Iran/US: A temporary stay of execution?

Summary: Any sense of relief over Donald Trump’s decision last week ‘only’ to decertify the Iran nuclear agreement should be tempered by the fact that Congress will really struggle to come up with something which will satisfy the President within the 60-day deadline, thereby reopening the possibility that he will pull the US out of the agreement in three-months time, risking a major crisis in the Gulf.

We thank Alastair Newton for today’s posting about President Trump’s decision to decertify the Iran nuclear deal. The UK, France and Germany have since distanced themselves from President Trump with a statement of “concern” for which it would be hard to find a parallel, only slightly softened by a reference to Iran’s “regional activities”.

Reactions so far from the Middle East have been predictable: Israel, Saudi Arabia and its current allies UAE, Bahrain and Egypt have welcomed Trump’s anti-Iranian rhetoric. Should the JCPOA come unstuck all would face vital questions both of war and peace, and of nuclear competition with Iran, but those questions are forgotten for the present.

Alastair worked as a professional political analyst in the City of London from 2005 to 2015. Prior to that he spent 20 years as a career diplomat with the British Diplomatic Service. He served in Sub-Saharan Africa, Paris (at the OECD) and in the United States. In London, he worked in intelligence co-ordination (including during the 1990/91 Gulf War), policy planning and economic relations, as well as running the Prime Minister’s G7/8 team from 1998 to 2000. He was on secondment from the Diplomatic Service to the City from 2000 to 2002. In addition to his mainstream work, Alastair was Chair of the Supervisory Board of African Development Corporation from 2013 to 2015; President of the British Society for Middle Eastern Studies from 2010 to 2012; and a member of the Council of Chatham House from 2010 to 2015.

We welcome all your comments, either for circulation or for our consideration only. The views expressed in the article are the author’s own.

Iran/US: A temporary stay of execution?

“President Trump has recast the list of Middle East threats, with Iran replacing Islamic State as Enemy Number One.”

Lyse Doucet, BBC News, 13 October 2017

US President Donald Trump’s announcement last week that he would not sign off for a third time on the Iran nuclear agreement has been extensively reported and analysed in the media worldwide. Inevitably, this article will therefore cover some familiar ground. However, in aiming to look at where we may be by around the start of 2018 and what I see as the main drivers which will take us there, I hope I shall have added at least a little value.

“All politics is local”

“It should come as no surprise that Mr Trump is tearing up the global rule book…. He has been consistent in his desire to do so. The logic of his Iran policy is, however, baffling. Even the generals surrounding the President, all suspicious of Tehran, say the accord is working and is in the US national security interest.”

Financial Times, 14 October 2017

On several occasions during the 2016 election campaign, Mr Trump claimed that he would make US foreign policy “unpredictable”, an objective which he has repeated on several occasions since he was sworn in as President. Although I can think of other words which might better describe what has transpired over the past nine months or so — notably, ‘erratic’ — he has arguably achieved his objective.

However, looked at from a different perspective, one could equally conclude that the President’s personal leanings on foreign policy are pretty predictable in that they are governed principally by two clear (and related) drivers, ie:

  • Shoring up his ‘base’ of around 36-38% of the US electorate ; the key to this, to judge from the way in which his approval ratings fluctuate, is for him to conduct himself in a manner consistent with his pre-election pledges no matter how illogical, horrendous or even counter-productive the consequences may seem to a majority of Americans; and,

With both Mr Trump personally and his presidency generally coming under increasing pressure, it is very unlikely that we shall see a fundamental shift away from this approach, especially given the deep schism which has opened up between the Administration and Congress which continues to handicap prospects for major legislative achievements.

All this being said, two factors in particular help to keep the President in check.

First, his instincts periodically bump into harsh reality. One of several good examples of this is the conflict between his clear and oft-stated desire to tear up the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the fact that, if he were to do so, it would cost him votes in farming states which he needs to win if he is to have any chance of a second term.

The second is pressure from, in particular, the ‘grown-ups’ within the Administration. In the case of Iran and the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), much of the credit for dissuading Mr Trump from even more drastic action than he has taken in any case rests with three former generals — all of them, as the FT notes (subscriber access only), nonetheless Iran ‘hawks’ in their own way — Chief of Staff John Kelly, Defence Secretary James Mattis and National Security Advisor HR McMaster.

The buck does not stop here (yet)

“On healthcare (repeal and replace – but you figure out how), residency for children who entered the US illegally (Daca protections are illegal, but they can remain in place for six months or maybe longer) and now the Iran nuclear deal, the president has faced sharp disagreement within his administration, leaving Congress to clean up any resulting mess.”

Anthony Zurcher, BBC News, 13 October 2017

As has been well-documented, the consequent compromise — which, as CNN’s Aaron David Miller and Richard Sokolsky have made clear, certainly does not merit being described as a strategy — has resulted in the baton being passed to Congress.

As the BBC’s Anthony Zurcher goes on to point out in the article from which the quote at the start of this section is taken, it is far from certain that Congress is up to the task. Consider.

  • The congressional calendar is already severely overloaded, including with high priority issues such as budget and debt ceiling negotiations (due to be completed by 15 December under the terms of a deal Mr Trump did with Democrats in early September) and tax reform legislation. And yet if Congress is going to come up with something which will satisfy Mr Trump it has just 60 days (and far fewer working days) to do so.
  • What Mr Trump has asked Congress to come up with is a series of “triggers”, enshrined in US law, which would automatically impose new penalties in response to specific actions by Iran, including after the JCPOA’s ‘sunset clauses’ have expired in 2025; in other words, to quote Mr Zurcher again, “to build one complicated legislative construction on top of another” (ie amendments to the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act, INARA).
  • Although, working with the Administration, Senators Bob Corker (who is already at serious loggerheads with Mr Trump over other issues) and Tom Cotton (a leading Iran ‘hawk’) have reportedly come up with a draft, Republican hardliners are already criticising their efforts.
  • Even if all 52 Republican Senators can be persuaded to vote for the Corker/Cotton amendments, they would still require the support of at least eight Democrats to pass into law.

In short there seems to me no question other than that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson  was, if anything, underestimating the challenge when he said it would be no “slam-dunk up there on the Hill”.

Of course, Congress does have another option open to it, ie reimposing sanctions on Iran immediately, thereby effectively pulling the US out of the JCPOA. However, even though Congress has imposed some fresh sanctions on Iran this year, I very much doubt that we shall see it resort at this stage to what would amount, in more ways than one, to the ‘nuclear’ option.

If Congress fails…

“In the event that we are not able to reach a solution working with Congress and our allies, then the agreement will be terminated. It is under continuous review and our participation can be terminated by me, as President, at any time.”

Donald Trump, 13 October 2017

Although, as EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini was quick to point out, Mr Trump cannot terminate the deal, he can indeed pull the US out of it at any time. In the event of Congress failing to pass amendments to the INARA which satisfy Mr Trump — and assuming he does not then act immediately — the next likely watershed moment will be when his fourth certification review of the JCPOA is due in 90 days time.

It is safe to assume that, in this scenario, the President would again be subjected to lobbying not to withdraw the US. However, if we consider the wider context, Mr Trump is likely to be under even more severe pressure to shore up his base come the new year than he is today. Consider.

  • Although US tax professionals appear to be optimistic that Congress will manage to pass a tax reform bill “within the next six months”, there now seems to be little hope that this will be done by the Administration’s target date of the end of this year. This would mean that Mr Trump is likely to begin his second year in office without any major legislative success to his credit.
  • Especially taking into account the signal which Mr Trump’s decision on the JCPOA sends to Pyongyang, I think it more likely than not that North Korea will be continuing to carry out nuclear and missile tests and, therefore, getting closer to being able to strike the US despite Mr Trump’s pledge that there was “no way” he would allow this to happen.
  • The NAFTA renegotiation is likely to have become completely bogged down by this time, putting Mr Trump at loggerheads with Congress over yet another issue if he then tries to fulfil his pre-election commitment to withdraw the US from the agreement.

Furthermore, we have to consider that there will also be lobbying in the opposite direction, ie in favour of withdrawal. As The Observer’s Simon Tisdall has pointed out:

“If lobbying and pressure, carefully applied, can be effective in turning around the Trump juggernaut, the opposite also holds true. Assiduous courting by the governments of Israel and Saudi Arabia, not least during his high-profile visit to the two countries in May, has played to his worst, confrontational instincts. They were swift to congratulate him yesterday.”

It does appear possible that there are those in the Trump Administration who believe that adopting a much more aggressive stance towards Iran would help build an alliance between Washington’s most important allies in the region, ie Egypt, Israel and Saudi Arabia, which would, in turn, facilitate Jared Kushner’s unlikely aspiration of engineering a settlement between Israel and the Palestinians. Indeed, in all the coverage I have seen to date of the non-certification of the JCPOA, I am astonished that Mr Kushner has not been so much as mentioned as someone who may be pushing in favour of US withdrawal, especially given his close relationship with Binyamin Netanyahu whom regional expert Alon Ben-Meir recently described as: “the lone ranger who is foolishly pushing [Mr] Trump to cancel the deal”. Possibly, the low profile Mr Kushner seems to have been keeping since the launch of the Mueller investigation has caused commentators to forget about him; but Mr Trump’s son-in-law remains a very potent voice in the President’s ear.

…does the President then act?

“[Mr Trump’s] speech represents above all an uneasy compromise between the views of the president and those of his most senior officials and military advisers — all of whom want to see a tougher stance towards Tehran, but who, equally — to a man — have backed the nuclear accord despite all its imperfections.”

Jonathan Marcus, BBC News, 13 October 2017

In short, if the proverbial ‘buck’ does ultimately come to rest on Mr Trump’s desk, I see a non-negligible probability that he will withdraw the US from the JCPOA. Furthermore, there is at least a possibility that he will, in the meantime, fail to waive a congressional requirement (under the sanctions law passed in August) to designate the Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a terrorist organisation by 30 October; or that, if he were to waive this month, he would backtrack come the time of the next JCPOA review.

Staring into the abyss

“If the US were to impose new sanctions for any purpose at any time, it would likely find itself alone. The Europeans, China, and Russia are highly unlikely to join, not only because of financial self-interest, but also because Iran is in compliance with the JCPOA.”

Richard N Haass, Project Syndicate, 14 October 2017

Separate to Mr Haass’s comment, Iran expert Meir Javedanfar has noted that:

“As long as [new] sanctions will not be reimposed with European backing, Iran will have zero motivation to want to renegotiate anything,”

Mr Javedanfar continues:

All of this is to isolate [Iranian President Hassan] Rouhani and to punish him for the JCPOA…. We are going to see the hardliners isolating the moderates even more and the moderates will have to fall in line much more with the hardliners….”

Those “hardliners” naturally include the IRGC whose commander, General Mohammad Ali Jafari, has already said that, in the event of US withdrawal from the JCPOA:

“The Guards will consider the American military all over the world, especially the Middle East, as equal to ISIS.”

This may, as The Daily Beast suggests, be “bravado”. But, at minimum, it would almost certainly mean heightened tensions in the Gulf region between Iran and the US and a real risk of a miscalculation and escalation.

The bottom line

“…an issue that Americans aren’t thinking about very much now — say, a military confrontation with North Korea — could be pivotal in the 2018 and 2020 elections.”

Nate Silver, FiveThirtyEight, 24 August 2017

I have cited Mr Silver’s concern about a possible Wag the Dog-type scenario on the Korean peninsula on several occasions over the past few weeks. However, I do wonder if, in common with many others who have been preoccupied with North Korea, he has been looking in the wrong direction. Although I would not wish to overstate the risk, over the course of the next 12 to 18 months I think that the possibility of a significant military confrontation between Iran (and/or one of its proxies) and the US is somewhat larger than the 25% probability I currently have assigned to the risk of war in northeast Asia. And especially if Mr Trump does withdraw the US from the JCPOA.

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