive für Deutsch­land as ap­pro­pri­at­ing its anti-im­mi­gra­tion plat­form. French Pres­i­dent Em­manuel Macron is in a more se­cure po­si­tion, which is why he has been so out­spo­ken in me­thod­i­cally pur­su­ing a UK-French-Ger­man ini­tia­tive to sus­tain the JCPOA in the face of Amer­i­can an­i­mus. He is un­likely to have any bet­ter luck in Lon­don than in Ber­lin, how­ever, given the UK’s as­ton­ish­ing po­lit­i­cal dis­ar­ray and its in­ca­pac­ity to or­ches­trate any mean­ing­ful diplo­matic ini­tia­tives, in­clud­ing its exit from the EU.

All three coun­tries face yet an­other stum­bling block in the form of Trump’s sup­port for the Con­ti­nent’s surg­ing right. The US am­bas­sador to Ger­many, Richard Grenell, a for­mer Fox News com­men­ta­tor, prompted Ger­man politi­cians’ calls for his ex­pul­sion by declar­ing, “I ab­so­lutely want to em­power other con­ser­va­tives through­out Europe, other lead­ers. I think there is a groundswell of con­ser­va­tive poli­cies that are tak­ing hold be­cause of the failed poli­cies of the left,” and cheer­lead­ing for Aus­trian chan­cel­lor Se­bas­tian Kurz, a fierce critic of Merkel’s im­mi­gra­tion pol­icy, as a “rock star.” (In a tweet af­ter Trump an­nounced the US with­drawal from the JCPOA, Grenell also said that Ger­man firms should wind down their busi­ness in Iran im­me­di­ately.)

In the mean­time, the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion is en­cour­ag­ing the Euro­pean right through its sur­ro­gate Steve Ban­non. In France, on­stage with Na­tional Rally pres­i­dent Marine Le Pen in March, he ex­horted his au­di­ence to “let them call you racist, xeno­phobes, na­tivists, ho­mo­phobes, misog­y­nists— wear it as a badge of honor!” In Prague, he de­clared the post­war in­ter­na­tional or­der to be a “fetish.” In Hungary, he praised Vik­tor Or­bán. And then there is the Amer­i­can pres­i­dent him­self, who dis­par­aged NATO as play­ing the US for “schmucks” and the EU as “bru­tal” to the US, made a mock­ery of the G-7 sum­mit, slapped EU states with tar­iffs on steel, alu­minum, and an ar­ray of lesser im­ports, with­drew from the Paris Cli­mate Ac­cord, and has em­braced Rus­sia as a de facto ally even though it overtly threat­ens Euro­pean se­cu­rity. The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion is clearly try­ing to drive a wedge be­tween France, Ger­many, and the UK, on the one hand, and the rest of Europe on the other. The ef­fort is pay­ing off. Jeremy Shapiro, re­search di­rec­tor at the Euro­pean Coun­cil on For­eign Re­la­tions, notes that the Poles and Ital­ians re­gard Trump as their shield against Ber­lin and Brus­sels. This per­cep­tion is likely to spread.

In this al­ready toxic sit­u­a­tion, it’s dif­fi­cult to say how much transat­lanti­cism will suf­fer as a re­sult of US with­drawal from the JCPOA. But it could get worse. If the EU fol­lows through on its cur­rent com­mit­ment to the JCPOA in the hope of keep­ing Iran cor­ralled, it will even­tu­ally have to grap­ple with the im­po­si­tion of sec­ondary US sanc­tions on Euro­pean firms deal­ing with Iran. To­tal, Air­bus, and Fiat, for ex­am­ple, have ma­jor deals with Iran that were signed upon the sus­pen­sion of eco­nomic sanc­tions un­der the JCPOA. The EU can re­tal­i­ate against these sec­ondary sanc­tions by sanc­tion­ing US firms op­er­at­ing in Europe. But Brus­sels can­not ef­fec­tively in­dem­nify Euro­pean firms that do busi­ness in dol­lars or in the United States.

This sub­ju­ga­tion will be dif­fi­cult for the EU to en­dure. French fi­nance min­is­ter Bruno Le Maire, re­fer­ring to the US as the “world’s eco­nomic po­lice­man,” asked, “Do we want to be vas­sals who obey de­ci­sions taken by the United States while cling­ing to the hem of their trousers? Or do we want to say we have our eco­nomic in­ter­ests, we con­sider we will con­tinue to do trade with Iran?” His pre­ferred answers are, of course, No and Yes. But the ques­tions are prob­a­bly moot, given the pres­sures the US can bring to bear. In all like­li­hood, Euro­pean busi­ness in­ter­ests in the United States will ul­ti­mately out­weigh coun­ter­vail­ing in­ter­ests in Iran, and the JCPOA will col­lapse.

The ef­fect of US with­drawal from the JCPOA on fu­ture arms con­trol and non­pro­lif­er­a­tion agree­ments is tricky to pre­dict. It would be fair to as­sume that reneg­ing on the deal is un­likely to en­hance the United States’ rep­u­ta­tion for in­tegrity. In the near term, the North Kore­ans do not seem to have fo­cused on the US with­drawal from the JCPOA at all. Yet when Na­tional Se­cu­rity Ad­viser John Bolton pointed to the “Libya model” as the or­ga­niz­ing prin­ci­ple for the US ap­proach to de­nu­cle­ariza­tion talks with North Korea, the re­sponse was swift and cen­so­ri­ous. What­ever Bolton thought he was re­fer­ring to, Kim Jong-un saw Muam­mar Qaddafi tor­tured to death in a drain ditch. Clearly, the US has won a rep­u­ta­tion for pur­su­ing regime change at the point of a bay­o­net.

From a North Korean per­spec­tive, though, Wash­ing­ton al­ready had a rep­u­ta­tion for walk­ing away from deals. Ge­orge W. Bush uni­lat­er­ally aban­doned the 1994 Agreed Frame­work ne­go­ti­ated by the Clin­ton ad­min­is­tra­tion, dash­ing North Korean con­fi­dence in Amer­ica’s re­li­a­bil­ity. That agree­ment had frozen North Korea’s op­er­a­tion and con­struc­tion of re­ac­tors that the US had con­cluded were com­po­nents of a se­cret nu­clear weapons pro­gram. In re­turn, the North Kore­ans were to get two re­ac­tors whose fuel would be dif­fi­cult to re­pro­cess into weapons-grade nu­clear ma­te­rial and, un­til these were up and run­ning, fuel oil to sus­tain their econ­omy. Ex­perts es­ti­mate that in the ab­sence of the Agreed Frame­work North Korea would have had hun­dreds of nu­clear bombs by now, not the thirty to sixty it has fab­ri­cated since Bush aban­doned the agree­ment.

When the Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion took of­fice and set up its Korea pol­icy re­view, how­ever, it learned that North Korea was covertly ex­per­i­ment­ing with ura­nium en­rich­ment. It could have de­manded a halt to en­rich­ment ac­tiv­ity while keep­ing the con­straints of the Agreed Frame­work in place. But for Bolton, then a high-rank­ing fig­ure in the Bush State De­part­ment, the choice was clear: “This was the ham­mer I had been look­ing for,” he later wrote, “to shat­ter the Agreed Frame­work.”2 His can­dor would un­doubt­edly have made an im­pres­sion in Py­ongyang. While with­drawal from the JCPOA has no doubt reg­is­tered, the fate of the Agreed Frame­work and, more re­cently, White House talk about Libya prob­a­bly weigh more heav­ily in North Korean cal­cu­la­tions re­gard­ing Trump’s trust­wor­thi­ness.

As­sess­ing the broader and longert­erm ef­fect of with­drawal from the

JCPOA is hard be­cause diplo­matic arms con­trol and non­pro­lif­er­a­tion ef­forts have been en­er­vated for decades. Since the mid-1990s new agree­ments, let alone treaties, have been in­creas­ingly elu­sive. The Se­nate, for ex­am­ple, re­fused to rat­ify the Com­pre­hen­sive Test Ban Treaty (1996), and the Strate­gic Arms Re­duc­tion Treaty (known as New START) was rat­i­fied in 2010 only be­cause its am­bi­tions were so lim­ited. It would clearly not have coun­te­nanced the JCPOA in treaty form. This record sug­gests that Trump, hav­ing promised a treaty to North Korea, may have in­ad­ver­tently set up his ini­tia­tive for fail­ure. The sour con­gres­sional re­ac­tion to the Sin­ga­pore Joint State­ment could hardly be called en­cour­ag­ing. The Se­nate seems no more likely to ap­prove a treaty with North Korea than with Iran or Rus­sia. Trump him­self, in with­draw­ing from the JCPOA, has demon­strated the worth­less­ness of the only al­ter­na­tive—an ex­ec­u­tive agree­ment. China, the most ob­vi­ous part­ner for a fu­ture arms con­trol agree­ment, has set two pre­con­di­tions that will never be met by the US or Rus­sia. The first is that the size of China’s nu­clear weapons stock­pile should con­sti­tute the ap­prox­i­mate ceil­ing for Rus­sian and US in­ven­to­ries. China has only about 260 weapons, while the US has 6,800 and Rus­sia 7,000, and nei­ther would agree to such a huge re­duc­tion. China’s other pre­con­di­tion is that In­dia be in­cluded in any agree­ment, but New Delhi would in­sist that Is­lam­abad be in­cluded as well. So what­ever ef­fect the JCPOA with­drawal has had on Bei­jing’s strate­gic cal­cu­la­tions won’t be re­flected in an arms con­trol agree­ment. Rus­sia is not a can­di­date ei­ther, given Vladimir Putin’s re­newed em­pha­sis on nu­clear weapons in Rus­sia’s over­all mil­i­tary strat­egy and in­sis­tence on lim­its to ballistic mis­sile de­fenses and “Prompt Global Strike,” the US plan for con­ven­tion­ally armed ICBMs, which Wash­ing­ton has re­jected. US claims that Rus­sia is cheat­ing on its obli­ga­tions un­der the 1987 In­ter­me­di­ate-Range Nu­clear Forces Treaty also ap­pear to be an in­su­per­a­ble ob­sta­cle to rat­i­fi­ca­tion of a new START treaty.

Other po­ten­tial pro­lif­er­a­tors, such as Syria, Libya, or Iraq, have been ei­ther crushed or dis­armed, so there is lit­tle prospect that broader per­cep­tions of US per­fidy in the Ira­nian case will mat­ter very much in fu­ture arms con­trol ne­go­ti­a­tions with them. The most likely po­ten­tial pro­lif­er­a­tors—Saudi Ara­bia, Turkey, Ja­pan, and South Korea— are more or less in the US camp. The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion does not ap­pear to be fo­cused on lim­it­ing the ca­pa­bil­i­ties of its al­lies, or for that mat­ter fore­stalling their de­sire for non­con­ven­tional weapons by promis­ing the pro­tec­tion of the US nu­clear de­ter­rent.

This rather bland ap­praisal of the ef­fect of with­drawal from the JCPOA on fu­ture arms con­trol agree­ments, how­ever, should not be re­as­sur­ing. If Trump’s de­ci­sion does lead to the pact’s col­lapse, it will have se­ri­ously dam­aged the cred­i­bil­ity of the Non-Pro­lif­er­a­tion Treaty (NPT) just be­fore the next Re­view Con­fer­ence in 2020. The Iran nu­clear deal was ul­ti­mately grounded in Iran’s ad­her­ence to the NPT and in­cluded an Ad­di­tional Pro­to­col that re­quired Iran to sub­mit to un­usu­ally in­tru­sive in­spec­tions, as well as in the au­thor­ity of the In­ter­na­tional Atomic En­ergy Agency (IAEA), which con­ducts the mon­i­tor­ing. The ne­go­ti­a­tion of the JCPOA clearly reaf­firmed both Iran’s NPT com­mit­ments and the le­git­i­macy of IAEA in­spec­tions. By con­trast, the United States’ with­drawal from the JCPOA has sub­verted the NPT, leav­ing force the de­fault op­tion. A nu­clear-armed Iran was long thought to be the cat­a­lyst for pro­lif­er­a­tion on the Arab side of the Gulf. Ex­perts have ques­tioned this con­ven­tional wis­dom for sev­eral rea­sons.3 A nu­clear fuel cy­cle is ex­tremely dif­fi­cult to en­gi­neer, build, and main­tain. Fabri­cat­ing a weapon with the en­riched ura­nium or plu­to­nium pro­duced by the fuel cy­cle is yet an­other im­mense chal­lenge. And hav­ing weaponized the fuel, there re­mains the task of re­duc­ing the size of the “physics pack­age” to fit on a mis­sile and harden it enough to sur­vive reen­try into the at­mos­phere. For the hand­ful of states that have suc­ceeded in cre­at­ing a stock­pile of de­liv­er­able nu­clear weapons, the ef­fort has been sus­tained, in­ten­sive, im­mensely ex­pen­sive, and gen­er­ally re­liant on out­side help. On the Ara­bian Penin­sula the money is am­ple, but the ex­per­tise and tech­no­log­i­cal in­fra­struc­ture are not. Iron­i­cally, the de­ci­sion to go for a bomb would be com­pli­cated by the mul­ti­lat­eral mea­sures put in place over the last decade to hin­der Iran’s nu­clear pro­gram. Fur­ther­more, the A. Q. Khan net­work that aided re­gional nu­clear ef­forts has been shut down, while North Korean as­sis­tance would pre­sum­ably be cur­tailed as long as ne­go­ti­a­tions with the United States were go­ing on.

Al­though the Saudis have con­tended that nu­clear power is eco­nom­i­cally es­sen­tial and have ne­go­ti­ated with a range of sup­pli­ers, they have moved slowly un­til now. Un­der a new leader, this could change. In an at­tempt to trans­form the king­dom, Crown Prince Mo­hammed bin Sal­man has pro­ceeded ag­gres­sively, es­pe­cially in se­cu­rity mat­ters. Un­der his com­mand, Saudi forces are en­gaged in Ye­men and the king­dom has put it­self for­ward as a bul­wark against Iran. In March, he said, “Saudi Ara­bia does not want to ac­quire any nu­clear bomb, but with­out a doubt if Iran de­vel­oped a nu­clear bomb, we will fol­low suit as soon as pos­si­ble.”4 That the Saudis have wanted to pre­serve the nu­clear weapons op­tion is ev­i­dent from their un­will­ing­ness to agree to a US pro­hi­bi­tion on en­rich­ment as a con­di­tion for the trans­fer of Amer­i­can nu­clear tech­nol­ogy. The crown prince’s dec­la­ra­tion does not mag­i­cally erase the ob­sta­cles to a nu­clear weapons ca­pa­bil­ity. But his re­sources, de­ter­mi­na­tion, and pat­tern of risk-tak­ing be­hav­ior could pro­pel Saudi Ara­bia to­ward a nu­clear ca­pa­bil­ity faster than ex­pected. It is not cer­tain that the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion would ob­ject.

Fi­nally, uni­lat­eral Amer­i­can sanc­tions on Iran could pro­duce an eco­nomic boomerang ef­fect. Suc­ces­sive US ad­min­is­tra­tions have re­lied on sanc­tions in the ab­sence of other co­er­cive al­ter­na­tives to the use of force. In most cases, they are coun­ter­pro­duc­tive. They strengthen au­thor­i­tar­ian regimes and pun­ish or­di­nary peo­ple. But they sat­isfy the need to be seen to be do­ing some­thing to de­fend US in­ter­ests where the will to fight for them is ten­u­ous or the stakes are not that high. Un­der some con­di­tions they can also be ef­fec­tive, as they were against Iran in the years pre­ced­ing Tehran’s agree­ment to ne­go­ti­ate strin­gent lim­its on its nu­clear pro­gram. The sanc­tions were es­pe­cially puni­tive be­cause they were mul­ti­lat­eral, and Iran had no way to evade them. Do­mes­tic po­lit­i­cal cir­cum­stances made sanc­tions re­lief es­sen­tial, the elec­tion of the mod­er­ate Has­san Rouhani as pres­i­dent pro­vided an open­ing, and the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion was pre­pared to deal.

But Trump also in­tends to levy sanc­tions against coun­tries that vi­o­late US uni­lat­eral sanc­tions against Iran. These mea­sures could be ex­tremely ef­fec­tive since in­ter­na­tional trans­ac­tions are largely de­nom­i­nated in dol­lars. Trump has been clear that the US will en­force sanc­tions on any coun­try that, for ex­am­ple, buys Ira­nian oil by seiz­ing its US-based as­sets and bar­ring it from do­ing busi­ness in the US.

This will prob­a­bly work in the short term. Over the long term, na­tions will de­velop coun­ter­mea­sures. Most ob­vi­ously, they will shift in­cre­men­tally and slowly to­ward other cur­ren­cies for trad­ing pur­poses, prob­a­bly the euro or the ren­minbi. The Chi­nese are al­ready es­tab­lish­ing com­pa­nies whose only trad­ing part­ner is Iran. The Ger­mans are think­ing of do­ing the same.5 Dol­lars would not be a fac­tor in these ar­range­ments nor would there be US-based as­sets for Wash­ing­ton to hold hostage. Other coun­tries would have an in­cen­tive to fol­low suit. As China be­comes the champion of free trade and the US bows out of mul­ti­lat­eral trade pacts, while us­ing its power over trans­ac­tions in dol­lars as a weapon against Iran’s trad­ing part­ners, in­clud­ing US treaty al­lies, the ad­van­tages of the dol­lar as a re­serve cur­rency will slowly shrink. This is not nec­es­sar­ily a bad thing from a purely eco­nomic per­spec­tive, and to some ex­tent in­ter­na­tional re­liance on the dol­lar has been de­clin­ing al­ready, al­beit in small steps. From a for­eign pol­icy per­spec­tive, how­ever, the emer­gence of ri­val cur­ren­cies chips away at Amer­i­can in­flu­ence. It’s worth re­call­ing that Bri­tish ster­ling was a re­serve cur­rency for a cen­tury and then, rather sud­denly, it was not. The post­war lib­eral or­der had many el­e­ments: cul­tural, eco­nomic, strate­gic. US lead­er­ship in­spired and en­er­gized these el­e­ments. In some sit­u­a­tions, Amer­i­can in­volve­ment was dis­as­trous, as it was for mil­lions of Viet­namese. For East­ern Euro­peans dom­i­nated by the Soviet Union, the post­war or­der was not lib­eral at all, a dis­pen­sa­tion in which the US de­clined to in­ter­vene be­cause of for­bid­ding strate­gic cir­cum­stances. Yet over the course of decades and a vast ge­o­graphic area, the lib­eral or­der fos­tered by the US el­e­vated bil­lions from ex­treme poverty and cre­ated a model for broad po­lit­i­cal par­tic­i­pa­tion and free­dom of ex­pres­sion.

Al­liances led by the US proved durable be­cause its al­lies did not fear it. And this en­cour­aged the adop­tion of trad­ing and se­cu­rity sys­tems based on ne­go­ti­ated rules that the US, de­spite its hege­monic sta­tus, played by more of­ten than not. Un­til now, ev­ery US ad­min­is­tra­tion since Franklin Roo­sevelt’s had at­tempted, some more adroitly than oth­ers, to re­in­force this lib­eral or­der. A global loss of be­lief and con­fi­dence in that or­der has been grow­ing since the end of the cold war. Yet the Amer­i­can with­drawal from the JCPOA is so strik­ing be­cause it re­flects not just the aban­don­ment of this or­der but its sys­tem­atic an­ni­hi­la­tion, and with it the end of US in­ter­na­tional lead­er­ship and the rel­a­tive sta­bil­ity that it se­cured.

—Au­gust 29, 2018

Ira­ni­ans cel­e­brat­ing on the streets of Tehran fol­low­ing the an­nounce­ment of the nu­clear deal, July 2015

Ira­nian cler­ics in front of air de­fense rock­ets dur­ing war games in Arak, Iran, Novem­ber 2009

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