Since the election, I’ve wondered why any nation should ever trust the U.S. or expect us to keep our promises again. A case in point is Trump’s just-announced decision to pull out of JCPOA, the 2015 nuclear deal negotiated between the U.S., China, Russia, Europe and Iran, in which Iran would give up its nuclear-weapons program in exchange for relief from sanctions.
For all that Trump complained about the deal, he had no specific criticisms of it (I doubt he even knew what was in it), and nothing in mind to replace it. He hated it for no reason other than that it was negotiated while Barack Obama was president.
The tragedy of this is that the deal was working, in more ways than one. Iran was holding up its end of the bargain, and the inspections were preventing it from restarting its nuclear program:
Because of the JCPOA, there is now a comprehensive inspection system in place, administered by the International Atomic Energy Agency, monitoring Iran’s activities. The IAEA has repeatedly stated that Iran is complying with the requirements of the agreement… Should the deal collapse, the inspectors will leave and Iran would be free to pursue nuclear weapons, precisely the outcome Trump claims he wants to avoid. (source)
Not only was it limiting the Iranian government’s nuclear ambitions, it was promoting the cause of peace and democracy in the Middle East. As my Iranian colleague on Patheos, Kaveh Mousavi, said in 2015, another positive effect was that it empowered Iran’s reformers and enraged the conservative mullahs and hard-liners (who, nevertheless, were afraid to go against the will of the Iranian people to oppose it). Scrapping the deal does the opposite: it punishes the responsible diplomats who reached out in good faith and empowers the fanatics on both sides who are drooling for war. By strengthening the hand of Iranian hardliners, it’s practically a free pass to resume anti-democratic crackdowns.
I won’t even call this decision “short-sighted,” because that implies there was some strategic calculation, however misguided, behind it. This was more like international vandalism – the mere urge to destroy, driven by nothing but pettiness and spite. Trump decided to rip the Iran deal up with absolutely no plan for how to replace it and no idea of what to do instead.
But one thing this does accomplish is to humilate the U.S. on the diplomatic stage. Beneath the gazes of the world, we’ve just announced that we don’t keep our promises and we can’t be trusted to hold up our end of a bargain. Why should anyone trust America now? Why should any other country listen or care in the future when we tell them what we want them to do?
Nuclear expert David Patrikarakos said on Twitter that this was a “cretinous decision”. It will taint America’s credibility, destabilize the Middle East, drive a wedge between us and our allies, and empower dictators and rogue states throughout the world who now have a solid excuse not to make any peace deals with us. In exchange for all this, we get nothing.
Worse yet, Trump and his cronies are pouring salt on the wound. Not only did they snub the other countries that took part in the deal, they’re actively trying to antagonize them. Witness this astonishing treatment of American allies:
Trump’s attitude toward Europe is clear: He considers the European Union a collection of puffed-up small countries dependent on the U.S. for economic survival and military protection. In Trump’s view, these little nations will always cave to pressure. That stance was conveyed by the imperious tweet from the the newly arrived U.S. ambassador to Germany, Richard Grenell, who ordered German companies that do business in Iran to “wind down operations immediately.” Grenell has since explained that the tweet followed “the exact language sent out from the White House talking points” on Trump’s decision to withdraw the U.S. from the Iran nuclear deal.
Spiegel, the German newspaper, has a depressing but accurate editorial about Trump’s reckless shredding of diplomatic ties that took decades to build up:
He isn’t curious. His preparation is nonexistent. Strategy and tactics are both foreign to him. Trump is only proficient in destruction. And that’s what he does.
…The West as we once knew it no longer exists. Our relationship to the United States cannot currently be called a friendship and can hardly be referred to as a partnership. President Trump has adopted a tone that ignores 70 years of trust. He wants punitive tariffs and demands obedience. It is no longer a question as to whether Germany and Europe will take part in foreign military interventions in Afghanistan or Iraq. It is now about whether trans-Atlantic cooperation on economic, foreign and security policy even exists anymore. The answer: No. It is impossible to overstate what Trump has dismantled in the last 16 months. Europe has lost its protective power. It has lost its guarantor of joint values. And it has lost the global political influence that it was only able to exert because the U.S. stood by its side. And what will happen in the remaining two-and-a-half years (or six-and-a-half years) of Trump’s leadership? There is plenty of time left for further escalation.
As proof of this, French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May issued a joint statement saying they intend to continue with the Iran deal regardless of the U.S.
What could happen next? Even if it doesn’t lead to actual war (and no one can be sure of that), another very real possibility is a colossal trans-Atlantic trade war. After all, even if the U.S. reimposes sanctions, Europe doesn’t have to respect them, so European companies can and will do business in Iran in defiance of us. So how does Trump plan to respond – try to sanction the entire European Union as punishment? He’s probably arrogant and stupid enough to believe he could get away with that.
One could argue that it’s now America, not Iran, that’s the rogue state acting in defiance of the rest of the world. Between this and our pullout from the Paris accord, the current administration is bent on wrecking every vestige of international cooperation and making the U.S. a pariah. Even if a more friendly administration takes power at the next election, these scars won’t heal for a very long time.