Can Donald Trump eat his cake and have it too? We’ll know by this time tomorrow:
Iran’s Hassan Rouhani may have already pre-empted Trump — and perhaps made his decision easier. Rouhani indicated today that a US withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal may not end their commitment to it. Tehran could — could — decide to continue complying with it, to the extent that they are, as long as their European allies agree to do so as well.
If that’s the case, Trump may not pay much of a price for withdrawal at all:
President Hassan Rouhani hinted on Monday that Iran could remain in its 2015 nuclear deal with world powers even if the United States dropped out but Tehran would fiercely resist U.S. pressure to limit its influence in the Middle East. …
“We are not worried about America’s cruel decisions … We are prepared for all scenarios and no change will occur in our lives next week,” Rouhani said in a speech broadcast live on state TV.
“If we can get what we want from a deal without America, then Iran will continue to remain committed to the deal. What Iran wants is our interests to be guaranteed by its non-American signatories … In that case, getting rid of America’s mischievous presence will be fine for Iran.”
“If they want to make sure that we are not after a nuclear bomb, we have said repeatedly that we are not and we will not be,” said Rouhani, who engineered the nuclear accord to ease Iran’s isolation.
“But if they want to weaken Iran and limit its influence whether in the region or globally, Iran will fiercely resist.”
So far, Rouhani has received public guarantees that the other P5+1 nations will stay with the agreement. Both France and Germany say they will remain in the JCPOA whether or not the US withdraws:
France’s top diplomat, Jean-Yves Le Drian, says the three European countries that were part of the deal — France, Britain and Germany — are committed to maintaining it.
Le Drian said Monday in Berlin that “we will continue it independently of the American decision.”
His German counterpart, Heiko Maas, said Berlin, too, wants to stick by the deal, which he said “makes the world a safer place and without it the world would be less safe.”
Boris Johnson confirmed the UK’s commitment to the deal yesterday in an op-ed for the New York Times. He also advised Trump to stay in the pact as well, promising that further negotiations on other issues are still possible:
Of all the options we have for ensuring that Iran never gets a nuclear weapon, this pact offers the fewest disadvantages.
It has weaknesses, certainly, but I am convinced they can be remedied. Indeed at this moment Britain is working alongside the Trump administration and our French and German allies to ensure that they are. …
In a statement on Jan. 12, President Trump rightly identified Iran’s dangerous actions as a central cause of instability across the Middle East. Britain shares his concerns about Iran’s support for terrorist groups, its behavior in cyberspace and its long-range missile program. We also, of course, agree that Iran must never get a nuclear weapon; indeed Tehran’s obligation not to “seek, develop or acquire” such an arsenal appears (without any time limit) at the top of the deal’s preamble.
On all this, Britain and America are at one. Since the president’s speech, United States and United Kingdom diplomats have been working alongside their French and German counterparts to reach a joint approach toward Iran, focused on countering Tehran’s regional meddling, reducing its missile threat and ensuring that it can never build a nuclear weapon. …
I believe that keeping the deal’s constraints on Iran’s nuclear program will also help counter Tehran’s aggressive regional behavior. I am sure of one thing: every available alternative is worse. The wisest course would be to improve the handcuffs rather than break them.
The first question is just how much Iranian compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) is worth. Israel put together an impressive program based on an intelligence coup that demonstrates that Iran lied about the program even in the agreement. The JCPOA only pauses Iran’s ability to develop its own nuclear weapons rather than block it, even if Iran is fully compliant. Their unabated pursuit of ballistic missile systems appears to aim at putting nuclear warheads atop them and aim them at Israel and then at US assets in the region.
Balance that out against the benefits of withdrawing from the pact. Iran got almost all of the benefits of the JCPOA up front, including access to more than a trillion dollars in frozen assets and a big cash payment up front from the Obama administration. Pulling out won’t trawl those assets back. It might complicate oil sales and banking for Tehran, but not by much. Russia and China certainly won’t rejoin sanctions under these conditions, and our European partners sound very unenthusiastic about reimposing them now, too.
If the deal goes on without US participation, however, then Trump doesn’t lose anything by pulling out except perhaps some goodwill in London, Berlin, and Paris. That could get traded for more pressure on Tehran to negotiate side limits on missile development and restrictions on regional proxy warfare, two of the issues that Barack Obama and John Kerry avoided in JCPOA negotiations. Johnson and Macron both have said they will push harder for Iranian cooperation on those issues in order to keep Trump and the US in the JCPOA.
Think of it as appeasement in reverse — where the other P5+1 countries urge concessions from Tehran in order to deal with Trump’s expressed “unreasonableness.” It might work, although it’s a low-percentage play. The status quo is a losing proposition, so perhaps the low-percentage play is smart by default, especially with Rouhani signaling that it might not carry much down side at all.
Basically, all of this leaves Trump off the hook, at least if one can take Rouhani at his word. If the US isn’t needed to make the deal work, then Trump’s free to fulfill a campaign promise. And if he can use an extended withdrawal to force our allies into pressuring Tehran on our other security issues, as Johnson suggests would happen, then don’t expect anything else tomorrow.