By Tyler Cullis, Lobe Log: As the Trump administration escalates conflict with Iran, there is a question as to whether either of the parties—the United States or Iran—will take an off-ramp and avoid a new calamitous war in the Middle East.
The E3—France, Germany, and the United Kingdom—have urged the U.S. and Iran to take such steps. On July 14, 2019, the E3 issued a joint statement noting that their “countries have recently taken several diplomatic initiatives to contribute to de-escalation and dialogue.” Specifically, Europe has urged the U.S. and Iran to show “signs of goodwill” to avoid both the total collapse of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)—the 2015 nuclear deal between the U.S., Iran, and other major world powers—and the onset of a military conflict.
While Trump has repeatedly expressed his willingness to talk to Iran, his terms for doing so remain anybody’s guess. But in order for talks to proceed, Iran has been crystal-clear: the U.S. must first lift the sanctions that were imposed on the country following the U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA. Anything less than that would be political suicide for Iran’s leaders and an invitation for world powers to impose ever more unilateral conditions on Iran’s nuclear program.
But whether Trump can do so—and whether he can follow through on any commitments made during negotiations with Iran—is a critical issue for consideration, particularly insofar as its answer underlines the reasons for the dire situation in which the U.S. and Iran find themselves today. The simple fact is that Trump has surrounded himself with subordinates who have parlayed his invidious malice towards President Obama so as to set the stage for war with Iran, all the while boxing in the President from being able to easily extricate himself.
We’ve already seen this play out on a smaller scale with respect to North Korea. Following a designation action of Chinese entities by the United States Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (“OFAC”), Trump tweeted: “It was announced today by the U.S. Treasury that additional large scale Sanction [sic] would be added to those already existing Sanctions on North Korea. I have today ordered the withdrawal of those additional Sanctions!”
But those sanctions were never rescinded. While some U.S. officials concocted a story to cover for Treasury’s defiance of a presidential order, suggesting in effect that Trump’s tweet was directed at an additional tranche of sanctions that OFAC had not yet imposed, the lesson was clear: the President’s attention span was short, the President’s subordinates knew better than the President as to the underlying policy, and the President’s order could be ignored without repercussion. Commentators, mistakenly focusing on the unprecedented nature of the President’s tweet, almost entirely missed the real story, which was that U.S. officials had openly defied the President without consequence.
This episode has special import for Iran. If talks with Trump are to proceed, U.S. sanctions will have to be put in abeyance during their duration. That is, after all, how the JCPOA itself was reached—with a more limited agreement, the Joint Plan of Action, providing Iran some sanctions relief during negotiations. But Iran would not be wrong to have serious doubts as to whether Trump could effectuate the lifting of sanctions—either as the precursor to talks or as the result of any such talks. Trump has surrounded himself with advisors whose entire careers have been built on creating the conditions for a war with Iran. These advisors can see how close their efforts are to bearing fruit and will not be deterred in their pursuit by a capricious President whom they almost certainly view as a dullard.
This scenario rings all the more true when considering the Herculean effort it will take to lift the sanctions in the first place. Unbeknownst to the President, his subordinates have re-imposed sanctions on Iran in such a manner as to not just limit a successor’s ability to rejoin the nuclear accord but to block the President himself from entering into any new agreement with Iran. Underlining how pretextual Iran’s nuclear program was for U.S. hawks bent on a new war in the Middle East, most U.S. sanctions targeting Iran were re-imposed on non-nuclear-related grounds. This was done quite explicitly so as to ensure that Trump would be unable to reach an agreement with Iran that did not require Iran’s absolute submission (which itself might still not have been good enough).
Trump does not have the advantage of a potential Democratic successor, who would be able to call out the bad-faith with which sanctions were re-imposed on Iran and lift such sanctions consistent with the terms of the JCPOA. Lacking himself as foil, Trump would have to eat the political cost of lifting sanctions on parties designated for terrorism and human rights abuses. That cost, too, would involve sniping from inside his own administration, which would undoubtedly leak like a sieve concerns about the President’s mental disposition.
Some might hope that a deal with Trump would mean a deal with the United States itself, as Trump owns the Republican Party and can bring it along to reconcile with Iran in the same way that Nixon reconciled with China. But this hope is dashed if Trump cannot even bring along his own administration. Trump may appreciate the spectacle of diplomacy, but he evinces no understanding as to the grueling effort required to achieve a diplomatic outcome. His most hawkish advisors are well aware of that and will impede his flighty efforts to de-escalate current tensions with Iran at every turn.
The question remains, then: can Trump reach a deal with Iran? The answer appears to be “no.” The best that can be hoped is that tensions between the parties do not escalate to the point of conflict and that the tattered remains of the JCPOA are left intact so that a successor administration can revitalize the agreement and restore the balance that was so painstakingly struck in the 2015 accord. So long as Trump remains in office, no exit ramp can be gleaned, leaving the U.S. and Iran on a swift path to military conflict.
First published in Lobe Log. Cartoon by Ken Catalino.
Tyler Cullis is a recent graduate of the Boston University School of Law, where he specialized in international law. His writings focus on U.S. foreign policy, the politics of the Middle East, and developments in international law. His work has been featured at CNN's Global Public Square, Muftah, Opinio Juris, and his personal blog, News From The Gutter. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.