Trump Takes Aim at Iran Nuclear Deal

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Views from the Region

October 18, 2017

Following up on campaign pledges, President Donald Trump has recently taken action to weaken the multilateral Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), commonly known as the Iranian Nuclear Deal. Though he has not pulled the United States out of the JCPOA, Mr. Trump is taking a more hardline approach on Iran. The move has delighted some of Iran’s neighbors, many of whom have long been opposed to the JCPOA. Many regional commentators, however, have expressed wariness about the U.S. president’s willingness and ability to follow up his rhetoric with a long-term strategy to counter Iranian meddling.  Some fear that an abrogation of the nuclear agreement would increase instability and violence in a region in desperate need of peace and security.

Opining for many who were opposed to the nuclear deal from the beginning, the Khaleej Times editorial staff notes that Iran has done very little to justify the trust of the international community, and in particular of its neighbors: “It was a sweet deal for the rogue nation. No one is fooled by the pretentious moderate leadership of Hassan Rouhani in Iran, at least not anyone in the region. The leadership and the governments here are well aware of the hegemonic intentions of the country whose foreign policy is driven aggressively by a desire to reshape the Middle East…. Strong-arm tactics work. In fact, it is the only tool of resort when trust is elusive. Iran is a valuable player in the region, but it means nothing in the absence of trust. Tehran should play fair and by the rules for countries in the region to work together for peace and stability and good-neighborliness.”

According to Asharq Alawsat’s Ghassan Charbel, despite all the uncertainty resulting from it, the U.S. president’s decision to bring into question the value of the Iran nuclear deal has had the effect of shining a light squarely on the Iranian regime: “Donald Trump did not shred the ‘very bad’ nuclear deal with Iran. He has strongly shaken it and trembled the image that Iran tried to market at the international level after the signing of the agreement…. The U.S. president seemed to be putting together accusations as a prelude to trial, or as someone preparing a complete file to justify the ‘new strategy’ toward Iran…. Trump has returned the issue of the Iranian role to the international agenda. This was evident in the conversation between Angela Merkel and Theresa May…. It is certain that Trump’s speech turning into a policy represents a major coup against the Iranian coup, which has benefited greatly from the invasion of Iraq, Obama’s withdrawal tendencies, and the emergence of ISIS and its horrific practices.”

Writing for Arab News, Oubai Shahbandar suggests that Mr. Trump’s decision to single out and isolate Iran’s Revolutionary Guard was a particularly shrewd move: “By making the entire IRGC — not just the Quds Force — subject to a total freeze of its assets abroad, Trump will have more than just sent a warning show across the bow….. Trump may have outmaneuvered Tehran in this regard. Instead of handing Iran a diplomatic victory by initiating a wholesale pull out from the nuclear deal, the White House has now shifted the pressure and spotlight on the IRGC. The thinking among Trump’s senior officials seems to be that a much stronger case can be made to European allies that Iran is in violation of the nuclear deal if Tehran decides to initiate massive breaches of the agreement as a retaliatory measure to sanctions against the IRGC.”

However, Iranian commentator Mohammad Ghaderi argues in a recent op-ed for Tehran Times that such actions on the part of Washington will prove to be unacceptable to Iranian authorities and may unravel the nuclear deal: “Trump seems to be trying to use a nuclear deal against a nuclear deal! Undoubtedly, this strategy is ultimately doomed to failure. In this regard, Trump and his advisors are trying to resort to the trigger mechanism…. Obviously, any attempt by the president of the United States and his advisors to change the nuclear deal will mean a cancellation of the agreement. During the recent UN General Assembly meeting in New York, Trump held talks with European and Israeli officials on this issue. Anyway, any change in the nuclear accord is considered the red line by the Islamic Republic and it means the withdrawal of Washington from the JCPOA. What is certain is that Iran is united against the extremely unacceptable excesses of the United States on the nuclear deal. Trump and his entourage will face a heavy defeat against Iran.”

Though not sympathetic to Iranian claims, the Jordan Times editorial expresses a fear that is pervasive in the region about the deleterious effects of increased uncertainty and instability in the region: “While Iran’s hegemonic interventions in the regional countries’ affairs cannot be defended, its compliance with the nuclear deal terms cannot be attacked….. On Iran, Trump is very close to the Israeli thinking. He was actually praised for his latest move by Israel which never accepted the deal, contending that it may only delay Iran’s nuclear programme but not end it altogether…. Trump might carry out his threat regarding Iran’s nuclear programme. If he does and the deal is unravelled, there is no telling what Iran decides to do. What we know is that the region does not need another crisis, and definitely not another nuclear power in its midst.”

Those comments are echoed by Israeli observers, including Yedioth Ahronoth’s Alex Fishman, who, despite his animosity toward Iran’s nuclear deal, still expresses concern about the possibility of a “regional explosion”: “Trump’s speech only strengthened the understanding that the region is about to explode, faster than expected. The effect of the speech is already having repercussions in the region and creating tensions and an atmosphere of conflict…. Iran will only step up its provocations against Trump in a bid to test him and deter him from taking further hostile steps. The president’s inability to deal with North Korea is encouraging the Iranians to challenge him. And that’s the exact recipe which could lead to instability, to security tensions, to military escalation and to a regional explosion.”

Arab News’s Baria Alamuddin, recognizing the president’s tendency for big gestures that are rarely followed through on, wonders whether Mr. Trump actually intends to challenge Iran’s influence in the region: “There is a refusal to recognize that since signing the 2015 deal, Iran’s regional posture has become exponentially more aggressive, largely through proxy forces that boast about aspiring to attack Western targets…. Trump is blessed with senior officials like H.R. McMaster and James Mattis with decades of experience in grappling with Iranian meddling. Trump must use the vast resources of his presidency to consolidate international support behind a multi-faceted campaign against Tehran’s expansionist policies…. Likewise, this is the moment of truth when we discover what Trump is made of. Will he settle for bluster and rhetoric, while ultimately allowing Tehran to become the unchallenged power in the Middle East? Or is he serious about a far-reaching and decisive strategy to contain and push back Iran?”

Meanwhile, according to Egypt Independent, the Egyptian government is “concerned” by the U.S. president’s stance, going on to restate its position on the denuclearization of the region: “The U.S. announcement included gave Egypt cause for concern, due to Iranian policies that may jeopardize regional stability, overall Arab national security and the security of the Gulf region, which is an integral part of Egyptian national security. According to the statement, the spokesperson stressed that Egypt has always called for strengthening confidence in the Middle East, through the adoption of policies and positions by regional powers that do not pose a threat to regional stability and security, as well as ending all interventions in the internal affairs of other Arab countries.”

Ironically, despite being among the most vocal opponents of the Iran nuclear deal, many in Israel, including Nahum Barnea, are now expressing concern about the U.S. president’s strategy in the region and his embrace of Israeli demands: “Over the years, Israel has learned to deal with critical American administrations and neutralize their criticism. Donald Trump is presenting Israel with a new kind of challenge—dealing with an American president who repeats all of Israel’s claims unconditionally. On Friday, in his speech, Trump gave us a big embrace as far as Iran is concerned. The challenge is to prevent his embrace from turning into bear hug…. The question is where is Trump leading us to—assuming he actually knows where he’s leading to…. It’s a gamble that could end in a disaster—either war or the United States losing its credibility.”


  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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