On 8 May, in fulfilment of his electoral campaign pledge, US President Donald Trump announced that the US would withdraw from the nuclear deal signed between Iran and the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany).
He then signed a presidential order restoring the highest degree of sanctions against Tehran and cautioned countries that Washington would sanction them too if they helped Tehran in its efforts to obtain a nuclear weapon.
The US president’s action is consistent with his behaviour since the beginning of his term of office when he set upon decimating a range of important international agreements such as the Paris Climate Accord, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).
He embarked on these actions with no strategic vision for what to do afterward and with no ability to produce agreements to take their place.
The US decision to withdraw from a joint working plan that had been agreed on in 2015 has precipitated numerous adverse repercussions:
- It will aggravate the internal conflict in Washington, especially between Trump, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton, who favour the decision to withdraw from the Iranian nuclear agreement, and Secretary of Defense James Mattis, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joseph Dunford and a large number of State Department officials and Democratic and Republican members of Congress who believe that withdrawal from the agreement will isolate Washington internationally, undermine any influence the US can have over the evolution of the Iranian nuclear problem and ultimately strengthen Iran’s hand and its ability to seek a nuclear weapon.
The position of the camp opposed to US withdrawal from the deal is supported by US and international reports confirming that Iran has been meeting its obligations under the agreement which had put into place ascertainable limitations on Iranian nuclear energy activities.
The conflict in Washington will play out primarily in Congress, especially after midterm elections in November, when Trump will need a new law in order to impose more sanctions against Iran and the countries cooperating with it.
- It will aggravate the US’s declining international image and status. The Trump administration’s decision to withdraw from the nuclear accord with Iran has damaged the US’s credibility among both its adversaries and allies.
The US, in this case, is the country that has failed to abide by its commitments. It is the party that recklessly tears up agreements while the other side (Iran) comes off as responsible and true to its word.
The US’s traditional allies are, naturally, compelled to reassess their relations with Washington and the prospects of strengthening their relations with countries that rival Washington internationally in order to better safeguard their national interests and national security.
In general, the Trump decision exposes the decline in the US’s leadership of a world order that has been changing in ways unfavourable to US interests.
Among these developments are the rising roles of rival powers, such as China and Russia, and allied powers, such as France and Germany. These have begun to take Washington’s place in the tasks involved in the preservation of international stability and security.
- The security and stability of the Middle East as a whole has been further jeopardised by the US withdrawal from the agreement with Iran and the re-imposition of sanctions against Tehran which will now work to rebuild its uranium enrichment processes and to acquire a nuclear weapon.
The Trump decision will ultimately aggravate this region’s already flaring crises, fuel a regional arms race, increase the likelihood of a face-to-face clash between Iran and Israel, and escalate the proxy wars between Tehran and Riyadh, all of which will be detrimental to security and stability in the Middle East and to the interests of the US and its allies in the region.
- US-European relations will suffer. The US withdrawal from the nuclear agreement, against strong objections voiced by European cosignatories, adds another bone to pick between the two sides of the transatlantic relationship which has never been this strained in decades.
Until the very eve of the Trump announcement, European countries had done all they could to persuade him to be reasonable. He snubbed their advice and cautions.
While this, alone, may fuel rancour, the major source of heightened tensions will be European fears of US sanctions against European companies working with Tehran and the threat to recently revived European-Iranian commercial interests which have been steadily increasing since the sanctions were lifted.
- The decision undermines the US and international drive to prevent nuclear proliferation, especially in the Middle East.
The withdrawal makes it difficult for the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and US officials to unearth any secret Iranian efforts to develop a nuclear weapon.
It also hampers the US’s opportunities to bring the crisis over the North Korean nuclear programme to a successful conclusion.
- The Iranian regime will become more hardline and intransigent domestically and externally thanks to the Trump decision, while the reformist camp will suffer.
The hardliners in Iran have always argued that Washington, the “Great Satan”, cannot be trusted, and Washington has just given them the ammunition to bolster their chances in the next Iranian general elections.
- The Trump decision will rebound against the US economy. Renewed US sanctions will target the Iranian petroleum sector and the international energy firms working with Tehran. Global energy prices will rise again as Iranian supply declines.
Rising international prices will impact adversely on the US economy at a time when US oil producing firms are facing mounting obstacles to the production of shale oil. The American consumer will, of course, end up carrying the burden of rising oil prices.
Trump’s unilateral withdrawal from the nuclear deal with Iran aims to achieve narrow, personal ends.
It will embroil the US further in the crises aggravated by his decision and it will further enflame the Middle East which is torn by extremism and sectarian hostilities.
Contrary to Trump’s notion of disengaging from the Middle East, the US will find itself unable to avoid being drawn into more of the region’s conflicts.
The writer is associate editor of Al-Siyassa Al-Dawliya published by Al-Ahram.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 17 May 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly with headline: Danger in the making