Such is the carnival of the Trump presidency, it can be tempting – especially for those outside the US – to view it as spectacle, a long-running reality TV show that veers between The Apprentice and House of Cards. But every now and then comes a reminder that, for all the cartoonish absurdity of the central character, the Trump administration is all too real, that its actions matter and that the stakes are lethally high.
A fresh and urgent reminder of that has come today with Iran’s declarationthat it will no longer fully comply with the nuclear deal it reached with the US and Europe in 2015, by which Tehran agreed to a 15-year pause on its nuclear programme in return for the easing of economic sanctions. In a televised address this morning – exactly one year after Trump withdrew the United States from the deal – Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, announced a series of moves that would inch the country closer to acquiring the ability to produce nuclear weapons, moves that would only be averted if Europe defied Trump and allowed Iran once again to sell its oil and have access to the international banking system. For the most severe of these steps, Rouhani gave the Europeans 60 days to make up their minds: either resume trade or watch Tehran resume its nuclear efforts.
There’s no mystery why this has come about, even if cause and effect are separated by 12 months. On 8 May last year, Trump dismissed the advice of his own military and security chiefs and broke from what he called the “worst deal in history”. The likeliest explanation is that Trump disliked the deal not because it was ineffective – on the contrary, international inspectors were adamant that Iran was complying to the letter – but simply because it represented the single biggest foreign-policy achievement of his predecessor. Just as Trump has been determined to unravel Barack Obama’s healthcare reforms, so he has been bent on dismantling his international legacy. Laughable though it may seem, Trump’s envy and resentment of Obama and his reputation may well be the key driver of this major geopolitical shift.
The consequences have been direct. Fearing secondary sanctions imposed by the US – heavy US fines on any company that does business with Iran – European firms have pulled out of the country, choking an already ailing Iranian economy. That has led Iranians to demand their leaders hit back. The only surprise of today’s move is that it took so long, as Tehran waited a full year to respond to Trump – all the while continuing to obey the terms of the nuclear deal.