by Joseph Braude
On May 8 in Washington, President Donald Trump put to rest months of speculation and announced that the United States would withdraw from the Iranian nuclear deal. “It is clear to me that we cannot prevent an Iranian nuclear bomb under the decaying and rotten structure of the current agreement,” he declared. “The Iran deal is defective at its core. If we do nothing we know exactly what will happen.” The president pledged to impose unprecedented sanctions on the country, signaled solidarity with the regime’s domestic opponents, and predicted that eventually it will be Tehran, not the United States, that strives to appease its rival with concessions.
Amid the fluid political situation that has emerged in the wake of Trump’s declaration, Majalla takes stock of the flurry of international activity immediately preceding it and the initial reactions that followed.
COUNTDOWN TO MAY 8: A MAD DASH TO SAVE THE DEAL AND A HEIGHTENED STATE OF ALERT IN THE REGION
The two days leading up to the President’s decision saw supporters of the JCPOA make a last-ditch effort to persuade Trump to maintain it. French President Emmanuel Macron, for example, told the German magazine Der Spiegel that abrogating the accord would mean “opening Pandora’s box. It could mean war. … I don’t believe that Donald Trump wants war.” The foreign ministers of Germany and France came together at a press conference in Berlin to proclaim that the deal has made the world safer and abandoning it would render the world more dangerous. Their British counterpart, Boris Johnson, visited the United States and made a friendly case to Trump to stick with the deal, appearing on a popular TV morning talk show which the President is known to watch. Meanwhile, a range of American organizations and activist groups supportive of the JCPOA issued public statements, published op-ed pieces, and protested in front of the White House. Notably, former U.S. President Barack Obama’s Secretary of State made a public case on behalf of the JCPOA, which was the signature diplomatic achievement of his career — and waged a private lobbying campaign of his own.
Iranian officials, for their part, signaled defiance. Witness the English-language address by Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, distributed on May 6 via YouTube. Regarding American demands to push back on Iranian ballistic missile development and regional interventionist policies — which Zarif referred to as “defense and regional influence” — he said, “On both issues, it is Iran, and not the West, that has serious grievances and much to demand. We have not attacked anyone in centuries, but we have been invaded — most recently by Saddam Hussein, who was then backed by the U.S. and its regional allies.” Zarif warned viewers that Iran would respond to American abrogation of the deal at a time and manner of its choosing, and that the U.S. would bear responsibility for the consequences. The following day, an Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman added an upbeat note, via the official Mehr news agency: “Iran may stand a better chance of advancing its economic policies in the face of U.S. withdrawal from JCPOA and in absence of a nuclear deal,” he suggested.
The two days leading up to the President’s decision saw supporters of the JCPOA make a last-ditch effort to persuade Trump to maintain it.
In the final hours before the May 8 announcement, there were indications of potential clashes between Iran and some of its adversaries in the Middle East. The Israel Defense Forces announced instructions to open bomb shelters on the Golan Heights following “abnormal movements of Iranian forces in Syria.” Two days earlier, it was reported that the IDF had learned of Hezbollah-IRGC joint action to plan an assault on Israel, likely using weaponized drones of precision-guided missiles launched from Syria.
A FORCEFUL STATEMENT FROM TRUMP AND FURTHER DETAIL FROM HIS SENIOR ADVISORS
Trump’s eleven-minute White House address opened with the president’s familiar critique of the JCPOA: “The deal allowed Iran to continue enriching uranium and — over time — reach the brink of a nuclear breakout. … [It] lifted crippling economic sanctions on Iran in exchange for very weak limits on the regime’s nuclear activity — and no limits at all on its other malign behavior, including its sinister activities in Syria, Yemen, and other places all around the world. In other words, at the point when the United States had maximum leverage, this disastrous deal gave this regime — and it’s a regime of great terror — many billions of dollars, some of it in actual cash — a great embarrassment to me as a citizen and to all citizens of the United States. A constructive deal could easily have been struck at the time, but it wasn’t.” Trump noted Israel’s release of intelligence documents “long concealed by Iran” which he said “conclusively show[ed] the Iranian regime[’s] history of pursuing nuclear weapons.” He noted that Iran’s military budget has grown by almost 40 percent since the deal was reached, even as the Iranian economy performed poorly — and that “the dictatorship used its new funds to build its nuclear-capable missiles, support terrorism, and cause havoc throughout the Middle East and beyond.” Trump cited concerns about a nuclear arms race in the region, arising from the aspirations of America’s Arab partners to deter Iran themselves, as one of the drivers of his decision. “We will not allow a regime that chants death to America to be allowed access to the most deadly weapons on earth,” he added.
Promptly following the President’s statement and signing of a presidential memorandum “to begin reinstating U.S. nuclear sanctions on the Iranian regime,” the U.S. Treasury Department announced that it would be taking “immediate action” to implement the memorandum. Various sanctions will be reimposed on the basis of 90-day and 180-day “wind-down periods.” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said sanctions will aim to prevent Iran’s IRGC from accessing the money it needs to produce ballistic missiles, sponsor terror globally, violate human rights domestically, and back the Assad regime.
Commenting on the President’s decision, newly appointed National Security Advisor John Bolton averred its significance as a message to North Korea: “Another aspect of the withdrawal that was announced today was to establish positions of strength for the United States and it will have implications not simply for Iran but the forthcoming meeting with Kim Jong Un in North Korea, sends a very clear signal that the United States will not accept inadequate deals.”
INITIAL REACTIONS ALONG PREDICTABLE DIVIDING LINES
Denunciation of the President’s decision was swift. Tweets and official statements of regret were issued by French president Emmanuel Macron and his counterparts in Germany and the UK. EU Foreign Minister Federica Mogherini, for her part, said that her organization is “determined to preserve” the Iran deal despite the U.S. withdrawal. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, decrying the decision, said that his government would nonetheless attempt to negotiate the continuation of the deal with its remaining signatories — the three European countries, Russia, and China. Rouhani also warned that Iran may exceed the deal’s prescribed limits on uranium enrichment “within weeks” if its terms are not met. The Tehran Times published former U.S. President Barack Obama’s op-ed-length statement lamenting the deal’s abrogation, which Obama had originally posted to his Facebook page. This spectrum of critical reactions in turn found an echo in American opinion pages and TV talk shows, public statements by lawmakers, and condemnations by interest groups in Washington, such as the American Iranian Council.
Tweets and official statements of regret were issued by French president Emmanuel Macron and his counterparts in Germany and the UK.
But Trump also found support — particularly among frontline states in the regional confrontation with Iran and its proxy militias. A Saudi foreign ministry communique read, “The Kingdom supports and welcomes the steps announced by the US president towards withdrawing from the nuclear deal… and reinstating economic sanctions against Iran.” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hailed Trump’s “brave decision,” and said that “the deal would have allowed Iran to enrich enough uranium for an entire arsenal of nuclear bombs.” The Bahraini embassy in Washington announced that the kingdom “affirms its solidarity with the decision taken by President Donald J. Trump, noting its support for the efforts of the United States that aim to end terrorism at both the regional and international levels. The Kingdom of Bahrain also calls upon all other signatories to the agreement to consider the security and peace of the region and to take steps similar to those of the United States of America.”
Attention now turns to next steps by Iran, the U.S., and their respective allies. Taking stock of the present White House position, the New York Times assessed that “Mr. Trump and his Middle East allies are betting they can cut Iran’s economic lifeline and thus ‘break the regime.’”