Ben Roback is Head of Trade and International Policy at Cicero Group and a member of the US Embassy’s Young Leader’s UK programme.
Yesterday’s announcement by President Trump that the United States would withdraw from the Iran Deal (or the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, in full) should not have come as a huge surprise. In effect, we had known it was coming since 21st March 2016.
At the annual AIPAC policy conference of pro-Israel delegates, activists and campaigners, then-candidate Trump said:
“I came here to speak to you about where I stand on the future of American relations with our strategic ally, our unbreakable friendship and our cultural brother, the only democracy in the Middle East, the state of Israel. My number-one priority is to dismantle the disastrous deal with Iran.”
It came as little surprise that Trump’s position as president did not change
There are several explanations for this.
First, the stubbornness of the President on the core issues on which he campaigned. Trump has run the White House as a loyalist to the 46.4 per cent of voters who elected him, hence the need to deliver the pledges he promised as a candidate.
Second, an overwhelming sense of loyalty to his closest allies. In Middle East policy, that means an inner circle of Prime Minister Netanyahu of Israel and Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman of Saudi Arabia (both of whom have ingratiated themselves with President Trump in ways that Prime Minster May and Chancellor Merkel have refused to).
Third, an almost blanket opposition to anything whatsoever initiated, extended or signed by President Obama. That the Iran Deal was signed by Executive Order and not a Treaty approved by Congress enabled President Trump to walk away with ease – if you live by Executive Order, you die by Executive Order. Lastly, the internal voices within the White House changed. When Trump won the presidency, he was finally in a position to immediately scrap the deal. He was talked out of it by Rex Tillerson and H.R. McMaster. The President fired both men, replacing them with Mike Pompeo and John Bolton respectively, both Iran hawks.
Commentators from Washington to Westminster have sought to explain why this represents a New World Order, with a pivot away from US-EU relations and towards relationships with American allegiances in the Middle East. It is true to point out that a period of frantic lobbying by Theresa May (over the phone), Boris Johnson (on Fox News), Angela Merkel (in person) and Emmanuel Macron (in person) ultimately fell on deaf ears. This could create a crisis between the Untied States and its historic European allies, but given the transactional approach taken by President Trump that is by no means guaranteed. Imposing long-term tariff increases on steel and aluminium exports from the European Union would be a far more damaging long-term signal, but it is reasonable to expect an often short-sighted president to work closer with the Europeans on strictly European matters. With little regard for existing alliance and global institutions, it is clear that President Trump views global relations through regional prisms. And so on Iran, he listened to those in the region most at risk from an Iran that possesses serious nuclear capabilities – Israel and Saudi Arabia.
First Iran, next North Korea
For a man who made his name based on ‘the art of the deal’, President Trump has displayed a fondness for breaking deals, not making them. Withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and Paris climate accord were early signs that this White House was willing to tear up the legacy of the previous White House at all costs. Yesterday’s announcement was further proof. It makes it all the more interesting that Trump and Pompeo are now turning their attention to making a deal with North Korea, with a view to securing a path to denuclearisation for the pariah state.
Having reneged on a handful of major agreements, those sitting across the table from US negotiators will wonder how long any deal they negotiate will be in place. When deals are scrapped, there are domestic as well as global consequences. For Iran’s President Rouhani and Javad Zarif, his Foreign Minister, two moderates in the Iranian political landscape, the tearing up of the Iran Deal shows political weakness and instability. Iranian hardliners are poised to capitalise, presenting a worrying threat to an already unpredictable part of the world.
Trump being Trump
Political intransigence is often viewed as a commitment to one’s beliefs, no matter the unpopularity or long-term consequences of the decision. Given Trump’s loyalty to the base who elected him and the world leaders who appeal to his more personal instincts, a refusal to listen to lobbying by America’s historic European allies on the Iran Deal should not have come as a surprise. The President is often taken literally but not seriously, whereas he should be taken seriously but not literally. In the short-term, expect withdrawing from the Iran Deal to be cited in the November mid-term elections by Trumpian candidates and in the President’s 2020 re-election campaign as proof of a hard-line on foreign policy and enablers of terror. In the longer-term, only time will tell whether the blowing up of the Iran Deal will only increase its nuclear capability. But by that time, we’ll probably be too busy talking about the latest Trump controversy to notice.