Three Visits and the Battle for the Iran Deal

There were three high-level foreign visits to the U.S. east coast this week, each with significant implications for the future of the Iran Deal (a.k.a. JCPOA). First, French President Emmanuel Macron came to DC for the first state visit of the Trump Presidency. Next, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif made a trip to New York, where he made the rounds at various think tanks and media outlets ahead of meetings at the United Nations. Finally, Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman arrived in Washington, DC, this morning to meet with top American defense officials on issues related to Iran and Syria. It is worthwhile to examine each of these visits and their potential implications for the fate of the Iran Deal.

The Meetings 

Emmanuel Macron’s state visit was by far the most high-profile of the three dignitaries this week. As multiple outlets reported, finding a way to “save” the Iran Deal was at the top of Macron’s policy agenda. President Trump, of course, has made his distaste for the deal in its present form well known. He has set a deadline of May 12 for the United States’ European partners to find a way to fix the flaws he sees in the agreement, namely the sunset clauses, inspection restrictions, and failure to adequately confront Iran’s ballistic missile program and regional behavior. If Europe fails to address these issues to Trump’s satisfaction, Trump has said he will formally withdraw the United States from the agreement, paving the way for the reimposition of harsh economic sanctions.

Macron arrived in Washington armed with a proposal for a “new, bigger” Iran Deal. This was potentially clever branding given the American President’s affinity for all things “new” and “big.” Details are sparse at the moment, but the main idea is that the deal will add three new “pillars” targeted at Trump’s stated areas of concern. Macron hopes that this enhanced deal will be sufficient to placate the American President and prevent a collapse of the existing version.

Collapse is still very much on the table, as demonstrated by the second prominent foreign visitor this week, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif. Zarif came to New York several days ago and participated in a whirlwind tour of the think tank and media circuit ahead of a planned meeting at the United Nations. In his public appearances, Zarif made clear that should the United States withdraw from the deal next month, Iran will likely reciprocate. “There won’t be any deal for Iran to stay in,” Zarif told the Associated Press. Other high-ranking Iranian officials echoed Zarif’s comments, including President Hassan Rouhani, who warned of “severe consequences”  following a U.S. exit. More concerning is that those consequences may go beyond the dissolution of the JCPOA. Ali Shamkhani, Secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, said this week that Iran might also consider withdrawing from the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) if the U.S. scraps the Iran Deal.

The final important visit this week is the one getting the least attention, but it may end up being the most significant. Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman arrived in DC this morning to meet with several high-ranking Trump administration officials. Liberman is among the most hawkish members of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s cabinet, especially on Iran. In 2017, he called the Iran Deal an “attempt to avoid reality,” claiming that it has done nothing to moderate Iranian behavior and is yielding worse results than with North Korea. In 2013, before the final agreement was signed, Liberman, then serving as Foreign Minister for Netanyahu, appeared to advocate for military action against Iran over a diplomatic approach: “You know…my philosophy in my private life and my political life: if you want to shoot, shoot; don’t talk.”

Liberman will be meeting with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis as well as National Security Advisor John Bolton, both of whom share Liberman’s hawkish views on Iran. Liberman is sure to pressure both of them for stronger American action against Iran, both on the deal and in other regional conflicts in Syria and Yemen. While Mattis has so far proven reluctant to entirely repudiate the Iran Deal to the point where he believes the United States should abandon it altogether, Bolton has shown no such lack of courage in his convictions. The National Security Advisor has kept a low profile in his first few weeks on the job — at the very least, he has yet to get the United States into another war — but this is a man who for years has been publicly calling for direct military action against Iran. Liberman is sure to find a sympathetic ear during their meeting.

Analyzing the Outcome

What these three visits will ultimately achieve depends on who will have the most influence in shaping Trump’s outlook when decision time arrives in a few weeks. The consensus around DC seems to be that Macron enjoys a particularly chummy relationship with Trump. Given the near total lack of coherent strategy of this administration, policy analysts and pundits observing these visits have been reduced to trying to read the tea leaves of body language and tone of voice to try to figure out which way Trump may be leaning, with some suggesting that Macron’s “bromance” with Trump may push the American President to reconsider his previous position.

Public displays of affection between the two leaders notwithstanding, Macron is leaving DC still very much at the bottom of an uphill battle. Regardless of whether or not Trump liked his proposal for an enhanced deal, Macron will have to get his European partners, specifically Great Britain and Germany, to go along with it as well. Germany recently made its position perfectly clear: it favors keeping the deal as is and is unwilling to renegotiate. And lest anyone think that German Chancellor Angela Merkel will budge from that position to appease Donald Trump, it’s worth remembering that Trump’s relationship with Merkel is far less cordial than it is with Macron. Significantly, the French President all but admitted defeat earlier today. Following his address to Congress this afternoon, Macron told the press he believes that Trump is still likely to take the U.S. out of the deal.

One glaring omission from the discussion surrounding the French proposal is what the Iranians think of all this. Right now, the effort is framed purely as a European — and really, just a French — initiative, the assumption being that if Macron can get Trump to agree to a more comprehensive framework, then the deal will be saved.

Zarif’s visit to New York this week had a much different feel than Macron’s glitzy affair in DC. The Iranian Foreign Minister obviously does not have the option of personally meeting with administration officials, let alone being feted at a state dinner, so he was forced to take an alternative approach. In making the media rounds, Zarif sought to argue Iran’s case in the public forum in the hope that his message might find its way to key decision makers via the airwaves.

Zarif adopted a defiant tone in his appearances, repeatedly emphasizing that Iran’s position on the existing deal has not changed in light of recent developments. The Iranians expect full implementation of the text as written by all parties. Going a step further, Zarif accused the U.S. of not holding up its end of the bargain. In an interview with Al-Monitor, the Foreign Minister said, “The Trump administration was never in the JCPOA. They made sure over the last 15 months that Iran would not benefit from the economic dividends of the JCPOA, and so whatever they do in three weeks would not be a major break from the past.” Zarif went on to say that Iran’s decision on whether or not to continue with the deal will depend on its national interests and what course of action best advances them.

By bending over backward to flatter and please Trump without so much as a nod to Iranian interests, Europe is sending a strong signal to Tehran that it will not risk a conflagration with the United States on this issue. If broad-based economic sanctions are back on the table, and Europe is not willing to protect businesses seeking to do business with Iran, then Iran might not see any benefit to continuing to adhere to the strict terms of the agreement. This appears to be how things are playing out right now.

Finally, there are the Israelis. Liberman’s visit will not be as publicized as the other two have been. He is unlikely to make any major media appearances while he’s in town. As of the moment, his only scheduled public appearance is a discussion at the right-wing/neoconservative Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP) on Friday, where he’s unlikely to face much pushback from a sympathetic moderator and a mostly like-minded audience.

As with so much of the Trump administration, the real action is taking place behind the scenes. Liberman cleverly planned his visit on the tail end of Macron and Zarif’s. More importantly, he is prioritizing private meetings with two of Trump’s most influential advisors over splashy media spectacles. The danger of Liberman’s trip lies not so much in the substance of the discussion but its aftermath. The Israelis, like the rest of the world, are fully aware at this point of Trump’s proclivity to agree with the last thing anyone has said to him. Bolton will surely convey the Israeli Defense Minister’s concerns to Trump in his next meeting with the President. He will continue to pressure the President over the coming weeks toward exiting the deal, stressing the need to take a harsher line with the Iranians. Liberman and Netanyahu are betting that having these voices repeating their message on loop for a few weeks will have a far greater impact when Trump finally makes his decision in May than any other interaction with the President, no matter how glitzy or glamorous.

The End of the Iran Deal and the Road to War

As of the start of this week, John Bolton is the National Security Advisor to the President of the United States. Soon, Mike Pompeo will be confirmed as the new Secretary of State, further homogenizing the ideological center of gravity inside the Trump cabinet along hard-right, neoconservative lines. But this is not the time to dissect the meaning of these appointments — we’ve done that already. Now, we must consider the consequences.

There are a lot of bad things that can happen from here, but from my perspective, the most significant and most easily foreseeable consequence is that the United States is almost certainly going to withdraw from the Iran Deal next month. President Trump gave his European allies until May 12 to fix what he says are the fundamental problems with the deal, namely the sunset clauses, the restrictions on inspections of military sites in Iran, and issues related to Iran’s ballistic missile program and support for terrorist groups. Never mind that Iran’s ballistic missiles and regional activities were never meant to be part of the deal in the first place, Trump says these issues must be addressed for the deal to remain in effect. If Europe fails to provide a solution to the President’s liking, Trump has said that he will withdraw the United States from the deal, paving the way for the reimposition of sanctions against Iran.

The European signatories to the agreement — Great Britain, France, and Germany — have supposedly been scrambling to try to come up with a solution that will please Trump and keep the United States in the deal a bit longer. According to recent reports, their proposal amounts to a “list of persons and entities that [they] believe should be targeted” due to their roles in Iran’s ballistic missile program and support for the Assad regime in Syria’s civil war. This is a half measure that, if anything, is more likely to doom the deal than to save it.

In truth, there is probably nothing they can do to satisfy Trump. The fact that this deal was the signature foreign policy achievement of Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, was probably sufficient on its own to condemn the deal to death in Trump’s head long ago. Slapping a few designations on select individuals or entities isn’t going to placate that level of disdain. Furthermore, the timing of this effort indicates a lack of European insight into the significance of the ideological shift taking place within the administration right now. With Rex Tillerson and H.R. McMaster out, who do the Europeans think will be physically present to be the last person to put a word in Donald Trump’s ear to argue in favor of saving the deal? Ivanka?

By attempting to appease Trump, the Europeans are placing both their own relations with Iran as well as continued Iranian compliance with the deal at risk. Europe’s apparent willingness to kowtow to Trump’s demand for more punitive terms sends a strong message to Tehran that the EU won’t risk defying the United States to help Iran, no matter what the actual text of the agreement reads.

Given this, what incentive do the Iranians have to stay in the deal after the United States leaves? The answer, increasingly, is not much. I’ve been saying for months that Iran’s continued adherence to the terms of the deal will depend on Europe’s willingness to defy Trump’s attempts to kill it. This was ostensibly the only way that Iran could realize the economic benefits that were supposed to be their reward for compliance. With Europe now signaling its intention to administer more sanctions, lackluster though they may be, Iranian officials are speaking out more forcefully about the possibility of abandoning the deal when the United States does. Alaeddin Boroujerdi, Chairman of the Iranian Parliament Committee on National Security and Foreign Policy, said that Iran will “definitely not remain in the JCPOA” if the United States re-imposes sanctions on Iran. Iran’s chief nuclear official, Ali Akbar Salehi, said that Iran would need only four days to ramp up uranium enrichment to 20% — above the limit set by the deal, but below the 80-90% needed for weapons capability — at its Fordow facility (the next day, his spokesman, Behrouz Kamalvandi, knocked that estimate down to two days). For his part, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said in a speech Monday that while other parties are “instigating Iran” to break its commitment to the agreement, Iran would not be the first to withdraw from the deal. He notably did not promise to keep Iran in the deal even if the United States leaves.

The reimposition of sanctions and a return to enrichment may just be the start. These decisions could trigger a series of reprisals that eventually lead to military conflict.

As of this week, Syria seems like the probable starting point for further conflagration. Other regional actors are already doing their part to fan the flames war. Israel’s airstrike against a Syrian airbase last week has heightened tensions in an already volatile arena. Seven Iranian military personnel were killed in the Israeli strike. Iranian military officials were quick to issue warnings about serious repercussions should Israel attack again, which Israeli officials quickly countered with threats of their own. At the same time, the United States and Russia have been trading warnings over a possible American military response to an alleged chemical weapons attack conducted by the Syrian regime last weekend.

Iran and Russia appear to be taking steps to solidify their alliance in Syria ahead of a possible escalation by the United States and/or Israel. Alexander Lavrentiev, Vladamir Putin’s special representative for Syria, made an unexpected trip to Iran this week to meet with Ali Shamkhani, the Chairman of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, where the two discussed issues related to American and Israeli military interventions in the Syrian conflict.

This is the part where I’m supposed to warn against taking any rash action, citing the law of unforeseen consequences and so on, but the sad truth is that no one really seems to be listening anymore. We should probably all start bracing ourselves for the worst. World Wars have started over less.