Creating Instability to Create Stability: Trump’s Decertification of the Iran Nuclear Deal

President Trump has refused to certify that Iran is meeting its obligations under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, whilst at the same time announcing a new, more confrontational, approach to Iran. Trump did not terminate the agreement, but he did suggest that if it is not revised to; explicitly include Iran’s missile programme, eliminate or readdress the JCPOA’s sunset clauses, add more intrusive inspections of nuclear facilities then he will terminate.

The remarks below are representative of an initial reaction, with more substantial analysis hopefully to come.

Trump’s actions, which have little to do with nuclear weapons proliferation, essentially throws the ball to Congress on the reimposition of sanctions that preceded the deal, in addition to new terms for its renegotiation, perhaps with the expectation that sufficient votes will not be garnered for this so providing political cover for termination. It is uncertain, from the current vantage point, how the matter will play out in Congress.

Iran, for its part, has indicated that it will not be party to a renegotiation of the Agreement. Should Congress cede to Trump’s terms Iran’s recalcitrance then provides political cover for termination of the original agreement. Thus far Washington’s European allies, and Russia, have indicated that they will not cede to a US demand for renegotiation. Should that determination hold then, according to Trump’s remarks on decertification, that too constitutes grounds for termination.

Trump’s position articulated to Iran, Congress, and the other state parties to the JCPOA appears to be; renegotiate or I terminate, and that is adopted to legitimise what pretty much looks like a prior commitment toward termination.

That approach of the Trump administration opens a new nuclear crisis with Iran, and it impacts on the current nuclear crisis with North Korea. Kim Jong-un likely, watching developments from afar, will be strengthened in his conviction that North Korea must maintain a nuclear deterrent because the US cannot be relied upon to accede to a nuclear accord. Trump’s decertification torpedoes whatever hope remains for reaching denuclearisation with North Korea, and probably the very recognition that his absurdist actions have already forestalled denuclearisation on the Korean peninsula provided space for decertification in the Persian Gulf.

Not even the avant garde French philosophers are capable of such absurdism, and their capability in that regard is by no means trivial.

Trump’s actions with regard to the JCPOA, but the other aspects of his new aggressive strategy with regard to Iran, could, at the worst it must be said, lead to what the JCPOA does well to forestall namely an Iranian nuclear weapons capability or, prior to this, a regional war directed toward regime change in Tehran through a redeclaration, as it were, of the Bush doctrine whose human consequences, surely immense, are difficult to foresee.

It’s hard not to miss the many allusions to regime change in Trump’s announcement, especially regarding the mendacious claim that prior to the signifying of the JCPOA by President Obama Iran was on the brink of collapse. Secondly, the JCPOA concentrates on the nuclear issue and it did so as a first step toward a broader rapprochement with Tehran. The announcement of the new Iran strategy by Trump makes that broader objective meaningless.

One reason, indeed a key reason, why Obama did sign the JCPOA and changed tack on Cuba, was because the US feared that it would become isolated and in the Middle East that is a deep concern of Washington’s. Iran, the EU and Russia may continue to abide by the Agreement which would clearly have the effect of isolating the US, which could be prevented in either of three ways; re-entering the agreement Washington terminated, a humiliation the annals of US diplomacy would not have witnessed in many, many a year, compel the EU to adopt a hardline stance or go through with regime change. For Europe maintaining the JCPOA whilst Washington is outside it pursuing a hostile Iran policy is a tall order indeed.

Trump’s position on Iran, as noted, has little to do with nuclear weapons proliferation. Iran, as stated by the IAEA as recently as yesterday, has been implementing its obligations under the IAEA and some highly important commitments are to come.

When discussing the Iran nuclear file most speak about “breakout,” when the real concern has been, and will continue to be, that Iran might develop a parallel military nuclear fuel cycle. Breakout refers to the supposition that Iran would be able to use its declared nuclear facilities to breakout of the Agreement and thereupon manufacture a nuclear warhead in less than 12 months, however the terms of the JCPOA preclude credible prompt breakout scenarios. More significantly the JCPOA commits Iran to declare all its past and current nuclear activities, including nuclear warhead related activities, and to implement the Additional Protocol, a process now beginning, to the IAEA model safeguards agreement and an inspections regime on top of the AP, to address the possibility of a parallel fuel cycle and to verify all of Iran’s past activities.

Termination of the JCPOA threatens all that, and makes a nuclear armed Iran more likely not less so.

The real reason why Trump has decertified the JCPOA with Iran is implicit in his very remarks. Trump often stated that Iran’s “destabilising” regional actions violate the “spirit” of the JCPOA. In US diplomatic discourse “stability” has a precise definition, meaning adherence to US preferences. When a region adheres to US preferences, whatever they may be, it is “stable.” Iran pursues an independent foreign policy in the Middle East, at times in ways that clash with the preferences of the US and Israel, and that is the heart of the matter for that very independence makes it a source of instability. Those who analysts who critique Trump’s actions on grounds that it will lead to instability miss this dynamic, for that’s the very point of them.

Trump’s decertification comes at a time when US hegemony in the Middle East is under challenge, especially given the return of Moscow to the regional scene. The United States wants to reassert its hegemonic position in the energy rich region, and that means creating instability in order to create stability.

It would not be the first time the United States has created instability in order to create stability, for instance that very phrase was used in the context of South American policy during the Pinochet coup in Chile.

If that means fermenting another nuclear crisis then so be it. Washington has a track record when it comes to choosing hegemony over survival, and Trump, by no means an outlier, is following a well-trodden path.