Deal or no deal: Will Trump and his team void the Iran nuclear accord?

Trump’s foreign policy and defense nominations have been hardline on Iran, but once they take the reins, will they really try and void the nuclear accord with Tehran?

By
January 14, 2017 16:39
Gen. James Mattis

Gen. James Mattis. (photo credit: REUTERS)

 
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President-elect Donald Trump’s past statements and rhetoric indicate that he is a non- interventionist, if not a full-fledged isolationist, making it clear he is against sending American troops to defend and intervene in other countries.

In that sense, he sharply deviates from the policy of Republican president George W. Bush, who believed in a strong US and invaded Afghanistan and Iraq. Trump also disapproves of the policy of his predecessor President Barack Obama, a Democrat who, though advocating for “soft power,” ordered targeted killings of terrorists in several countries in the Middle East and Asia.

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But, at the same time, Trump has nominated an extremely hawkish and interventionist team to execute his foreign and security policies and herein lies perhaps the most outstanding foreign-policy contradiction the president-elect will face when he enters office on January 20.

The new head of the National Security Council will be Gen. Michael Flynn, a former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), the intelligence body of the Pentagon.

Under his leadership, the DIA tried to expand by creating its own clandestine unit and in so doing stepped onto the traditional turf of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

The new director of the CIA will be Kansas Congressman Mike Pompeo, who recently tweeted that he was looking forward to “rolling back” the year-old nuclear deal with Iran, which he called “disastrous,” and Marine Gen. James Mattis, another Iran hardliner, known to his troops as “Mad Dog,” has been nominated as Defense Secretary. And, there is one more important and interesting candidate, the belligerent veteran, John Bolton, who was his nation’s ambassador to the UN under Bush and has been tipped for No. 2 at the State Department. All are ardent supporters of a strong US power and military presence all over the world.

How will the next president reconcile his own security and foreign-policy beliefs – if he has any –and those of his appointed officials, who are supposed to design, shape and run policy on a daily basis? Even more puzzling and urgent is the question of the nuclear deal with Iran, which was signed 18 months ago after protracted mud-slinging between the Democratic administration and the Republican-controlled Congress, and the highly undiplomatic intervention of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Like Netanyahu, all the above nominees believe the deal is a bad one.

Just days before his nomination, Pompeo called for the deal to be scrapped. Bolton was even bolder; while the world powers were negotiating with Tehran, he suggested that Israel bomb Iran’s nuclear sites.
Israel looks forward to working with Trump, says Israeli Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer

When Trump’s nominees take the reins of power, will they carry out what they have suggested in the past? Experience teaches us that, in politics, this doesn’t usually happen. Or, as the Israeli saying goes: What you see from there you don’t see from here.

Or, to put it another way, where you stand depends on where you sit.

The nuclear deal, however, is not just a matter of politics and rhetoric. It is much more complicated than meets the eye.

The deal was negotiated over a couple of years between Iran and not only the US, but by all the permanent members of the UN Security Council – Russia, China, the UK, France (which, along with the US, holds veto powers) and Germany. The UK, France and Germany represented the European Union (EU) in the deal.

THE SIGNED agreement, known officially as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, limits for 10 years Iran’s uranium-enrichment capabilities, pushing the country’s ability to assemble a nuclear bomb back at least one year. In return, the international community is gradually lifting the sanctions against Iran and unfreezing its financial assets.

Thus, it is a multilateral and not bilateral agreement. If the US violates and abandons the deal, it not only will send a message to Iran, but also to the other five signatories, including its three EU and NATO allies.

And the message will be very disturbing: the US government cannot be trusted. It doesn’t honor its international obligations.

Such a move is also problematic from a legal point of view. Local and international laws accept the principle of continuity. This is to say that, whether a new government likes it or not, it does respect the international agreements, responsibilities and commitments of its predecessors.

If the US breaks away from the nuclear deal with Iran and voids it, international chaos will be enhanced and world politics will become even more ungovernable. Nations, including American allies, will refuse to make deals with the US.

Russia and China will refuse to join forces with the US to try and solve already complex international conflicts. The bloody civil war in Syria is just one example.

Netanyahu, who opposed the Iran deal and tried to torpedo it, said in a CBS “60 Minutes” interview on December 11 that he hoped to work with Trump to undo the nuclear accord, but also knows the ramifications.

Scrapping the deal is a double-edged sword.

First of all, it is not clear that if the Trump administration walks away from the deal all the involved parties will follow suit. Most probably, they will not – certainly not China and Russia, and not even the EU.

The power of the sanctions that nearly suffocated the Iranian economy and brought Tehran to its knees, forcing the negotiation of the deal was in its international consensus.

Without it. unilateral US measures against Iran would have been far less effective.

Iran, under renewed US sanctions, would become more aggressive and could follow the North Korean path. Tehran could decide that it wants to have not only a nuclear option – which it already has – and not only to be on the nuclear threshold, as it was before the deal, but also to assemble the bomb.

As we know, the paranoid North Korean regime developed and constructed a few nuclear bombs as a final defense line, the ultimate shield, against any foreign effort to topple it.

Indeed, for years, voices were heard in Iran among the ultra-conservatives who opposed the deal that they should learn from Pyongyang. No one dares mess with a regime, especially an unpredictable one, that has nuclear weapons.

If Iran rushes to build a nuclear bomb, it will create big headaches for Israel and bring it back to where it was before the deal, when Netanyahu threatened to use the IAF to attack Iran. But, above all, he wanted the US to do it. Top US officials including Gen. Michael Hayden, the former director of the CIA, of the National Security Agency (NSA) and Director of National Intelligence (DNI), believes that what Netanyahu really wanted with all his inflammatory and belligerent rhetoric against Iran was to drag the US into a war.

There is also another important variable that may serve as a restraining factor to keep the deal. This is the economic factor.

Lifting the sanctions is providing lucrative deals for international corporations, including American ones. Boeing already has clinched a deal with Iran, and US oil companies are lining up.

In that context, it is worth mentioning Trump’s reported nomination of Rex Tillerson as his Secretary of State. Tillerson is the CEO of the oil giant ExxonMobil, and, like his boss, is said to be a good friend of Russian President Vladimir Putin. He also is another representative from corporate America in the newly formed cabinet, along with Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and Secretary of Treasury Steven Mnuchin.

In view of the friendly relations between Trump and his team, including Tillerson, with Putin – not to mention the CIA finding that Russia interfered in the US elections in favor of Trump – it is doubtful that the new US administration will want to find itself in confrontation with Moscow over Iran. For all these reasons, it is unlikely that the Trump administration, despite the positions of its top officials, will walk away from the deal.

But, no doubt, the US, under the new president, will be much more vigilant in monitoring any infringement ‒ even a minor one ‒ by Iran. Meanwhile, most experts, and even the Israeli intelligence community, admit that, so far, Iran is honoring its obligations under the deal.

Yossi Melman is an Israeli security commentator and co-author of ‘Spies Against Armageddon.’ He blogs at www.israelspy.com and tweets at yossi_melman

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