Shortly after his provocative statements against North Korea, President Donald Trump repeated himself, this time taking as a target the nuclear weapons agreement negotiated with the Islamic Republic of Iran. Beyond pure geopolitical intimidation, the decertification of the accord marks a new low for irresponsible policy.
It was with half-veiled statements that the president, accompanied by senior U.S. military staff, announced, last week, the “calm before the storm.” Although it may have seemed he was referring, once again, to North Korea, Trump decided not to certify the Vienna accord on Iranian nuclear weapons and to leave the task of deciding on next steps to Congress. The coming months could see the United States trying to amend the agreement, resuming sanctions against Iran, or even, in that vein, simply disengaging from any leadership whatsoever. The agreement, negotiated in 2015 between the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council – guarantors of international peace – the European Union and the Iranian Republic, limited the military capabilities of the Iranian nuclear program.
Two weeks ago, some news outlets had already reported that Trump was going to contradict his chief national security advisers (including Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who have since reiterated their support for the agreement) and declare the accord contrary to U.S. national security interests, which Trump confirmed at a press conference last Friday. While American decertification of the agreement, which was negotiated by seven countries, cannot unilaterally end things, this move could lead some other actors to reconsider – notably the main stakeholder, Iran, and another pebble in the American boot, North Korea.
The new U.S. strategy on Iran, announced last Thursday, provides for a more robust posture against the Iranian regime, notably regarding its “destabilizing influence” in the region, and seems also to directly attack the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.* The U.S. government plans to include the IRGC, the Iranian security arm, on its list of terrorist organizations. The real problem with this strategy, however, is that it risks leading the U.S. to resume sanctions against the Iranian regime, a decision which must be made by Congress (where Republicans have the majority) within 60 days. A resumption of sanctions could prompt the Iranian regime to exit the accord, expel inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (the only external observer of the Iranian program), and resume its nuclear program.
This type of policy unfortunately risks hardening the Iranian position. Already, before the official announcement of the American position last week, Iranian media circulated a photo showing Iranian Foreign Affairs Minister Javad Zarif and the commander of the Revolutionary Guards, Major Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari, who represent respectively the moderate liberal and radical conservative wings of the Iranian government, in a friendly embrace. Indeed, historically, belligerent external pressures have often led to alliances in Iran between diverse and otherwise opposing factions in order to face an external threat. A collapse of the Vienna accord would unfortunately signal an about-face of the Rouhani government’s open reformist policy toward a more belligerent position dictated by the most radical and conservative elements, a la former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Indeed, Zarif tweeted this exact sentiment on Sunday, saying that “Iranians—boys, girls, men, women – are ALL” Revolutionary Guards.
However, rejecting the certification of the accord on the basis of Iran’s failure to comply with its obligations, a position that the IAEA refutes, is unlikely to lead to a relaxation of regional tensions, especially in the event of sanctions. Indeed, the rejection of the accord is in line with the vision advocated by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, well known for his antagonistic policies toward the Iranian regime. According to President Hassan Rouhani, the United States, by not certifying the accord, would not only oppose Iran, but oppose a decision by the Security Council, the European Union and the entire world.
But the failure of American diplomacy doesn’t end there. This dynamic is also part of the North Korean crisis, as Trump must appeal to Beijing and Moscow, two longtime allies of Tehran and catalysts for the Vienna agreement, to counterbalance the actions of the lone wolf in Pyongyang, where the U.S. government is short on resources. The rejection of the Iranian accord sends a strong signal to Pyongyang that the United States wants nothing to do with either international law or a concerted policy with its allies to relax tensions. Indeed, because the key element of national security is the reliability and credibility of the actors involved, Trump, through his erratic actions, is increasingly a threat to global security.
*Editor’s note: The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps is a branch of Iran’s Armed Forces founded after the 1979 Revolution.