Analysis

Trump's Resolve to Withdraw From Iran Nuclear Deal Hands Tehran a Key Diplomatic Win

Trump and Netanyahu's efforts to change the accord drive a wedge between Washington and Europe, help Tehran to be presented as a responsible regime

Iranian President Hassan Rohani speaks during a conference in the city of Tabriz, Iran, April 25, 2018.
/AP

Iran chalked up an important achievement this week when it managed to drive a wide wedge between Washington and European capitals. German Chancellor Angela Merkel clarified on Wednesday that she sees no reason to change the nuclear accord. French President Emmanuel Macron did suggest some vague amendment that’s unacceptable to Germany and Britain, while U.S. President Donald Trump is convinced that if he withdraws from the accord it will collapse. Iran’s president Hassan Rohani declared that if the U.S. secedes from the agreement, Iran will return to enriching uranium at a fast pace. These new statements contradict earlier ones in which Iran stated that even if the U.S. withdrew, Iran would abide by the agreement.

The rift between European Union members, Russia and China on one hand and the U.S. on the other grants Iran significant leverage, with reciprocal threats serving as an inseparable part of this leverage. So far this is diplomatic jousting which will last until May 12, the day Trump has to decide where the U.S. is heading. Many declarations will change before then, with more severe of lighter amendments floated.

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Ostensibly, Trump has painted himself into a tight corner in which he has no recourse but to withdraw from the agreement to save face. European states and Russia are less worried about Iran but have to be seen as twisting Trump’s arm to maintain their own prestige and preserve the nuclear accord which they believe serves global interests. The options they have include abiding by the accord and convincing Iran not to withdraw, meanwhile ignoring a possible American withdrawal.

The chances of Iran agreeing to change even an iota of the accord is slim. At best it may agree to negotiate a further agreement which will deal with the development and use of ballistic missiles. The chances of this happening aren’t great, either, since Iran views these missiles as an integral part of its self-defense and believes that no other country has the right to interfere in this. This was made clear during the negotiations over the nuclear accord and was agreed on by the powers, including the U.S., with an understanding that the nuclear accord would not affect Iran’s conventional arsenal, and that non-nuclear military installations would not be subjected to international monitoring.

Emmanuel Macron, France's president, speaks to a joint meeting of Congress at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., April 25, 2018.
Bloomberg

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In calling the deal an “insane” one, Trump tarnished his European allies with the same label. The deal gives a 10-20 year hiatus before Iran can start enriching uranium again. At the end of this period Iran will still remain under strict international monitoring, beyond what is called for under the treaty on non-proliferation of nuclear weapons, to which it is a signatory.

Efforts to add ballistic missiles to the accord, even if Iran agrees to this, will not ensure its withdrawal from Syria or its ceasing to provide weapons to Hezbollah and Syria, or a freeze in the construction of missile factories in Syria. Israeli concerns about the nuclear accord, which became the focus of Netanyahu’s diplomatic efforts, somehow “forget” that the more serious threat from Syria lies in the deployment of S-300 and S-400 anti-aircraft missiles. If these are transferred from Russian to Syrian control, Israel will be severely restricted in its freedom of action against Iran’s entrenchment in Syria.

Israel cannot attack these missile batteries for now since Russia controls them and is warning Israel unambiguously against attacking them. This threat is not part of Trump’s demands of Iran or Russia. Trump completely withdrew from dealing with Syria and intends to pull out the few forces he has there, leaving Russia and Iran with a military monopoly there, with not even a token American protection of conventional Israeli interests, at a time when Iran is threatening to respond to Israel’s inflicting of casualties on its officers and soldiers in Syria.

Iran needs the nuclear accord because of the important economic benefits it promises, including doing business with the world, reconstructing the Iranian economy, which is in deep crisis because of internal struggles between conservatives and reformers over economic reforms. However, the assumption that Iran will be frightened by new American sanctions that may be imposed is far-fetched. Iran survived for more than 30 years under sanctions and managed to develop an advanced nuclear program, consolidating the knowledge needed for its development. It became a regional power and a key player in regional conflicts. It has impeccably abided by its commitments under the accord, shattering the paradigm which held that it is an irrational state that cannot stick to agreements.

The anti-Iran flailing of Trump and Netanyahu will not only fail to change the accord but will show Iran to be a responsible state that is unjustly picked on. This will have implications for the way European states treat Iran, pushing the U.S. away from other global processes and eroding their willingness to participate in American coalitions when a real need emerges. Israel should worry about this in case it needs to again mobilize the international community against Iran.