Global Affairs

Donald Trump has a point on Iran

He has opened the door to fresh dialogue and America's allies should seize it

LONDON • US President Donald Trump has made a habit of ditching international treaties, agreements or organisations he does not like. He pulled the US out of the Paris agreement on climate change. He also pulled the plug on the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact, and took the US out of Unesco, the United Nations agency founded from the ashes of World War II to protect the common cultural inheritance of humanity.

And if this was not enough, Mr Trump's decision to refuse to certify that Iran is in compliance with its obligations under a 2015 nuclear accord may mean that one of the most important deals in recent history, aiming to contain the menace of nuclear proliferation, may also be heading for the scrapheap, torn up by the US President.

"Trump's foreign policy has found its theme: 'The Withdrawal Doctrine'," Mr Richard Haas, a noted American policy expert who heads the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, tweeted dismissively soon after the President's Iran decision became known. Others were even less charitable: Mr Donald Trump's stance on Iran "sends a difficult and dangerous signal" and could prompt other nations "to acquire nuclear weapons too given that such agreements are being destroyed", German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel warned over the weekend.

Undoubtedly, Mr Trump's Iran decision - taken with little consultation with allies and in defiance of the other parties to the deal - deserves all such criticism and much more. It does nothing for US credibility around the world. It only complicates any hope countries may have of dealing with North Korea's nuclear defiance. And it risks destroying the strategic coordination between the Europeans and the Americans, as well as fraying the already shaky cooperation with China and Russia on such matters. In short, the move risks too much in pursuit of ideas which can be pursued by different means.

Still, the US President is not wrong in suggesting that the Iran nuclear agreement suffers from some fundamental and serious flaws which governments around the world have either downplayed or just simply ignored. So, once the public outrage at Mr Trump's decision dies down, America's allies would be well advised to sit down with White House officials and see how the nuclear deal could be saved by anchoring it in a broader approach to Iran, one which is now sorely lacking. In a perverse way, Mr Trump's action can be transformed into a constructive strategic opportunity.


It's appropriate to highlight a not-so-little detail about the Iran nuclear arrangement which is now conveniently forgotten in most of the media commentaries: That the Iran deal itself, or the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) as it is known by its official moniker, "is not a treaty or an executive agreement, and is not a signed document", as the US State Department's chief legal officer admitted to Congress in Washington soon after it was concluded in 2015. So this allegedly sublime deal on which the nuclear peace of the world supposedly depends actually does not exist, at least not in formal US law.

And this is for a simple reason: At no point was there a consensus in Washington about the desirability of this Iran deal. So, Mr Barack Obama, the US president who got a Nobel Peace Prize before he even did anything, and Mr John Kerry, his Secretary of State who failed to bag a Nobel for actually negotiating the Iran deal, resorted to subterfuge; they claimed that the deal was supremely important and a huge achievement, but somehow not important enough to be subjected to a ratification process in the US Senate, as required by the American Constitution.


None of this is to suggest that President Trump is now justified in tearing up the deal, and Mr Trump is clearly exaggerating when he claims that the JCPOA is "one of the worst and most one-sided transactions the United States has ever entered into". Still, it's worth recalling that, in mistrusting the deal and in dismissing its significance, Mr Trump belongs to the majority of current decision-makers in Washington, and is not some outlandish spokesman for an outlier minority.

The real criticism of Mr Trump's decisions on Iran is not that his objections are invented and unreal but, rather, that simply throwing the matter back to Congress as President Trump has done, and simply criticising the deal without offering an alternative reads more like a supermarket-style shopping list of problems than as a serious strategic plan to deal with the Iranian challenge.

And it's also worth recalling that the whole process of certification by the US president of Iran's compliance with the JCPOA was mandated by a suspicious US Congress on the White House every 90 days precisely because American lawmakers did not trust the chief executive to take into account the broader security threat which Iran poses to Middle Eastern and global security.

Two out of the four "certification criteria" demanded by the US Congress from the American president are that Iran has not taken any action which "could significantly advance a nuclear weapons programme", and that the continuation of the JCPOA "is appropriate and proportionate to the measures taken by Iran and vital to US national security interests".

European governments have known about these congressional demands all along; they never took them seriously because they assumed that American presidents wouldn't take them seriously either. Still, the Europeans cannot claim to be surprised by the fact that Mr Trump is now refusing to fudge these points. For issuing a certificate which says that Iran has done nothing substantial to advance its nuclear weapons programme, or claiming that Iran does not threaten US interests would be to engage in two brazen lies.

The reality is that although Iran has been certified no less than eight times by the International Atomic Energy Agency that it is in compliance with the nuclear provisions of the JCPOA, the Iranians are developing missile delivery systems which fit perfectly well into a future nuclear programme. The Iranians have also - and only recently - been accused by Germany's intelligence community of trying to acquire nuclear-relevant technology. Neither is a direct violation of the existing agreement, but they are not insignificant matters connected to nuclear aspirations either.

And then, there is the broader pattern of Iranian behaviour in the Middle East, which entails arming just about every militant group from Lebanon to Syria and Iraq and down to Yemen, as well as the undermining of every pro-Western Arab government. Iran continues to be committed to the elimination of Israel; the only difference between now and the period before the JCPOA was concluded is that now, most governments around the world prefer not to notice this wholly illegal behaviour.


America's European allies also believe that President Trump's decision to target further sanctions on Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps is counter-productive. Perhaps it is, but there is no intelligence agency in any Western country which will deny that the Corps do exactly what Mr Trump accuses them of doing: Export terror, arm and train terrorists, and cause havoc.

The idea that Iran's nuclear "dossier" - as diplomats gingerly like to call it - should be separated from the question of Iran's broader behaviour and its readiness to use conventional forces to spread death and destruction is understandable. But it is also ultimately illogical. Would anyone have accepted a deal which restricts the development of North Korea's nuclear programme yet allows North Korea to arms bands of terrorists which blow up installations in South Korea? But that's precisely what the deal with Iran amounts to, at least for the Arab countries in the Middle East.

The real criticism of Mr Trump's decisions on Iran is not that his objections are invented and unreal but, rather, that simply throwing the matter back to Congress as President Trump has done, and simply criticising the deal without offering an alternative reads more like a supermarket-style shopping list of problems than as a serious strategic plan to deal with the Iranian challenge.

But it is here that America's allies could step in, by offering to engage in a broader dialogue with Washington on what needs to be done to contain Iran's conventional capabilities, while trying to save as much as possible of the existing nuclear deal.

As things currently stand, that possibility of a trade-off is still there; President Trump has explicitly called on the Europeans as well as on the Chinese and Russians to join in talks on such matters. His offer should be taken up, for those who currently claim that Iran's nuclear deal is the only "game in town" much also accept that this is neither true, nor sufficient. The world needs an Iran without nuclear weapons. But it also needs an Iran which no longer exports death and destruction.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 16, 2017, with the headline 'Trump has a point on Iran'. Print Edition | Subscribe