Nuclear diplomacy: Can Trump isolate Iran without isolating US?

President Trump seems determined to pull the US out of the Iran nuclear deal, fulfilling a campaign pledge. It would be consistent with his actions on other international agreements, but analysts and officials warn it could leave the US at odds with its allies.

Tasnim News Agency via Reuters
Iran launches and tests a Simorgh rocket at the Imam Khomeini Space Center in Iran in this handout photo released on July 27, 2017.

Perhaps it was all the other fires the White House has burning that prompted President Trump to begrudgingly approve another 90-day certification of Iran’s compliance with a nuclear deal he has long promised to scuttle.

But all indications are that the president’s fire could shift to the nuclear deal next time.

With another opportunity to withdraw from the 2015 international agreement coming up at the end of September, the White House appears to be laying the groundwork for a decision that would make good on a campaign pledge to pull the United States out of a deal Mr. Trump has called “disastrous.”

More broadly, such a move would bolster Trump’s vision of an aggressive and nationalist – as opposed to multilateral and internationalist – foreign policy.

Pulling out of the Iran accord would complete a trifecta of withdrawals from international agreements that Trump inherited from President Obama. The agreements symbolized Mr. Obama’s emphasis on multilateral approaches to international issues and diplomacy with adversaries.

Trump canceled US participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal shortly after taking office, and withdrew the US from the Paris Climate Accord in June.

But some US officials, members of Congress, and regional analysts are cautioning that withdrawing from a nuclear deal reached with other international powers would leave the US isolated on the issue, when Trump’s goal is ostensibly to isolate Iran.

Better, some say, to toughen the deal’s enforcement. Others recommend leaving alone a deal that is working – imposing strict restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program and curtailing steps toward developing a nuclear bomb – and focusing instead on what the administration calls Iran’s “malign” activities spreading its influence in the Middle East.

An optic shift

“If the United States withdrew from the JCPOA,” the acronym for the nuclear deal’s official name, “the nuclear accord would continue [but] the political optic would shift,” says Robert Litwak, vice president for scholars and academic relations at the Wilson Center in Washington.

In reaching the deal, it was “the United States and the world versus Iran,” he says. But “if the United States unilaterally withdrew, the optic would shift to Iran and the world versus the United States,” adds Mr. Litwak, author of “Iran’s Nuclear Chess: After the Deal.” Under that new scenario, the US “would be the outlier.”

As Sen. Bob Corker (R) of Tennessee, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told a Washington audience last week, “You want the breakup of this deal to be about Iran. You don’t want it to be about the US, because we want our allies with us.”

The president, on the other hand, appears to be focused on scrapping the deal – whether that means the US is “going it alone” or not.

Trump recently accepted Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s recommendation that the president again find Iran in compliance with the deal. But he also instructed his national security staff to prepare the rationale for the opposite finding – and for justifying a withdrawal – for the next three-month review he must deliver to Congress.

He has also signaled publicly that he is unlikely to again certify Iran’s compliance with a deal he insists Tehran is violating both in the letter and in the spirit.

Access to sensitive sites

The State Department is already preparing initial steps to ratchet up what Mr. Corker calls “radical enforcement” of the deal. As one example, US officials will soon call on the International Atomic Energy Administration (IAEA), the international nuclear watchdog agency charged with verifying Iran’s compliance, to seek access to Iranian military sites, according to news reports.

Iran has traditionally balked at opening up sensitive military sites it says have nothing to do with its nuclear program. Instead it fears foreign powers including the US are seeking intelligence on its other military activities. But barring access to international inspectors now could spark an international crisis and place the onus for an unraveling nuclear deal squarely on Tehran, some argue.

The administration also twinned Trump’s certification of Iran’s compliance with new sanctions not barred by the deal, and Congress has approved further sanctions on Iran that await the president’s signature. Moreover, the State Department said last week that a recent rocket launch Iran asserts was carried out in conjunction with its peaceful space program was a violation of United Nations restrictions on Iranian missile activity.

But opponents of US participation in the deal remain wary of the State Department and suspect it is really aiming to tie Trump’s hands with drawn-out haggling over access for inspectors – and to put off a US pull-out from the deal.

The best way to outflank the deal’s supporters inside government is simply to pull out of it, some argue.

John Bolton, former US ambassador to the United Nations and a vociferous nuclear deal opponent, says Trump should forget any qualms about offending the “international community” and instead follow the instincts that led him to pull out of TPP and Paris.

Compared with withdrawing from the Paris accord – an international agreement backed by nearly every other country in the world and by many in the US – “abrogating the [Iran deal] is a one-inch putt,” Mr. Bolton wrote recently in The Hill newspaper.

Some State Department officials say that European partners are open to working with the US to toughen enforcement of the nuclear deal, but no one sees any appetite among the five countries that joined the US in reaching the deal with Iran – Russia, China, France, Britain, and Germany – for renegotiating a tougher deal or pushing Iran to pull out.

What Iran is up to in Mideast

In that environment, some Iran experts say the Trump administration would be better off shifting its focus from the nuclear deal to a strategy for restraining Iran as it expands its influence across the Middle East and challenges US allies there.

“Just walking away from the nuclear deal is not a strategy, all that would do is isolate the US at a time when we need our allies and partners, particularly in the region, more than ever,” says Alex Vatanka, a senior fellow specializing in Iran at the Middle East Institute in Washington. “The US should leave alone a nuclear track that by all accounts is holding Iranian nuclear activity in check,” he adds, “and instead focus on the long-term challenge of the Iranian threat to US interests in the region.”

US leadership in the region is “missing” in terms of building a strategy to counter Iran’s growing influence in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and its increasing assertiveness in the Persian Gulf, Mr. Vatanka says.

“Key US allies are all over the place on Iran – just look at Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the other Gulf states,” he says, “so a first step in building a strategy countering Iran is to coordinate a unified message and align US and regional allies’ interests.”

Rather than causing an international uproar that would most likely bolster Iran’s international standing, the US should focus on reinforcing its regional leadership in ways that will restrain Iran, he says.

“With this deal in place, people aren’t losing sleep any more over spinning centrifuges and other pieces of the nuclear program,” Vatanka says. “What they’re losing sleep over now is what Iran is up to in the region.”

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