9 May 2018
The decision by US President Donald Trump to abandon the United States’ participation in the joint comprehensive plan of action (JCPOA) was widely anticipated on the strength of his repeated negative comments about the deal. He had also recently appointed John Bolton as his national security adviser and Mike Pompeo as Secretary of State. Both of those men were known to hold strongly anti-Iran views.
The decision by Trump will have ramifications far wider than the fact of US withdrawal alone. First, it will reinforce the image of the United States as a country that will sign up to an agreement as the Obama administration did, agreed to its ratification in the United Nations Security Council as the US did, but then resile from it because they elect someone who has little or no understanding of foreign affairs and cares even less about the importance of international agreements. Trump’s decision to withdraw from the JCPOA has been made despite the agreement achieving its desirable end of a non-nuclear armed Iran, and for that country to have completely fulfilled its side of the bargain. That latter fact has been repeatedly attested to by both the United States Department of State and by the International Atomic Energy Agency.
This is only the latest in a long line of broken undertakings or agreements by the United States. The post World War 2 commitment to national elections in Korea; the similar post 1954 Geneva Accord with regards to national elections in Vietnam; the 2002 unilateral abrogation of the anti-ballistic missile treaty; and the Paris Accord on Climate Change are only some of the better known examples from recent decades.
They all have features in common: a disregard for good faith agreements and treaties; putting American interests above those of the wider world community; and having potentially devastating consequences.
Secondly, it demonstrated yet again the contemptuous disregard that the United States has for its erstwhile allies. In recent days, the leaders of the United Kingdom, Germany and France have all travelled to Washington to plead the case for sticking to the JCPOA. All efforts were in vain. Instead, the only foreign view that Trump seems to have taken into account is that of the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The Israeli leader recently made a TV presentation that was a mélange of historical distortion, selective interpretation of half-truths, and outright lies. Trump, along with the neocon crazies who infest his administration, as well as a compliant and non-questioning mainstream media, consistently lies about the Islamic Republic of Iran.
That such lies should be the basis of US foreign policy in the Middle East is not surprising given the history of the US in that region over many decades, but that does not make it any less dangerous.
Thirdly, Trump announced that he would impose “the highest level of economic sanctions” on Iran. There is no justification for this in international law, and it amounts in effect to a declaration of war. That does not mean an actual shooting war, although Israel would clearly like the US to do so on its behalf. The capacity of Iran and its allies to respond with devastating effect makes a shooting war improbable, although it cannot be entirely ruled out.
The American use of sanctions, long a tool of economic and political blackmail, has a wider dimension than when the JCP0A was negotiated. In 2017 the US Congress passed the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA). This Act reserves to the United States the right to impose sanctions on any third country that deals with any country designated by the Americans as an adversary, as is the case with Iran.
This Act is completely contrary to the United States’ obligations under the World Trade Organisation and other trade agreements. It is yet another example where at the US disregards international obligations in pursuit of its own self-interest.
It is also a complete abrogation of the principle that sovereign countries should be free to pursue their lawful interests without being subject to such crude bullying and blackmail.
The importance of CAATSA in the present context is that after the JCPOA was ratified by the Security Council, a number of European countries entered into
multi-billion dollar contracts with Iran. These will now be in jeopardy following the United States’ unilateral withdrawal from the JCPOA and the accompanying announcement about “the highest level of economic sanctions” being applied.
The big unanswered question at this point is whether or not the European nations who signed the JCPOA, namely Germany, France and the United Kingdom, and who have also since signed major contracts with Iran will have the backbone to resist US bullying and blackmail. On past performance it would be unwise to assume that they will remain committed to their announced intention to continue to work with Iran within the JCPOA framework, even without the United States.
The other factor that has changed significantly since the JCPOA was signed is the position of Russia and China. Iran is a central component in the geopolitical strategy of both countries, as Alistair Crooke recently pointed out (www.strategic-culture.org) 7 May 2018).
Iran is already an associate member of the Shanghai Corporation Organisation (SCO) and likely to be a full member in the near future. It is a key component of China’s Belt and Road Initiative and has already received substantial infrastructure investment from both Russia and China. Neither country will wish to see its investments, nor its wider geopolitical goals compromised by Trump’s unilateral action.
What Trump has just done will be closely observed by North Korea’s President Kim. He now has little or no motivation to enter into any sort of agreement with the United States, knowing full well that Trump or some future US president could unilaterally disregard any agreement at any time in the future when they decided it suited them.
Trump’s actions have given a devastating blow to US credibility, and it is this factor that in the longer term may have the greatest consequences.
In the emerging multipolar world, the leaders of nations will be faced with a choice: stick with the Americans with all the risks that entails, or elect to deal with the other great powers with a track record of keeping to the agreements and operating within a framework of international law. The answer is increasingly obvious.
*Barrister at Law and geopolitical analyst. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org