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.