For Iranians, Donald Trump’s announcement that he is withdrawing the US from the nuclear deal and reimposing sanctions, despite Iran’s compliance with the deal, is deeply disappointing.
This is a manufactured crisis, and in making it, Washington and its allies in Tel Aviv and Riyadh have set their sights on a zero sum option of containing and even forcing political change in the Islamic Republic.
This naive thinking reflects Washington’s limited understanding of Iran and its internal politics as well as the deep regional divide between Iran and its Arab neighbours. So rather than address the principal challenge of Iran’s regional meddling and the wider tensions in the Middle East in an initiative separate from the already functioning nuclear deal, Trump has unleashed a genie that will not so easily go back in its bottle. The consequences and challenges ahead are multiple.
First, the US withdrawal creates a transatlantic divide at a time when cooperation between Washington and its European allies is critical. Since January, France, Germany and the UK have scrambled to find solutions, albeit unsuccessfully, to placate Trump’s concerns about the nuclear agreement. Trump’s zero sum decision, however, leaves the EU with little room for manoeuvre, either to save the deal or to create openings for new negotiations.
In the absence of either, a full-scale collapse of the deal will ultimately empower China and Russia. Both will capitalize on Western paralysis in the Middle East by building strong economic and political ties not only with Iran, who will have no where else to turn, but also its neighbours that are already looking east.
Inside Iran, President Hassan Rouhani’s initial reaction was to translate Iranian anger and disappointment into nationalism. He immediately responded by summoning the ‘Iranian nation…to be more united and resolved’.
But Trump has handed a unique opportunity to hardline political elites to build on Iranian frustration. Not only can the hardliners use the breakdown of the deal to establish unity among the divided elites, but they can also build bridges with the Iranian population after protests in January. The knock-on effects of conservative unity could even lead to a victory for a hardline candidate in the 2020 parliamentary elections and the 2021 presidential poll.
Moving beyond symbolic speeches though, Iran has a hard task ahead that includes trying to maintain European, Russian and Chinese solidarity. Without that Tehran faces renewed economic isolation.
In the weeks ahead, Tehran will seek to pressure the EU in particular to defend the deal. If that defence does not materialize though, Iran will gradually restart its nuclear programme. The wider consequence here is that other regional actors such as Saudi Arabia will also make similar moves accelerating the issue of regional nuclear proliferation.
The Middle East is a tinderbox of tensions as conflicts rage in Syria, Yemen, Iraq and Lebanon and Iran is the driver of much of this toxicity. Here too, the potential for a wider regional escalation is high. Israel remains rightly intent on preventing Tehran from gaining a significant foothold on the Syrian border. Yet, Iran has developed asymmetrical ties with militias and proxies affording it great opportunity to stir up trouble and demonstrate its leverage.
With these consequences in mind, it is clear that the Trump administration has miscalculated. While Trump is proud to have maintained his campaign promise to roll back the ‘worst deal ever’, he does not yet realize that by doing so he will be breaking another—and the United States could yet again become embroiled in another Middle East war.
Dr Sanam Vakil, Associate Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme
This article was originally published in the Guardian.