President Trump’s decision takes us back to the future; back to 2009 before serious negotiation began – a time when Iran’s ambitions threatened a military clash with Israel which risked dragging other Middle East countries, and the USA, into a wider war. That possibility does not look imminent, but the logic of the situation says that is the trajectory for the long term.
The move also risks accelerating the slow decoupling of America from Europe.
Trump means business, or rather he means to halt the business of trading with Iran. Re-imposed U.S. sanctions are designed to force other countries to reduce imports of Iranian oil and curb investments. Failure to so do means that by November they could themselves face sanctions and find it increasingly difficult to do business in the USA. This includes American allies: South Korea and Japan are major importers of Iranian crude, the EU get 5% of its oil from Iran, and large companies such as Peugeot and Renault have made cautious investments in the country since the nuclear agreement in 2015.
In the short term we can expect the EU nations to stand by the agreement in a bid to save it. Brussels could even pass legislation helping companies which fall foul of the U.S. measures. However, as the months pass it is likely many governments will quietly reduce their economic involvement with the Islamic Republic. If so, then the deal is worthless to Tehran which only signed up to it because its economy was hurting so badly from sanctions. At that point it may declare the agreement null and void and could even re-start its nuclear enrichment programme. In that event the increasingly hawkish Trump administration, which now includes Mike Pompeo at the State Department and John Bolton as National Security Advisor, will revisit Trump’s ‘fire and fury’ routine it trialled in the North Korea stand-off. All this will lay bare the failure of the Europeans to influence President Trump and show how hollow the ‘bromance’ between him and president Macron really is.
This is all less of a problem for the Russians. They are happy to see fissures between the EU and the USA widen, and overjoyed to see the oil price rise as Iranian crude supplies in the world market reduce.
The Americans are not without support. Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Israel were all highly critical of the 2015 agreement and now back Trump’s decision. The Obama administration and the Europeans argued that the deal would result in Iran reining-in its ambitions to become the leading regional power and instead becoming more integrated with its Arab neighbours. Tehran’s involvement in the wars in Syria and Yemen, and its repeated testing of long range ballistic missiles, gave lie to that.
The Israeli government was the one most vehemently against the agreement. They pointed out that although the U.N inspectors reported that Iran’s stockpile of low-enriched uranium had been drastically reduced, the inspectors had not visited all of Iran’s nuclear sites, and that visits could be delayed by 24 days under the terms of the deal. Prime Minister Netanyahu repeatedly claimed that Tehran had not stopped developing other elements of the weapons programme, especially long-range missiles. However, despite heralding Trump’s decision it is Israel which is the most nervous about it, fearing Iranian retaliation from its forces and proxy army Hezbollah, both of which are now just across the border in Syria.
Wednesday’s exchange of fire across the Golan Heights is a taste of what is to come. Iran has not based itself in Syria simply to preserve President Assad.
For the rest of the year the American and Iranian governments will watch to see if other countries abide by the U.S. sanctions, and if so, how much this hurts the fragile Iranian economy. If it does, the recent street protests seen in Iran are likely to grow. Either way, the relatively moderate President Hassan Rouhani will see his strength within the Tehran power structure wane, and the hardliners growing in confidence. Despite this, Iran will use diplomacy to try and save the 2015 agreement and forge an unlikely common front with the Europeans. If and when this fails, and if enrichment recommences, then the 2009 scenario will come into sharper focus again.