Because the US abrogated the JCPOA, it’s unlikely that the UN will re-establish global sanctions on Iran. America will pursue its own low-key measures, such as sanctioning Russian or Chinese companies that sell arms to Iran. Will these be effective? Probably not.


London: When future historians review and assess the long list of foreign policy blunders of Trump 1.0, what do you think will head the list? Will it be the US’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, leaving that huge region open for China to exploit? Or might it be the US’ withdrawal from the World Health Organisation, which President Donald Trump claims is dominated by China, which will surely happen when the US leaves. Or could it be the US’ withdrawal from the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, an agreement to prevent large parts of the American and Indian coastal areas from being under several feet of water in years to come. Probably not. The most likely blunder heading the list is the US withdrawal from the clumsily worded Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), designed to limit Iranian nuclear weapon procurement. Not only was the withdrawal an illogical and incomprehensible action, it is one which could seriously destabilise the region close to India’s western shores and endanger world peace.

The JCPOA was working well until Donald Trump appeared on the scene. The agreement had been intensively negotiated between Iran and the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany) over several years. To show that it wasn’t cheating, Iran agreed to extensive and thorough monitoring systems being put in place throughout the country, and over the months following the 10-year deal by all parties in 2015, inspectors repeatedly confirmed that Iran was keeping to the agreement.

So why did President Trump withdraw from the JCPOA, a move which angered his partners? The answer lies in two words: Barack Obama. The JCPOA was considered to be former President Obama’s crowning foreign policy achievement, just as Obamacare was his much admired national achievement. Because of Trump’s visceral hatred of Obama, he determined that he would dismantle Obamacare and destroy the JCPOA, contrary to State Department advice. He didn’t admit to this reason, of course. His declared rationale for withdrawal from the JCPOA was that Iran had failed to adhere to the agreement and “fomented death and destruction from Yemen to Iraq to Lebanon and Syria”. The latter may be so, but it had nothing whatsoever to do with the JCPOA, which was exclusively concerned with Iran’s nuclear enrichment and which time and time again the inspectors confirmed that the country was honouring.

When Trump announced “maximum pressure against Iran” after the US’ unilateral withdrawal in 2018, the allies in a joint statement made it clear they did not plan to join him “in the sincere hope of finding a way forward to resolve the impasse through constructive diplomatic dialogue, while preserving the agreement”. Sadly, “constructive diplomatic dialogue” doesn’t appear in Donald Trump’s playbook.

Since May 2018, the Trump administration and its allies in the Persian Gulf together with Israel have been waiting for the unilateral sanctions to bear fruit, expecting a collapse of the Iranian economy followed by rising social unrest to force its leaders to capitulate. How wrong could they be! After more than two years, it’s now abundantly clear that Trump’s strategy has backfired badly. Instead of capitulating, Iran’s response to Trump’s “maximum pressure” has been “maximum resistance”. It has ramped up its nuclear programme and slashed its breakout time, the window required to advance its nuclear programme to weapons production, from at least a year under the JCPOA to as little as about three months today. Iran is now more dangerous than before the JCPOA.

Although ordinary Iranians are hurting as a result of US sanctions, a hurt which has been magnified significantly by the coronavirus, the hardliners in Iran’s ascendant Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) have used the sanctions to tighten their grip on power, as well as increasing their control over the smuggling networks that the country relies upon for revenue. The IRGC is also setting its sights on the presidential elections next year, when their priority will be to ensure that the successor to Iran’s 81-year-old Supreme Leader is one who will preserve their privileges. Trump’s actions are therefore playing directly into the hands of Iran’s hardliners, for which they are eternally grateful!

In the meantime, tensions between the US and Iran have ratcheted up and the Trump administration has found itself largely alone. Nowadays, even America’s closest allies in Europe regularly voice their disapproval of the US policy on Iran. In typical fashion, instead of trying to salvage a modicum of international approval, the Trump administration is doubling down on its efforts to destroy the last vestiges of the nuclear deal, alienating its partners even further.

In a stunning display of gall, the Trump administration is now arguing that the US is part of the Iran deal after all! That’s because it wants to use a provision in the deal to “snap back” global sanctions on Iran to prevent the expiration of an arms embargo. Last week, however, France, Germany and the UK insisted that the unilateral re-imposition had no effect. Russia also argued that because the US pulled out of the JCPOA in 2018, Washington is not eligible to re-impose UN sanctions on Iran. It also said that it will now pursue military cooperation with Iran when the UN Security Council Resolution 2231 expires on 18 October, although Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov declined to elaborate on the nature of the cooperation. Last Thursday, Iran’s Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif arrived in Moscow for talks with Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s Foreign Minister, to discuss Iran’s purchase of Russian weapons.

So what has President Trump achieved so far in his efforts to restrain Iran? Just as with his failed policy on North Korea, the answer is nothing. Zilch. On the contrary, he has strengthened the hand of the IRGC and alienated America’s European allies, who still share the common goal of curbing Iran’s most worrisome behaviour. Under President Obama, America stood shoulder to shoulder with not only France, Germany and the UK, but also with Russia and China, to isolate Iran. Under President Trump it’s America which is isolated.

What will happen now? Because the US abrogated the JCPOA, it’s unlikely that the UN will re-establish global sanctions on Iran. America will therefore almost certainly pursue its own low-key measures, such as sanctioning Russian or Chinese companies that sell arms to Iran. Will these be effective? Probably not. There were reports in July that Iranian Supreme Leader Khamenei had agreed to a major foreign trade deal involving Russia and China. This supposedly secret 25-year strategic agreement with Beijing called for $280bn to be invested by the Chinese into Iran’s oil and gas sector, most of it within the first five years. There are also reports that there is a parallel agreement that “will involve complete aerial and military cooperation between Iran and China, with Russia also taking a key role”.

The Teheran-Moscow axis is fast becoming aligned, with the two countries having formed an effective military coalition in Syria in support of the Assad regime. Reports suggest that the petrochemical and weapons deal signed by the two sides in 2011 and expiring next March, will be renewed and expanded in 2021. In August, Iran allowed Russian troops to use its Shahid Nojeh airbase for launching airstrikes on Syria against the rebel forces, a sign that Iran’s leaders are becoming increasingly comfortable with Russia as a partner. The new “Power Couple” in the Middle East. This is an alarming prospect for peace in the region, and the fault lies squarely in the White House.

The situation must be calmed, and quickly. But ask yourself the question: can Donald Trump calm any situation? If you have any doubt, look at the recent presidential TV debate. As Trump’s former friend and advisor, Anthony Scaramucci said, “Donald has a negotiating position where he punches you in the face first, and then starts the negotiation.” The context was the ongoing tensions between America and North Korea, but Donald Trump applies his unique method to any situation. It’s unlikely that Iran’s mullahs will ever appreciate this style.

The Trump administration’s over-reliance on the coercive power of sanctions underscores its failure to understand Teheran’s decision making. The scene must be set for some form of new negotiations between the two adversaries. But for this to happen Iran will need to save face, something that the policy of “maximum pressure” without enticements or sweeteners makes impossible. Unfortunately, if the result of the presidential election is Trump 2.0, it’s very unlikely that any purposeful diplomatic activity will take place. Like so much of Donald Trump’s gamesmanship, there’s no Plan B behind the bluster. It’s probable that the US will interdict ships carrying goods to and from Iran, which will almost certainly lead to military confrontation in an already unstable part of the world. One which is on India’s north-western doorstep.

John Dobson is a former British diplomat and worked in UK Prime Minister John Major’s office between 1995 and 1998.