Donald Trump’s decision to pull the US out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (“JCPOA”) agreed between the world community and Iran has set the stage for the next major war in the Middle East.
Trump’s decision to pull out of the JCPOA was widely expected. His decision to impose across the board sanctions against Iran was not. It seems that the US’s European allies – Britain, France and Germany – were not informed of this in advance, and are making no secret of their dismay.
Moreover it is quite clear that the US is intending to sanction any country which seeks to help Iran circumvent the sanctions. The White House’s statement about this could not be more clear
The JCPOA enriched the Iranian regime and enabled its malign behavior, while at best delaying its ability to pursue nuclear weapons and allowing it to preserve nuclear research and development.
The President has directed his Administration to immediately begin the process of re-imposing sanctions related to the JCPOA.
The re-imposed sanctions will target critical sectors of Iran’s economy, such as its energy, petrochemical, and financial sectors.
- Those doing business in Iran will be provided a period of time to allow them to wind down operations in or business involving Iran.
Those who fail to wind down such activities with Iran by the end of the period will risk severe consequences.
United States withdrawal from the JCPOA will pressure the Iranian regime to alter its course of malign activities and ensure that Iranian bad acts are no longer rewarded. As a result, both Iran and its regional proxies will be put on notice. As importantly, this step will help ensure global funds stop flowing towards illicit terrorist and nuclear activities.
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Though the sanctions are unilateral – imposed only by the US, and not by the UN Security Council – the US, in accordance with its current doctrine that its laws have worldwide application, will impose massive fines on any company or business which now trades with Iran.
That makes it inconceivable that any Western business or company, or any international company which trades in dollars or which has assets in any Western country, will defy the US by continuing to trade or do business with Iran.
Since Donald Trump’s announcement there has been a lot of brave talk of the EU defying the sanctions, and protecting EU companies which wish to continue to trade with Iran.
It should be said clearly that this is no more than talk. Though the Europeans are shocked and upset by Donald Trump’s announcement, trade with Iran is simply not important enough for the European economy for the EU states to defy the US in that way.
Over the next few weeks and months trade between the EU and Iran – and between the US’s other allies such as Japan and South Korea and Iran – will come to a stop.
The US is pulling out of the JCPOA and is imposing across-the-board sanctions on Iran not because Iran has violated any provision of the JCPOA. On the contrary even the US grudgingly admits that Iran has abided fully by the terms of the JCPOA.
The US is pulling out of the JCPOA and is imposing across-the-board sanctions on Iran because it fears that Iran is becoming too powerful.
This is made clear by the extraordinary demands the US is making of Iran, which amount to an ultimatum to Iran to change the pattern of its entire domestic and foreign policy
- President Trump will work to assemble a broad coalition of nations to deny Iran all paths to a nuclear weapon and to counter the totality of the regime’s malign activities.
- Nations must work together to halt the Iranian regime’s destabilizing drive for regional hegemony.
- In Syria, the Iranian regime supports the Assad regime and is complicit in Assad’s atrocities against the Syrian people.
- In Yemen, the regime has escalated the conflict and used the Houthis as a proxy to attack other nations.
- In Iraq, Iran’s IRGC sponsors Shia militant groups and terrorists.
- In Lebanon, the Iranian regime enables Hizballah to play a highly destabilizing role and to build an arsenal of weapons that threatens the region.
- The Administration’s actions are directed against the malign behavior of the Iranian regime, not against the Iranian people, who are the regime’s longest-suffering victims.
- Never have an ICBM, cease developing any nuclear-capable missiles, and stop proliferating ballistic missiles to others.
- Cease its support for terrorists, extremists, and regional proxies, such as Hizballah, Hamas, the Taliban, and al-Qa’ida.
- End its publicly declared quest to destroy Israel.
- Stop its threats to freedom of navigation, especially in the Persian Gulf and Red Sea.
- Cease escalating the Yemen conflict and destabilizing the region by proliferating weapons to the Houthis.
- End its cyber-attacks against the United States and our allies, including Israel.
- Stop its grievous human rights abuses, shown most recently in the regime’s crackdown against widespread protests by Iranian citizens.
- Stop its unjust detention of foreigners, including United States citizens.President Trump is making clear that, in addition to never developing a nuclear weapon, the Iranian regime must:
- Nations must work together to halt the Iranian regime’s destabilizing drive for regional hegemony.
These demands are so extreme that no sovereign state could ever accept them and retain its independence.
In fact some of the demands are of such a nature that Iran could not agree to them even if it wanted to.
By way of example, Iran cannot “cease its support” for Al-Qaeda, since that fanatical sectarian Wahhabi terrorist organisation is Iran’s enemy, and is not and cannot be supported by it.
Similarly Iran cannot “end its publicly declared quest to destroy Israel” since it has never “publicly declared” such a quest for the simple reason that it doesn’t have one (contrary to claims which are repeatedly made former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad never said that Israel “should be wiped off the map”).
Defenders of Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the JCPOA say that his intention is to force Iran to the negotiating table so that he can extract a better deal from Iran than the JCPOA was.
A classic expression of that view is set out in this editorial by The Times of London
The Trump administration’s objections go to the heart of the agreement’s terms, however. The deal imposed only a 15-year interdict on producing enriched uranium. Even before that clock timed out, there were to be other easements. After eight years, for instance, restrictions on particular kinds of centrifuges were set to fall away. These sunset clauses, Mr Trump has reasonably argued, always meant that Iranian ambitions to become a nuclear power would persist. The agreement did nothing, meanwhile, to curb Iran’s ballistic missile programme. The regime for inspection, too, although uniquely intrusive, left much to be desired…..
The best outcome would be for European countries to work in tandem with the US administration to reach an agreement without sunset clauses, covering ballistic missiles and binding Iran to broader commitments than those on nuclear development.
If that is possible, and Iran feels so overwhelmed by economic pressure that it can only come back to the table, then the return of a nuclear weapons programme is not a foregone conclusion. Having shown he is willing to walk, Mr Trump may now surprise US allies and push Iran into making further concessions.
Any Iranian official reading the US’s list of demands would however have no hesitation in dismissing this.
Whilst Donald Trump and the US government may pretend that they are open to a new and better deal with Iran, the sheer scale of what they are demanding from Iran shows that what they really want from Iran is not more concessions but regime change.
I say this because it would be impossible for the Iranian government to accept these demands and survive in its present form, and it is impossible to believe that those around Donald Trump who support his policy and who will have helped him to formulate his demands – notably Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton – don’t know it.
In fact the White House statement makes it perfectly clear what the plan is: suffocate Iran’s economy in order to push it into crisis so as to trigger mass unrest which will bring down the Iranian government.
The JCPOA foolishly gave the Iranian regime a windfall of cash and access to the international financial system for trade and investment.
Instead of using the money from the JCPOA to support the Iranian people at home, the regime has instead funded a military buildup and continues to fund its terrorist proxies, such as Hizballah and Hamas.
Iran violated the laws and regulations of European countries to counterfeit the currency of its neighbor, Yemen, to support the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Quds Force’s destabilizing activities.
In other words trade and business with Iran is impermissible because it allows Iran to conduct its foreign policy. Strangling Iran economically will prevent it conducting its foreign policy.
Since that foreign policy is inherent to Iran’s political system, that means strangling Iran’s economy in order to change its political system.
Forcing political change is after all the ultimate intention of all the sanctions the US has imposed on every country on which it has imposed sanctions ever since the Second World War ended.
The sanctions the US is now imposing on Iran are no different. In fact they are simply the latest and one of the most extreme examples of this.
Will it work?
I am not sufficiently familiar with the political situation within Iran to be able to say for certain one way or the other. However, for what it’s worth, my opinion is it will fail.
On the one hand there does seem to be a significant and articulate minority within Iran who do hanker for better relations with the US and the West, and who do seem willing to make the most extreme concessions up to and including the overthrow of the Islamic Republic in order to achieve them.
My overall impression is however that Iran is too complex and sophisticated a society, and its population is too proud and patriotic and too committed to the Islamic Republic, for the policy to succeed.
Ultimately it comes down to a question of how strong support for the Islamic Republic within Iran is. Donald Trump’s view is that it is not strong at all, and that even mild pressure will cause the Islamic Republic to collapse. That after all is what he said in remarks he made on 13th October 2017
…..the previous administration lifted…..,sanctions, just before what would have been the total collapse of the Iranian regime, through the deeply controversial 2015 nuclear deal with Iran.
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My view on the contrary is that the Islamic Republic not only enjoys legitimacy within Iran but has the support of a critical mass of Iran’s people, and that it will prove strong enough to resist the latest attempts to destabilise it, just as it has done before.
Already it seems that the immediate effect of the US decision has been to be provoke Iranians into rallying behind their government, and that is likely to continue, at least for a time.
After all the Iranian government is now in a strong position to say that it has done all that it reasonably could to try to mend relations with the US, and that it is not its fault that it has failed.
Besides, despite the sweeping nature of the sanctions, it is debatable whether they will be quite as effective as the US obviously supposes that they will be.
Though the sanctions will almost certainly bring trade and investment by Western companies and businesses in Iran to a stop, there are now numerous companies and businesses in countries like China, Russia and India – all major trading partners of Iran – which trade entirely outside the US dominated dollar system, and which can step in to fill the gap.
Over and beyond this there are the big Russian state owned companies like Rosatom, Rosneft and Rostec, some of which are already affected by sanctions, which might also be willing to trade with Iran, especially if they told to do so by the Russian government.
Rosatom already has a major presence in Iran, and there is already talk of Russia stepping in and selling to Iran the civil aircraft the US and the EU can now no longer supply.
Sanctions of the sort the US is now imposing on Iran would have been utterly crippling had they been imposed by the US on Iran twenty years ago.
Today, with new economic and trading centres emerging in Eurasia and the Far East, they may no longer be quite as effective as they once were, though they will undoubtedly have a significant impact, at least in the short and medium term.
Assuming that the sanctions do not bring about the desired regime change in Iran, what will happen next?
Given that despite denials regime change in Iran is clearly the agenda, and given the existential language the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia now use when they talk about Iran, it is difficult to look to the future without a sense of deep foreboding.
If the Islamic Republic survives the sanctions, and if it continues with its current policies – as in that case it could hardly fail to do – the way the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia talk about Iran makes it difficult to see how they can avoid escalating further by taking military action.
Even The Times of London – unswervingly loyal in its editorials to Donald Trump as it tends to be – appears to recognise the danger, even if it does express it in an upside-down way
The worst case scenario is now that Tehran doubles down. More extreme elements of the regime never liked the agreement anyway, and will be delighted at the opportunity to reinvigorate the nuclear programme. Indeed, one of the great long-term costs of abandoning the 2015 deal is that it will embolden those hardliners and sideline more sober interlocutors. Immediately after Mr Trump spoke, President Rouhani announced that he had ordered the Atomic Energy Organisation of Iran to “be ready to start the enrichment of uranium at industrial levels”……
If Washington and Tehran both dig in, however, [Donald Trump’s] decision will herald the return of a volatile country with realistic nuclear ambitions, and put western European countries, including Britain, in a diplomatic bind.
The “diplomatic bind” West European countries like Britain would find themselves in would in reality be the least of it.
If the sanctions fail to bring about regime change the pressure to attack Iran to bring it about will be be all but certain to grow.
Of course if there are signs of Iran resuming its nuclear programme (as there may well be) that pressure will grow exponentially.
A war with Iran – a huge and relatively advanced country of 80 million people – would be a calamity by comparison with which the 2003 invasion of Iraq would look like a sideshow.
That however is the logical outcome of the disastrous course the Trump administration has set the US on.