With the constant squinting, haphazard swaying, and hesitant, ill-timed pacing of a child being forced to read in front of the class, President Donald Trump issued an unusually subdued speech on Oct.13 threatening an end to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPoA). In so doing, he set the world on yet another precarious path towards potential nuclear war. This time, however, it was not North Korea, but Iran whom the president was provoking.
The JCPoA, more commonly known as the Iran Deal, was designed by the P5+1 nations (the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Russia, China, and Germany) with Iran for the joint purpose of preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons and terminating U.S.-imposed sanctions, which have crippled the Iranian economy. The resolution sets parameters for Iranian weapons production and requires regular inspection by the United Nations to ensure Iranian compliance with these terms in exchange for lifting sanctions. Never one to relinquish complete control to the international community, Congress passed the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act of 2015, which mandated that, in addition to U.N. oversight, the president would have to recertify the Iran Deal every 90 days, giving the U.S. the power to unilaterally suspend the JCPoA on a regular basis. Despite having certified the JCPoA twice before, President Trump announced that he would not be recertifying the Iran Deal, thus burdening Congress with the task. Within 60 days, U.S. senators and representatives must decide whether to renew sanctions on Iran and virtually ensure the establishment of an Iranian nuclear arsenal or to uphold the Iran Deal and successfully curtail the proliferation of nuclear weaponry. The choice is as obvious as it seems, bar the complications of partisanship and the desire for American hegemony in the Middle East.
Intuitively, any agreement limiting the existence of nuclear weapons is a good thing, and international consensus has deemed Iran to be in compliance with the JCPoA. Putting one and two together, the Iran Deal has been both a diplomatic and a humanitarian success. It is no surprise, then, that President Trump’s decision has been panned by much of the international community. The United Kingdom, France, and Germany issued an uncharacteristic joint statement asserting that each country “stand[s] committed to the JCPoA and its full implementation by all sides.” Meanwhile, the Russian foreign ministry has condemned Trump’s speech as being “aggressive” and not corresponding “to modern norms of civilized dealings between countries.” Undoubtedly, Iran, having upheld its end of the bargain, is incensed at Trump’s remarks. Although the Iranian government had previously declared eliminating nuclear weapons to be a “legal, political and moral responsibility,” a reinstatement of sanctions would likely cause them to default on that responsibility. Thus far, only Saudi Arabia and Israel, Iran’s predominant regional rivals, are alone in their support of Trump’s decision to decertify the deal.
Still, hope remains as even the Republican-controlled Congress is unlikely to favor reasserting sanctions given their prior insistence on a two-thirds majority to congressionally decertify the Iran Deal. The usual simple majority would have been easier to acquire, so it is widely believed that Republicans decided on a two-thirds majority to prevent the reinstatement of sanctions while still voting in line with anti-Iranian constituents.
The widespread popularity of the JCPoA sees rare agreement among historically antagonistic global ideological regions, such as the West, Russia, and the non-Aligned countries. So, why has President Trump led a relatively isolated charge against a near-universally celebrated agreement? Even the president himself did not seem to know the answer. He simultaneously questioned the “purpose” and foundation of the Iran Deal while condemning Iran for “not living up to the spirit of the deal.”
President Trump’s alleged reasoning behind this controversial and potentially dangerous move, though ultimately unsubstantial, is illuminating because of everything he did not say. Citing civil suppression by the “Iranian dictatorship, its sponsorship of terrorism, and its continuing aggression in the Middle East and all around the world,” the president demanded that Congress and the international community be tougher on Iran in the supposed hope of quelling its existential threat to the world. While this might sound like good old humanitarian leadership by the United States, President Trump’s claims largely fall flat when held to higher standards of scrutiny, as the concerns he cited are neither exclusively Iranian nor are they particularly grave when compared to those of similar state actors.
Iran is hardly the world’s leading or most repressive dictatorship, let alone that of the Middle East–American allies in the Persian Gulf such a Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates can vie for that title. While Iran is no paragon of civil rights by any means, Iran hosts democratic elections and grants women certain basic rights (such as the right to work and hold public office), unlike America’s foremost Arab ally Saudi Arabia. Yet, President Trump has not called for any reevaluation of the Saudi-U.S. relationship, nor advocated crippling America’s oil-laden ally with similar global sanctions. As for the claim that Iran “remains the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism,” I will limit the scope of this discussion to President Trump’s narrow worldview which only recognizes atrocities committed by Muslims as terrorism. Doing so allows us to overlook the ongoing terrorist acts committed by better-equipped and more mainstream imperialist states in favor of focusing on Iran. Islamic fundamentalist organizations such as Al-Qaeda and ISIS are Sunni groups diametrically opposed to Shia Iran. Accordingly, Iran has disavowed Al-Qaeda numerous times and has been instrumental in the fight against ISIS, especially in direct military combat. Hezbollah and Hamas, however, are political organizations largely dedicated to the liberation of Palestine, not to the cause of Islamic fundamentalism. Of the two, only Hamas has been declared a terrorist organization by the United States, though it has been legitimated by other countries. Still, Iranian support of Hamas has been largely rebuffed by Hamas’ other major donor, Saudi Arabia; thus, Iran primarily provides its limited financial support to Hezbollah. Once again, the United States and President Trump, in particular, have remained silent on “the magnificent Kingdom of Saudi Arabia”. As for President Trump’s assertion that Iran is a proponent of “aggression in the Middle East and all around the world,” historic U.S. ambivalence towards such activities by other nations hardly requires demonstration. There have been no regional or international conflicts started by the Islamic Republic of Iran beyond Iranian soil, as compared to a long list of crises spurred by American interferences and Israeli encroachment in the Middle East, such as the 1953 CIA backed coup of Iran, the Six Day War, the U.S.-backed Iraqi invasion of Iran, the Persian Gulf War, the Iraq War, five separate Israeli invasions of Lebanon, and the 2014 Gaza War to name only a few. This is to say nothing of rampant U.S. meddling in East Asia, Southeast Asia, and Latin America constituting severe international aggression.
Perhaps the most salient evidence against the Iranian threat is Iran’s position as the only Shia-majority, anti-globalist power in the Middle East, which renders its military strategy a defensive one meant to deter, not impose global hegemony. Iran has comparatively fewer weapons, capital, and resources than other Arab regimes and especially nuclear-equipped Israel. Iran’s relatively meager position is the reasoning behind its desire for a nuclear arsenal in the first place. As it currently stands, Iran could barely defend itself from attack, let alone attempt to wage war itself. It is no wonder, then, that in an international Gallup poll that asked “which
country is the greatest threat to peace,” the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada were alone in giving the title to Iran. The polls results are illustrated in the map above, with the United States overwhelmingly declared the world’s leading threat to peace with 24 percent of the vote.
While the Iran Deal initially served to limit the perceived Iranian threat, it has now highlighted its American counterpart. The United States under President Trump’s leadership appears insistent on escalating tensions with Iran as a public rallying point rather than focusing on more serious threats. The United States is not afraid of Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon for any real fear of attack; rather, the U.S. fears a nuclear Iran for the same reason the U.S. dreads an internationally-supported Iran. Both scenarios serve as an anti-American regime’s deterrents for American hegemony in the Middle East.
In continuing to derail peace efforts with Iran, the United States is jeopardizing international security and making the threat of a nuclear-equipped world, a nuclear-powered war, and nuclear-induced global destruction all the more likely.