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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 19 September 2018

The Iran nuclear deal does not have to die but it is on life support

The Europeans now stand in the middle of a tug-of-war between their supposed ally America on the one side and Russia and China on the other

US officials said the President Trump-enforced sanctions sought to clamp down on Iran's economic abilities / EPA
US officials said the President Trump-enforced sanctions sought to clamp down on Iran's economic abilities / EPA

With his outsized signature looking like a seismograph recording a huge earthquake, Donald Trump has obliterated his predecessor’s legacy in the Middle East. By signing an executive order to withdraw from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and re-impose sanctions on companies that do business with Iran, Mr Trump is opening a new era in the region. Critics say he has raised the danger of armed confrontation between Iran and the United States and its regional allies. He is also opening up a damaging rift with his European partners, who all support the deal. Susan Rice, national security adviser to Barack Obama, called it “reckless”.

For Mr Trump, however, it was a “decaying and rotten” deal which allowed Iran to reinforce its hegemony in the region by expanding its expeditionary forces in Syria and building up its ballistic missile capability. For supporters in the region, including the UAE, it was no coincidence that the years since the signing of the deal have seen a huge increase in Iran’s influence in Syria.

Now that the US is withdrawing, the big question is what will happen next. The deal offered Iran limited relief from sanctions in exchange for accepting, for a limited period, the most intrusive inspections to prevent the development of a nuclear warhead. Washington has now promised to re-impose nuclear-related sanctions as well as the “highest level of economic sanctions”, including efforts to curb the sale of Iranian oil on international markets. It will take up to half a year for these sanctions to take effect, which theoretically leaves time for European states to work out an add-on agreement with Iran which might satisfy the Americans by restricting ballistic missile technology and tightening some aspects of the nuclear deal.

The chances of this happening, however, are close to zero. As the French President Emmanuel Macron has said, Mr Trump has strong reasons of domestic policy to collapse the deal. That does not mean the deal has to die. Its other signatories – China, Russia, Britain, France and Germany – are determined to preserve it, even without Washington. The Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has reacted with caution, saying he would wait to see whether the deal can survive before he orders his nuclear authorities to resume enrichment of uranium on an industrial scale. For the moment it looks like the other signatories are praying over a patient on life support. Far from offering the Europeans any encouragement for their diplomatic efforts, Mr Trump dismissed them as being party to a “giant fiction that a murderous regime desired only a peaceful nuclear energy programme”.

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The Europeans now stand in the middle of a tug-of-war between their supposed ally America on the one side and Russia and China on the other. If the Europeans are to stick with the nuclear deal, they will find themselves ever more closely entwined with Russia, which will be keen to seize this opportunity to widen the transatlantic rift between America and the European Union. At a time when the EU is feeling the effect of a more aggressive Russia in the form of cyber-attacks and energy plays, it is unlikely to want to weaken its security links with Washington.

And even if the EU somehow found a way to keep the nuclear deal alive, such is the reach of the US Treasury that European companies would struggle to make any significant deals with Iran. Airbus, the European aerospace giant, was planning to sell 100 aircraft to Iran but all its products contain US-made parts so no sales could take place under sanctions.

The Trump administration has no doubt weighed up these forces and concluded that the EU is too dependent economically and militarily on the US to be a free agent. Without investment by major European companies, Iran will not gain the economic uplift that was Mr Rouhani’s declared purpose in agreement the nuclear deal. The biggest question remains: what is Mr Trump hoping to achieve? He has not offered any road map. For Iranians, the answer is clear – it must be regime change, which is a popular idea in Washington.

It is true that the Tehran regime seems to be running out of road. It cannot find jobs for its young people, nor is it able to reform itself. The Iranian people are in despair over rising prices, leading to regular outbursts of protest, usually based on economic woes which quickly turn into anti-regime slogans. What is not in short supply is patriotic fervour, the glue which has held the country together since 1979. More likely than an overt policy of regime change is containment, pursued by the US against the Soviet Union for 50 years until finally the Kremlin cracked.

Trump supporters use the example of North Korea: maximum economic pressure in the form of sanctions combined with belligerent threats to vaporise the Kim dynasty with nuclear weapons has paved the way for a summit meeting with Kim Jong-un. This might not lead to North Korea abandoning its nuclear weapons – which seems most unlikely – but it has broken a log jam on the Korean peninsula dating from the 1950s.

Containing reclusive North Korea has been relatively easy. All major powers have had to go along, albeit with some reluctance, with sanctions against Pyongyang. This would not be the case with Iran, where Russia and China would support Tehran on the grounds that it was Washington that had broken the nuclear agreement. For nearly 40 years, the US has sought to undermine the Iranian regime through sanctions and other measures. Paradoxically, all this – combined with some US own goals such as the invasion of Iraq – has only bolstered the rule of the mullahs and extended their reach in the Arab world. Mr Trump is confident that this time is different but he needs to explain how.

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