Pakistan has begun to feel the pressure of Donald Trump’s arrival in Washington. He has threatened to move against Islamabad if the Pakistani government does not follow the dictates of the United States. These direct attacks apart, Pakistan is feeling the impact of America’s approach to the countries in its neighbourhood. Trump has cosied up to India and Saudi Arabia, has threatened to get tough with China and is working hard to push Iran into isolation.
The agreement known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action was negotiated in July 2015 in Vienna. It was called a victory for global diplomacy and nuclear non-proliferation and allowed Iran to resume oil exports and foreign companies to tap into a vast and growing consumer market. Since the signing of the agreement, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN watchdog tasked with monitoring Iran’s nuclear programme, has repeatedly certified the country’s compliance with the deal.
Under Trump the United States wanted to walk in a different direction with the White House refusing to certify Iran’s compliance. Decertification would mean that the president was telling his country’s legislature that Tehran was not adhering to the requirements of the July 2015 treaty. Such a move gave the US Congress 60 days to vote to place back sanctions on Iran. Before the nuclear deal, the US imposed what were called ‘secondary sanctions’, under which the treasury department penalises companies or people who do business with Iran. Even if the Europeans stayed with the accord, some of the continent’s businesses would be hurt if Washington imposed rigorously these secondary sanctions.
The reaction from Europe was clear: the European Union officials began to mobilise a counter-effort, encouraging the continent’s companies to invest in Iran while urging the US Congress to push back against the White House move. “The nuclear deal is working and delivering, and the world would be less stable without it,” said Helga Schmid, the secretary general of the European foreign policy service, in a speech at the Europe-Iran Forum. The forum was held in late September in Zurich to discuss business opportunities for Europe in Iran. This would constitute the second major policy rift between Europe and the United States. The first was Trump’s decision to walk out of the December 2015 Paris climate accord. “There is no real alternative” to the deal, a senior business executive told The New York Times. “It’s an illusion to think you can reopen and renegotiate.” Iran made clear its position. Within a few hours of Trump’s announcement, Iran’s President, Hassan Rowhani, announced that Iran would walk out of the deal if other signatories joined the US.
Given to exaggeration and hyperbole, Trump during the campaign had called the deal with Iran the worst ever in his country’s history. He promised to “tear up the agreement.” In a speech to the UN General Assembly he described it as “one of the worst and most one-sided transactions the US has ever entered into.” He never quite spelled out his problem with the accord. It appeared that he did not believe it was comprehensive enough. It did not prevent Tehran from developing its missile programme or giving aid to Islamic radical groups as Lebanon’s Hezbollah. It seemed he was determined to repudiate President Obama’s accomplishments. He was also under the influence of Israel, in particular Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
One of Israel prime minister’s close associates contributed an article to The New York Times condemning the accord. Michael Oren, Israel’s former ambassador to the United States, didn’t believe that the deal was worth saving. He was of the view that the Obama administration had wrongly sold the agreement as an alternative to war. “The alternative was never war, but a better deal,” he wrote. “Rather than lifting sanctions on Iran, allowing it to retain its nuclear infrastructure and develop more advanced centrifuges, a better deal could have ramped up pressure on the Islamic Republic. This would have stripped Iran capacities like uranium enrichment, which is unnecessary for a civilian energy programme, and linked any deal to changes in Iran’s support for terrorism, its regional aggression and its gross violation of human rights at home.” He suggested promise of military action to prevent Tehran from developing nuclear weapons. He was also not concerned about the European businesses. They would rather work with the United States, the world’s largest economy than with Iran, the 27th.
The New York Times came out clearly against the Trump move. It called the president’s position, “his most feckless foreign policy decision yet,” and advised him: “Don’t do it, Mr President. Be a statesman, listen to your own military and intelligence officials and put the security of America and its allies ahead of your ego.” The Washington Post expressed the same sentiment. It also wrote an editorial, warning the president that he was “embarking on a dangerous and pointless game of brinkmanship with Tehran.” The newspaper reminded Trump that the IAEA had repeatedly certified Iran’s compliance; according to Defence Secretary Jim Mattis, the US intelligence community agreed with the UN body. “Iran is not in material breach of the agreement, and I do believe… [it] has delayed the development of nuclear capability, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Joseph F Dunford, Jr, testified to Congress. But Trump seemed set upon following this course, since he found “loathsome certifying every 90 days that president Barack Obama’s signature policy achievement is intact.” I will revisit this subject in a couple of weeks once the full consequences of Trump’s decision are well digested.
Published in The Express Tribune, October 23rd, 2017.