The world must depend on Britain, France, Germany, China and yes, even Russia and Iran, to negotiate a path forward that treats all parties with respect and maintains the nuclear and humanitarian equilibrium that was obtained with the limited, but effective, deal signed in 2015 by those parties and the United States to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power.
That’s because, bluntly speaking, our country, the United States, has proved itself to be intemperate, reactionary, short-sighted, small-minded, and yes, stupid, by unilaterally withdrawing from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The European signatories, Russia, China — and the U.S. at that time — were concerned about Iran’s potential to develop nuclear weapons, and came to an agreement with that nation that restricted its enrichment of the uranium Iran uses for power production. Iran agreed to allow inspections by the United Nations International Atomic Energy Agency to ensure that it was complying with the agreement.
As the UN agency consistently confirmed, it was. The JCPOA brought a significant measure of reassurance about what had been one of the greatest international concerns about the Middle East — that Iran, the locus of power for Shia Muslims (as eloquently explained in these pages by former CIA Middle East Station Chief Haviland Smith) would get “the bomb.”
Stability, however, wasn’t good enough for a U.S. administration that prefers to lob its own bombs — disruption, mayhem, confusion, regression — into the midst of international accords. President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew this country from the JCPOA in May 2018.
One wonders why. His stated reason was that “it was the worst deal in history” because it didn’t address all the troublesome aspects of Iran’s conduct in the Middle East. One would think that the so-called author of “The Art of the Deal” (actually penned by a ghost-writer) would recognize that a “deal” is something to build upon. There was no “art” in his reflexive rescinding of an agreement that was working and could have inspired greater cooperation.
Other motivations? It seems entirely plausible, although ridiculous in anyone else, that it was another ham-handed way for Trump to gain attention for himself. He doesn’t care whether he’s loved or hated, as long as the world is talking about him, so he pulls out of things that the rest of the world values: the JCPOA, the 2016 Paris Climate Agreement, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty with Russia, ad nauseam.
There could be other motivations. Trump is on his way to finalizing an $8.1-billion arms sale to the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, the counterbalancing regional locus of the Sunni Muslims. (The Senate on Monday failed to override Trump’s veto of resolutions that could have blocked the sale.) Would there have been less economic gain for the U.S. arms industry if military tensions were lowered rather than raised?
America’s allies in the JCPOA don’t know what to make of our country’s withdrawal, either. This was, reportedly, one of the things former British ambassador to the U.S. Kim Darroch was referring to when he complained to his supervisors that the Trump administration’s policies were “incoherent (and) chaotic.”
In fairness to Trump, hostility to the JCPOA didn’t originate with him. While President Barack Obama was negotiated the agreement in 2015, Arkansas Republican Sen. Tom Cotton warned Iran that another U.S. administration might rescind it — a statement widely condemned in the U.S. as interfering with diplomacy. True enough, along comes Trump.
It’s a sad commentary on our present political condition to note that Arkansas was once represented in the Senate by Democrat J. William Fulbright, a scholarly internationalist and insightful author of “The Arrogance of Power.”
As a result of our withdrawal and imposition of harsh economic sanctions upon Iran, the region, and by extension the world, now faces elevated tensions. Iran and Britain have both seized oil tankers in the Persian Gulf; the Iranians shot down a U.S. drone. Iran has pointedly, though modestly, exceeded its uranium-enrichment restrictions under the JCPOA.
In recent days, however, responsible parties, meeting in Vienna, have tried to salvage the agreement. The Europeans and Iranians hope to broaden a pact formed earlier this year — the Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges — that would enable Western nations to provide economic and humanitarian relief to Iran without triggering U.S. sanctions upon them. On Sunday Iran’s chief negotiator commented, “I cannot say that we resolved everything,” but the parties were “determined to save this deal.”
That will take skill, determination and defiance of a United States that could use a renewal of Fulbright’s cautionary disquisition on the arrogance of power.