Thursday,20 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1364, (12 - 18 October 2017)
Thursday,20 September, 2018
Issue 1364, (12 - 18 October 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Leap into the unknown

Indications are that Trump will follow through on his pre-election commitment to scrap the nuclear deal with Iran. Whatever the decision, this region will pay the price, writes Hussein Haridy

US President Donald Trump is reportedly scheduled to deliver a major foreign policy speech 12 October on his administration’s new policy towards Iran, and specifically on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the historic deal that was signed between the P5+1 group and Iran in July 2015, concerning the Iranian nuclear programme. A few days later, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 2231, recognising this agreement between the five permanent members of the council plus Germany and the Iranian government. This agreement has been considered the signature foreign policy achievement of the administration of former US president Barack Obama.

During last year’s US presidential campaign, then presidential candidate Donald Trump lambasted JCPOA as the worst deal of the century and promised to scrap it, if elected to the supreme office of the United States. Once in the Oval Office, President Trump repeatedly attacked the plan. However, he has certified twice to the US Congress that Iran has been in compliance with the plan. This certification is congressionally-mandated every 90 days. The third certification is due three days from now, 15 October. From all indications, the US administration won’t certify that Iran is in compliance, to the dissatisfaction of all signatories to the plan. If this is the case, US Congress will have 60 days to determine whether to re-impose suspended sanctions on Iran, or to adopt another course of action.

Speaking before the UN General Assembly for the first time since he was elected, President Trump spoke of JCPOA as an “embarrassment” and qualified the Iranian government as a “murderous regime”. Last Thursday, 5 October, President Trump stressed that Iran is not living up to the spirit of the nuclear accord with the P5+1 group, and few days later told a high-level meeting attended by his top brass that the United States “must not allow Iran… to obtain nuclear weapons”. He went on to say that Iran “supports terrorism and exports violence across the Middle East. That is why we must put an end to Iran’s continued aggression and nuclear ambitions.”

Senator Angus King (independent, Maine), in a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee last week to discuss the new Afghan strategy of the Trump administration, asked General James Mattis, the US defense secretary, the following question: “Do you believe it is in our national interest at the present time to remain in the JCPOA?” The answer was yes. Furthermore, in a hearing to reconfirm him for a second term as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Joseph Danford testified that Iran is complying with the nuclear deal, and that the agreement has achieved its intended result of curbing Iran’s nuclear ambitions. However, he stressed the deal does not address four other Iranian threats that include its missile programme, its maritime threat, its support for “proxies”, and its cyber activities. These four areas represent a serious challenge, not only, for the United States but also for its allies and strategic partners in the Middle East, mainly Israel and Saudi Arabia.

As a matter of fact, one main objective behind the unprecedented Riyadh Summit that brought together the US president with the leaders of 54 Arab and Muslim nations was to contain Iran. From an American point of view, it was about the plan to set up a front of Sunni states against Iran. What is implicit in the American-inspired plan is the integration of Israel in this front.

One major beneficiary of any American backtracking on JCPOA is Israel, which fought, tooth and nail, prior to the conclusion of the deal to derail the negotiations. The other winner, undoubtedly, would be Saudi Arabia. Both Saudi Arabia and Israel view Iran, under the present theocratic regime, as a mortal danger for reasons that do not entirely overlap. Shifting the confrontation from a direct one to a showdown between the United States and Iran serves their national interests. If the Trump administration and the US Congress would re-impose sanctions, or adopt new ones, as some hawks on the two sides of the aisle in Congress would love to, that will deepen the fault lines in the Middle East.

Reportedly, Rex Tillerson, the US secretary of state, has been trying to persuade the White House not to decertify the JCPOA but rather address major US concerns as outlined by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. In other words, take a middle ground. On the one hand, this would meet the expectations of the conservative support base of President Trump at home; on the other, it would not provoke the ire of the other JCPOA signatories or allow Iran to wriggle loose from its commitments in the framework of the plan. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has already warned that his country would resume its nuclear programme were the United States to renege on the deal with Iran.

Needless to say, the path that Trump will chart as far as the Iranian nuclear agreement is concerned will be closely observed by North Korea. The US president and his administration should take this into account.

Whatever decision the White House will make concerning JCPOA, the Middle East will pay the price: either working for the restoration of security and stability in a war-torn and terrorism-plagued region, or jumping forward on the path towards a region-wide war that would only benefit the extreme right wing government of Israel.

The writer is former assistant to the foreign minister.

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