So, he did it. Trump announced on 8 May that he would reimpose sanctions against Iran. This is a breach of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) agreed by President Obama with Iran, the UK, Germany, France, Russia, the EU and China in 2015. The other signatories may now scramble to do what they can to salvage the deal, but it is likely that Iran will simply turn its back on it.
It was not a surprise. The appointments of John Bolton and Mike Pompeo as security adviser and secretary of state respectively, and Pompeo’s collusion with Binyamin Netanyahu’s presentation of supposedly revelatory new intelligence on Iran’s nuclear programme, all looked like preparation for Trump to repudiate the Iran nuclear deal (the Netanyahu revelations told nobody anything that was not known before). It is an act of diplomatic vandalism; removing one of the few anchors for stability in the Middle East, and damaging the credibility of the US in international diplomacy more widely. Obama’s commitment to the JCPOA was a commitment to diplomacy and peace that could, if built upon, have begun a process of de-escalation, reconciliation and relaxation of regional tensions. Trump’s decision puts the US and Iran back on the old path of confrontation and escalation that could end in war.
Trump’s own defence secretary James Mattis, an array of senior Israeli figures, Angela Merkel, Emmanuel Macron, UN secretary general António Guterres, and many more, have all said the JCPOA is the best insurance against Iran renewing a nuclear weapon programme. So why has this happened? An important part of the problem is the increased tension between Israel and Iran over Syria. Netanyahu wants to halt in its tracks any possible expansion of Iran’s military presence in Syria, but in the longer term, domestically, has been trying to hold together a coalition of extremes by exaggerating the external threat from Iran.
For his part, Trump wants to demolish the Obama legacy, and to woo a hard-line Republican element. In the run-up to the Iran deal, the negotiations became a focus for Republican hostility to Obama in ways that had much more to do with the division in US domestic politics than Iran.
TV images of crowds chanting “Death to America”, the memory of the hostage crisis of 1979-81, and past Iranian threats towards Israel form a bedrock of opinion about Iran on the US political right (and beyond), which is Trump’s prime constituency. Most of the accusations levelled against Iran by Bolton, Pompeo et al (hegemony, destabilisation, terrorism etc) are bunk. The Iranian regime has its own domestic problems, as the widespread street protests at the end of 2017 showed, and is primarily concerned with its own survival. As figures from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute demonstrate, Iran’s defence spending is small compared with Israel and Saudi Arabia. Iran has consistently supported the same governments in Iraq and Afghanistan that the US has supported in efforts to shore up regional stability.
Whatever Iran has done to help the Assad regime in Syria, and however much we may deplore the atrocities that regime has inflicted on rebels and civilians, Iran cannot be accused of destabilisation in that context. Iran’s help to the Houthis in Yemen has been limited, and is at most a secondary factor there. And it has led the counterattack against Islamic State (notwithstanding that it has been through the blunt instrument of the Shia militias).
But the accusations that Iran is a terrorist state have helped some in Washington DC to play on the bedrock hostility. Iran has few authoritative advocates there, no ambassador and no lobby, while its rivals – Israel, Saudi Arabia, the UAE – all have loud and strong voices. Others have gone along for the ride, whether because it has been in their commercial or political interests to do so; because it is easier to tell the ignorant what they want to hear; or simply because the received wisdom has its own momentum and they have gone with it.
Iran is not innocent in the case, of course. The regime’s doctrinaire opposition to Israel’s existence (which permits the accusation of sponsoring terrorism), its cruel detention of dual nationals and its pursuit of a ballistic missile programme since 2015 have been self-defeating policies, and other nations are right to press Iran to change its ways. But on the JCPOA, the regime acted in good faith, and kept its side of the bargain.
The US and Israel are playing irresponsibly with the already damaging confrontation between Saudi Arabia and Iran, between Sunnism and Shiism in the Middle East. If the JCPOA now collapses, it will be the result of the greatest outbreak of organised stupidity in international politics in recent memory.
Michael Axworthy is director of Exeter University’s Centre for Persian and Iranian Studies. His recent books include “Iran: What Everyone Needs to Know”(Oxford University Press) and “Revolutionary Iran” (Penguin).