TEL AVIV – President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw the United States from the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran was not his first departure from a key international agreement. From the Trans-Pacific Partnership to the Paris climate accord, tearing up multilateral frameworks has become a Trump specialty.
But even by Trump’s standards, exiting the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), as the Iran deal is formally known, is a bridge too far. The move is already being compared to President George W. Bush’s ill-fated attempt to reshape the Middle East through wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Like Bush’s military misadventures, Trump’s approach to the region carries enormous risks, not least because it has buried whatever was left of the transatlantic alliance in the chasm separating America’s power politics and Europe’s emphasis on diplomacy.
Trump’s move is not just about curbing Iran’s weapons of mass destruction. Rather, his objective is regime change, something he apparently hopes to achieve by draining the Islamic Republic’s economic and strategic resources. By reinstating sanctions, Trump is all but begging the Iranian people – who will bear the brunt of the sanctions’ pain – to rise up against their government.
Trump’s abrogation of the JCPOA has left Iran with two options, neither of them good. The first is to renegotiate the agreement with the remaining signatories – China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, Germany, and the European Union. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has already hinted at this possibility, but his ability to deliver could be limited when sanctions return. Forced to choose, European companies would sacrifice business in Iran to maintain access to the American market. And, as Iran’s economy falters, Iranians will seek to apportion blame.
The second option is no better. Iran’s reformists could capitulate to hardliners, scrap the JCPOA altogether, resume nuclear activities, and accelerate the country’s ballistic missile program. This would all but guarantee that Israel would launch a pre-emptive strike on Iran’s nuclear installations – with America’s blessing, if not complicity. At that point, Iran would feel free to redeploy its proxies against Israel, starting with Hezbollah in neighboring Lebanon. And this could lead to a broader conflagration involving other US allies in the region, including the Saudis and other Sunni Arab powers.
Unfortunately, the outcome to avoid is the very one that Israel’s leadership seems keen to bring about. Last month, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu accused Iran of cheating on the nuclear deal. At the time, Netanyahu’s bizarre presentation – in English, no less – met with derision in the West. Now it looks like a prelude.