Emma Wilde Botta looks at US President Donald Trump’s latest effort to “break the regime” in Iran — by renouncing the nuclear deal negotiated by his predecessor.
Donald Trump’s announcement that the US will withdraw from the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran and reimpose economic sanctions will intensify geopolitical conflicts in the region. It threatens to spark a wider war, engulfing the region and possibly the world.
On May 8, Trump called the 2015 nuclear deal “defective at its core”. He cited as evidence Iranian intelligence documents released by Israel on April 30.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu claimed these documents conclusively prove that Iran continued pursuing a nuclear weapons program despite the 2015 agreement negotiated with the Obama administration, along with five other governments.
But a report from November by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which is tasked with monitoring Iran's compliance with the deal, said there were no indications Iran had violated the agreement.
In fact, Netanyahu’s “evidence” dealt with Iran’s past nuclear efforts. It contained no allegation that Iran is currently producing nuclear weapons or is otherwise in violation of the 2015 agreement.
Actually, the US will become the only country that failed to uphold the terms of the 2015 deal, thanks to Trump's decision to reimpose economic sanctions that have plunged millions of Iranians into economic hardship. The Trump administration’s aim appears to be, according to a senior European diplomat, to “break the regime” by means of economic strangulation.
Immediately after Trump’s announcement, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani responded that Iran would, for now, stay party to the deal with the remaining countries that had signed it. However, if other countries back out of the agreement, Iran is preparing to restart industrial enrichment of uranium.
Most US allies are upset with Trump’s decision. French President Emmanuel Macron tweeted: “France, Germany and the UK regret the U.S. decision to leave the JCPOA [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action]. The nuclear non-proliferation regime is at stake.”
Netanyahu, of course, applauded Trump, calling the US withdrawal a “historic move”.
Within Iran, hardline critics of efforts at negotiation will use Trump’s move to portray Rouhani as weak and naive in his dealings with the US — and blame him for the worsening economic situation.
The 2015 deal was negotiated between Iran and the United Nations Security Council’s five permanent members — the US, Britain, China, France and Russia — along with Germany, referred to as the P5+1.
Iran agreed to a 98% reduction of its enriched uranium stockpile and a 15-year pause on developing weapons infrastructure. In return, most of the crippling economic sanctions against Iran were lifted, allowing the country to reintegrate into the global economy, including exporting oil.
The deal marked a decisive shift in US strategy towards Iran. US predominance as the world’s sole superpower had begun to break down by with the end of the neoliberal boom around 2008.
In the new “asymmetric, multipolar world order”, the US and global competitor China contended for power in Asia, while regional rivals such as Russia and Iran attempted to expand their influence, particularly in areas where the US empire’s grip had loosened.
A series of military defeats hindered US efforts to establish the desired order in the Middle East, a geopolitically vital region given its vast energy resources. The Bush administration intended to follow a successful invasion of Iraq with regime change in Iran and Syria. However, Iraqi resistance to US occupation forced a change of plans.
Then, in 2011, the Arab Spring uprisings destabilised a series of regimes across North Africa and the Middle East, throwing another wrench in Washington’s plans.
The US government claimed to support the popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, while assisting Bahrain in crushing its resistance. A disastrous NATO intervention in Libya ended in embarrassment as the US ambassador was dragged out of the embassy and killed.
This experience further moved the US away from the Bush administration policy of regime change and toward a policy of regime stabilisation.
The US negotiated the 2015 nuclear deal from a position of relative imperial decline and in the context of these developments in the Middle East and North Africa.
With regime change in Iran off the table after the Bush administration’s disastrous Iraq invasion, the US had to move from hostile isolation to cautious rapprochement with Iran.
The Obama administration settled for a deal that essentially granted unfettered access to inspect Iran’s facilities — and that provided a pretext for pre-emptive strikes should a hint of noncompliance, verified or otherwise, surface.
At the time, the nuclear deal was condemned by hawks and right-wingers as a capitulation. Many on the anti-war left, by contrast, hailed it as a step towards peace.
In reality, the deal was a diplomatic expression of the interests of US imperialism, which variously employs diplomatic niceties or war based on the needs of the moment.
Though the means may differ, the end goals are the same. The US aims to control the flow of Middle East oil, placate its ally Israel, curb Iran’s growing influence in the region and protect its monopoly on nuclear weapons for itself and its allies.
In the past decade, Iran has emerged as a regional power. US interventions in the Middle East inadvertently strengthened Iran by taking out Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and weakening the Taliban in Afghanistan, both rivals of the Iranian state.
Iran’s bloody military intervention in Syria to save the regime of Bashar al-Assad has cemented a mutually beneficial alliance. Iran is increasingly able to exercise influence across the “Shia crescent” that runs from Hezbollah in Lebanon, through Syria and Iraq, to Iran, and to its allies in Afghanistan and Yemen.
In response to these developments, Israel has attempted to contain Iran by engaging in an ongoing proxy war in Syria. And US ally Saudi Arabia, in an effort to build a bloc of Sunni states to counter Iran’s influence, has likewise been engaged in proxy wars and political maneuvers — from Syria to Lebanon to Yemen — to contain Iran.
Both Israel and Saudi Arabia welcome Trump’s turn away from the strategy Obama had pursued. This sought to end sanctions on Iran in exchange for Iran’s acceptance of strict limits on its nuclear programs.
Meanwhile, even as proxy forces of the US and Iran were on opposite sides in Syria, the two powers often worked together in Iraq to contain what both considered common enemies threatening Iraq’s federal government, which is aligned with Iran.
Ripping up the Iran deal could serve as a way to more tightly bind together the regimes of Trump, Netanyahu and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman.
Since the start of his presidency, Trump has embraced an aggressive “America First” nationalism and warmongering. He has staffed his cabinet with protectionists and hawks who call for confrontation with North Korea, Iran and China.
Recently appointed National Security Advisor John Bolton has publicly advocated pre-emptive strikes and regime change in Iran. And Mike Pompeo, the former CIA director and recently appointed Secretary of State, has also advocated ripping up the nuclear deal.
The US’s unilateral withdrawal from the deal puts the US at odds with European allies France, Britain and Germany. The nuclear deal is technically still in place — as long as the rest of the P5+1 countries don’t reimpose sanctions.
European companies will, however, have to end operations in Iran within 90 to 180 days or risk running afoul of US sanctions, which bar companies and international banks that do business with Iran from access to US markets and the US banking system.
As the US seeks to negotiate a nuclear deal with North Korea, it is hard to predict the impact of Trump ripping up a similar deal with Iran.
North Korea’s Kim Jong-un may decide to push for more concessions, figuring that he doesn’t have much to lose if the US might just back out of a deal in a couple years. And some in Trump’s inner circle are apparently already worried that Trump's eagerness to close a deal with North Korea could result in a less-than-ideal agreement — exactly what Trump said of Obama’s deal with Iran.
Trump’s turn from pursuing stabilisation in the Middle East toward open hostility with Iran paves the way for greater conflict and chaos in the region. The major victors in this moment are US warmongers, the Israeli-Saudi alliance and Iran’s hardliners.
Those most immediately threatened are the Iranian people, who are faced with the reintroduction of economic sanctions that previously devastated the economy and left basic necessities in short supply.
But as a wave of anti-government protests and workers’ strikes in December and January revealed, Iran’s people aren’t simply passive bystanders to the economic and political crises convulsing their society.
Trump accuses Iran of “meddling” throughout the region, but it is the US that has sent troops half a world away to fight in several conflicts that encircle Iran.
Trump’s decision to clear the path diplomatically for stepped-up economic war — with the potential for military confrontation — is the most dangerous threat to peace in the region and the world. It is also as a clear violation of Iran’s sovereignty.
[Reprinted from US Socialist Worker.]