In the US, President Trump’s speech to Congress outlining his administration’s position on the nuclear agreement between six international powers and Iran is being hailed as the highlight of the coming week. It is expected to take place no later than 15 October.
So far, everything is pointing towards the US president challenging the nuclear deal as not being in the national security interests of the United States. US legislators would then have 60 days to decide whether to reimpose the sanctions on Iran that were in place prior to the adoption of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). In doing so, the US journal The American Conservative predicts that Trump is not simply removing America’s signature from the document, but is also declaring a new hard-line approach to the Islamic Republic. At America’s instigation, the world is going to find itself once again on the verge of a dangerous escalation.
So what exactly is Trump hoping to achieve by demonstrating a complete disregard not just for the previous American administration, but for the international community? Does Trump actually have a plan and a coherent strategy for Iran?
Up until the last few days, it was thought that the US president would answer these questions following his meeting on 5 October with senior military officials, when issues related to America’s confrontation with North Korea and Iran were discussed. For once, however, Trump shocked journalists with his reluctance to provide any specific details about his domestic policy. He merely stated: “Maybe it’s the calm before the storm.” Following such an enigmatic comment by the commander in chief of the US armed forces, who has his hand on the superpower’s nuclear button, a journalist asked him what he meant. Trump brushed off the question by saying: “You’ll find out.”
Without any intelligible information from the head of state, the US media has resorted to guesswork. As noted by The Politico, Trump wants to “wound” Iran, but has no intention of “killing” the deal and the strategy allegedly has the approval of the president’s inner circle. The gist of the strategy is to allow him to remain adamantly opposed to the nuclear agreement without abandoning his hard-line position and militant rhetoric against Tehran... kind of. ‘Kind of’ because the second part of the plan is to agree with Congress to leave everything as it is and not reimpose sanctions on Tehran that would bury the agreement.
The man behind this ‘wise’ plan – US National Security Adviser Herbert McMaster – believes that this option will leave the nuclear deal intact “for now” and will allow Trump’s team “to work with Congress and European allies to apply new pressure on the Iranian regime”. It is a dubious strategy. As if US congresspeople aren’t going to seize on the opportunity to reimpose full-scale sanctions against Tehran as soon as Trump gives the go-ahead to unleash a new anti-Iranian campaign.
It’s also unlikely that America’s European allies will agree to McMaster’s proposed strategy. Rather, Congress will adopt new sanctions against Iran and Europe will not support them due to the negative impact they will have on the economies of EU countries. Or is the White House now indifferent to a further cooling of relations between America and the Old World?
The Washington Post believes that Trump’s challenge to the nuclear agreements between the P5+1 and Iran “is an early signal of the possible transatlantic rifts ahead as the United States’ European partners show no sign of following the White House call to renegotiate the landmark pact with Tehran”. The newspaper cites the opinion of Helga Schmid, the secretary general of the European foreign policy service, who believes that the nuclear deal is working and the world would be less stable without it. Schmid made the statement a few days ago at a “Europe-Iran” investment forum in Zurich.
European leaders do not want to scrap the relationship they have been building with the Islamic Republic since the sanctions were lifted, but are seemingly hoping that the 60-day period after Trump announces his decision to reject the JCPOA will give them the opportunity to convince Congress to save the agreement. This is a mistake. The aim of the strategy that Trump is expected to announce this week is for the US administration and Congress to form a united front against their European allies. This is how experts at Bloomberg in particular are assessing the situation.
There have been initial attempts to gauge the reaction of Iran’s leadership to such a turn of events. In Europe, Reuters is circulating material that claims Iran is allegedly open to talks over its ballistic missile programme. Supposedly, given the US president’s threats, Tehran has said it would be willing to discuss some “dimensions” of its missile programme. According to Reuters, the statement was made on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly last month.
Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Qassemi has categorically denied the information. “Iran regards defensive missile programmes as its absolute right and will definitely continue them,” said the foreign ministry spokesman. Qassemi added that Iran “has repeatedly in diplomatic meetings with foreign officials” emphasised that its “defensive missile programme is not negotiable”.
It is easy to see an attempt to divide the Iranian leadership in the inflammatory information published by Reuters. A quote from the article reads: “The Americans expressed their worries about Iran’s missile capability and Zarif said in reply that the programme could be discussed.” If Reuters’ sources are to be believed, in others words, Iran’s minister of foreign affairs is taking into account Washington’s “worries” over Iran’s ability to ensure its safety in the face of threats from Israel and Saudi Arabia and has agreed to back down.
Javad Zarif has refuted the reports. In an interview published by Associated Press on 27 September, he said that Iran will not review the terms of the JCPOA. There will be no concessions and no compromises. He also warned that the US president “would open a Pandora’s box” if he tried to renegotiate the terms of the agreement reached with the six world powers and approved by the UN. And he’s right.
Today, all of America’s allies that are part of the agreement (Great Britain, France and Germany), as well as China and Russia, say that the JCPOA is working without a hitch. The IAEA does not have a problem with Iran either. Only the US administration is uncomfortable with the existence of an independent state in the Middle East that prefers to stand on its own two legs, rather than be propped up by American crutches.