Trump risks an ‘own goal’ with his Iran strategy
26 Sep 2017|

With the Trump administration stepping up its efforts to undermine the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) on Iran’s nuclear activities over recent weeks, Iran may soon face some difficult choices on how to respond to increasing US belligerence. Non-certification by Trump in October is likely despite the fact that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has again found Iran to be in compliance with its obligations under the agreement. It’s clear from Trump’s address to the UN General Assembly on 19 September that the White House is not only determined to wind back the clock on engagement with Iran on its nuclear activities, but also to portray Iran as a ‘rogue state’ comparable to North Korea.

Iran has been relatively constrained in its responses to Trump and appears determined to promote the narrative that it won’t be responsible if the JCPOA collapses. In August, President Hassan Rouhani said that Iran could restart its nuclear program in a matter of ‘hours’ should the US impose further sanctions, and Iran has claimed that the US is already in breach of the agreement. And in mid-September, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said that Iran wouldn’t be bullied by the US and would react strongly to any ‘wrong move’ by Washington on the JCPOA.

Increasing US hostility towards the JCPOA and Iran will likely undermine the broad support the agreement has had within Iran. Khamenei’s original endorsement of the JCPOA was conditional on sanctions relief, and recent statements by both Khamenei and Rouhani indicate that new sanctions remain a red line. Rouhani responded to Trump’s UN speech by stating that the JCPOA can’t be renegotiated and won’t continue without the US. That’s a much harder line than that taken by Vice President Ali Akbar Salehi, a key negotiator on the JCPOA, who had previously noted that Iran may remain committed to the JCPOA in the event of a US withdrawal, if the other JCPOA parties remain committed. But hardliners within Iran are already targeting Rouhani—who was re-elected with a comfortable margin despite predictions that the JCPOA would affect his prospects—for not dealing with the issue of sanctions firmly enough.

Trump’s belligerence also diminishes the prospect for IAEA access to military sites such as Parchin, which has been flagged as something that the IAEA needs to incorporate in future verification activities. Iran has so far ruled out IAEA access to military facilities, a position that IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano has challenged, but US threats will harden Iran’s resolve on the issue.

Iran likely relishes the fact that the US’s posture on the JCPOA is out of sync with other parties’ views on it, and Iran will exploit that to its own advantage. But it must also be alarmed by the White House’s increasingly strident rhetoric, which confirms Iran’s belief that the administration’s policy is based on deep-seated anti-Iran sentiment and a desire for regime change.

Worryingly for Iran, Trump’s animosity is unlikely to be tempered by key advisers, and the likely non-certification of the JCPOA appears to be the first step in a tougher approach to Iran. Trump’s appointment of Mike Pompeo—who as a congressman opposed any type of agreement with Iran—as CIA director means that Trump may succeed in constructing a politicised intelligence case for action against Iran. While Defense Secretary James Mattis has been more moderate in his views on the JCPOA, he has also long been hawkish on Iran.

But the portrayal of Iran by the US, Israel, Saudi Arabia and others as an aggressive state seeking hegemony in the Middle East is misleading and ignores a key element in Iran’s foreign policy—a deep-seated sense of strategic isolation. The Iranian leadership sees itself as acting defensively rather than offensively, and its strategic posture is informed by a number of factors—a lack of meaningful alliances, a sense of vulnerability and isolation in a tumultuous region, and increasing encirclement by US troops and bases.

Iran’s actions have typically focused on providing support to co-religionists in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen to disrupt perceived threats to Iran’s interests, and are best characterised as focused on survival in a hostile world. Nevertheless, Iran has shown itself to be capable of constructive engagement with neighbours. Oman, for example, enjoys a largely positive relationship with Iran after recognising what others have not: that engaging with Iran can be mutually beneficial. Iran was also amenable to a recent approach from Qatar, long vehemently opposed to Iran, on the restoration of diplomatic relations following the boycott of Qatar by other Gulf states in June.

Iran has clearly managed to leverage the conflicts in Iraq and Syria to advance its strategic interests across the Middle East. But the contentious question of whether those gains presage the establishment of an ‘Iran order’ in the Middle East—as claimed by Iran’s opponents—doesn’t diminish the importance of the JCPOA to security in the Middle East.

Trump’s white-anting of the agreement and hostile posture towards Iran does little more than feed and justify Iran’s deep-seated paranoid world view, and risks more than just the success of the JCPOA. President Rouhani and others have spent considerable political capital—and risked the ire of hardliners —with their commitment to the JCPOA. The failure of the JCPOA would likely weaken the position of relatively moderate factions within Iran.

In this context, Trump’s conflation of Iran and North Korea is troubling and unjustifiable. North Korea represents a dramatic failure by the international non-proliferation regime, whereas Iran and the JCPOA have the potential to be one of its greatest successes. Should the JCPOA fail at a time when Iran is facing broad threats from an increasingly ill-disposed US (and an increasingly aggressive Saudi Arabia intent on escalating its strategic competition with Iran), then Iran may start debating some difficult questions regarding how best to guarantee its security.