Washington's denunciation of the nuclear agreement with Iran pours gasoline on the regional fire. Clashes between Israel and Iran are likely to degenerate into all-out war. The move of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem has brought the Palestinian issue back to center stage.
Meanwhile, the political rise of the Shia cleric, Moqtada al-Sadr (a long-time adversary of the U.S.) threatens the precarious equilibrium in post-Islamic State Iraq. In addition, trans-Atlantic relations cross an existential crisis, perhaps deeper than in 2003, and the Kremlin seems to be the great beneficiary.
The United States’ withdrawal from the nuclear deal with Iran, officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, came as no surprise to anyone. In fact, Donald Trump strongly denounced the agreement during his campaign. Since then, nothing has changed his mind. On the contrary, he has treated the agreement as a tortuous inheritance, as Barack Obama’s main international achievement. And he has had to prove he is anti-Obama. Following this line of thinking, Trump has regularly criticized the nuclear deal: It will not solve all the problems with Iran, and the lifting of sanctions gave the green light to Iran to create disorder in the Middle East while the ballistic program continues unhindered. On the other hand, supporters say the agreement was aimed at reducing and limiting Tehran's nuclear ambitions, institutionalizing a robust inspection regime to detect any deviation early while the Obama administration's attention was absorbed by the Syrian crisis and the campaign against the Islamic State group.
Many observers are convinced that Trump has prematurely applied to Iran what he learned from the North Korean episode: Only a campaign of maximum pressure (economic, political and military) forces the other party to accept concessions that are almost impossible to contemplate. But is there, in the case of Iran, a possibility of rebuilding an international coalition capable of exerting unbearable pressure (as in 2015)? It is unlikely that such an effect can be generated without the participation of Russia, China and Europe.
Applying the lessons from the Iran agreement can work both ways, inasmuch as the White House uses the gaps in the Iranian nuclear agreement in the North Korean case to signal what it wants from the Pyongyang. On the day that Trump denounced the JCPOA, his national security advisor, John Bolton, announced that the U.S. withdrawal will have “implications for the forthcoming meeting with Kim Jong Un. It sends a very clear signal that the United States will not accept inadequate deals.” Against this background, Washington awaits radical concessions from Pyongyang: the elimination of all processes that allow the accumulation of nuclear fuel while banishing the ballistic program. The model that is contemplated, especially by Bolton, is that of Libya in 2003, which handed over its weapons of mass destruction program to the international community.
It should be noted that Trump’s appeal in his JCPOA speech was all about how toxic Iran's regional behavior is and how Tehran's fingerprints are behind every major crisis in the Middle East. But the fundamental question is how much Trump is willing to oppose Iran's harmful behavior. From this perspective, his impulses are contradictory, and that places his policy for the region in a state of disharmony. His signals so far have shown a predilection for withdrawal, leaving the responsibility of resistance and counterbalancing of Shia Iran on the shoulders of local states.
Trump seems to see the United States’ mission in the Middle East solely as eliminating remnants of the Islamic State group. "It is essential that the responsible nations in the Middle East step up their own contribution to prevent Iran from profiting off the success of our anti-ISIS effort. (…) As far as Syria is concerned, I would love to get out. I’d love to bring our incredible warriors back home,” Trump says.
And yet, the U.S. president adds, “We don’t want to give Iran open season to the Mediterranean.” It is hard to believe that an effort to limit Iran’s hegemonic ambitions can succeed without the involvement of the United States. But this is exactly the type of effort Trump does not want to hear about anymore. It is said Trump gave his aides six months to complete their mission. However, the U.S. bridgehead in Syria and Iraq remains important for shaping the post-Islamic State group realities, for the political consolidation of military winnings, including victories scored by keeping the anti-Assad opposition in Washington's orbit, in a world where Tehran has ample space to maneuver through the archipelago of paramilitary forces it holds in the region.
Technically, the State Department's recommended prescription is "to strengthen the legitimate institutions of legitimate states to close the cracks Iran is exploiting. Iran is like the thief who, in the shelter of the night, will seek out any opportunity − a half-open door, unlocked, or a fully open door."*
The reshuffling of Iraqi political space (including reshuffling by the instrumentation of the Tehran-controlled Shia militias), and the amplification of anti-U.S. feelings could have dramatic consequences for the fragile equilibrium gained after the elimination of the Islamic State group, generating the type of social energies that, in the past, have paved the way for the ascent of the Islamic State group. At the U.S. administrative level, the measure calls for strengthening the influence of the presidential Praetorian Guard, especially that of Bolton, an old regime-change advocate, in the countries that are part of the famous "Axis of Evil." It is, in some way, the price of having had Gen. H.R. McMaster and Rex Tillerson, who managed to keep Trump in the nuclear deal.
Moreover, a gap (obviously in the words of Thomas Wright writing in Politico) appears to be evident among those who view the security interests as a zero-sum game and project the image of a martial order-like U.S. that extracts concessions by force on the one hand, and those who, like Defense Secretary James Mattis, see the long-term implications, demand a Plan B and have a hierarchy of priorities in competition with the great revisionist powers, Russia and China. The latter see traditional alliances as fundamental advantages in the defense of the post-war order, and consider policies that shake off the free world's strengths as inherently toxic.
*Editor’s note: Although this passage is accurately translated, the source of the quoted information could not be independently verified in full.