Bibi wins on nuke deal, but its future uncertain
After Trump’s risky move, experts asking, ‘What now?’
President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Iranian nuclear agreement and immediately begin reimposing sanctions on Iran is being seen as a victory for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — one of the few world leaders to oppose the deal — but is getting mixed reaction from even those opposed to the agreement.
Trump announced America’s withdrawal from the agreement in a 10-minute address from the Oval Office Tuesday.
“This was a one-sided deal that should have never ever been made,” he declared. “It is clear to me that we cannot prevent an Iranian nuclear bomb under the decaying and rotten structure of the current agreement. The Iran deal is defective at its core.”
The White House later said that the sanctions would be imposed immediately to prevent any new business contracts, and that there would be a wind-down period for existing contracts, which according to U.S. law stretches over 180-days and includes banks of countries that fail to appreciably cut their oil purchases from Iran.
Concurring with the president’s decision, Avi Melamed, the Salisbury Fellow of Intelligence and Middle East Affairs for the Eisenhower Institute, said the Iranian nuclear deal allowed the Iranians to become a “destructive player” in the region and “pushed the Middle East and the world closer to a massive regional war. The facts on the ground demonstrate that. Resuming sanctions on Iran is correcting a major flaw in the agreement.”
Added Melamed, “Signing the agreement allowed Iran to escalate its ballistic missile testing and its aggressive involvement in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Yemen. Resuming sanctions on this dangerous regime will be talking to it in a language it understands. There is growing unrest in Iran because the people are oppressed by this regime. Hopefully, a combination of sanctions and making the regime understand the language of power and force [will result] in the collapse of the regime.”
But former Mossad director Danny Yatom said that despite his opposition to the nuclear agreement, it would have been better had the U.S. not withdrawn “because it gives some framework and rules about what is right and wrong to do.”
Yatom, a member of the steering committee of Commanders for Israel’s Security, former senior Israeli security officials who promote initiatives to resolve Israeli-Arab conflicts, said he would like to see the “the U.S. start negotiating with Iran and the others in order to upgrade the agreement and to make it effective in dealing with Iranian missiles, its intervention in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and Yemen, behaving as a hub for terror in the area, and threatening to attack Israel.”
Yatom said the agreement needs to be made “much longer and inspections should be more intrusive” and include military sites. Asked how significant unilateral American sanctions can be without the other parties to the agreement (France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Russia, and China) also withdrawing, he said the U.S. is the “main player and America is strong enough to impose crippling sanctions on Iran. … It will take time until the Iranians start feeling the crippling sanctions, but at the end it will help [and] Iran will come back to the table with softened positions.”
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said this week that Iran would continue to abide by the agreement even if the U.S. withdrew, provided the Europeans remained faithful to it.
In a joint statement, President Emmanuel Macron of France, Prime Minister Theresa May of Britain, and Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany called for Iran to “show restraint” in the face of the U.S. decision and to “continue to meet its own obligations under the deal.”
But David Makovsky, director of the Project on the Middle East Peace Process at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said he believes that in the end it will be individual companies that would be subjected to American sanctions — not European countries — that will signal whether the nuclear agreement is defunct.
In his remarks, Trump credited Netanyahu’s presentation last week with helping him make his decision. Even though U.S. intelligence reports have attested to Iran’s compliance with the nuclear agreement, Netanyahu’s presentation confirmed Iran’s ambitions to develop nuclear weapons, a fact Iran has repeatedly denied, even going so far as to falsely claim there was an Islamic fatwa or authoritative legal pronouncement against such a move.
Menahem Merhavy of the department for Islamic and Middle Eastern studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem said Trump’s decision was clearly “a victory for Netanyahu.” Said Gerald Steinberg, a professor of political science at Bar-Ilan University, the fact that the U.S. and Israel “are working together on the nuclear issue is extremely important and different from the Obama administration. In terms of Israeli security, this is certainly an improvement.”
Steinberg added that Trump’s action holds out the hope that a better agreement can be negotiated, and it “removes the fiction that the [nuclear agreement] will prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon.”
Merhavy said it now puts “Iran under more stress because the economic repercussions could be quite dramatic.” He noted that Iran’s currency, the rial, has lost about 35 percent of its value in the last year and that its “value may now drop even more.”
On the other hand, Merhavy said, it may “strengthen the more conservative elements in Iran, those who are close to the Revolutionary Guard and who benefit when Iran is under economic stress. Many retired officers run companies and [benefit from sanctions because they] don’t have to compete with foreign companies.”
Although Trump said companies in European countries that do business with Iran would face sanctions from the U.S., Steven Cook, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, suggested that those sanctions could be skirted.
“We saw it in Libya,” he recalled. “Libya figured out a way to get around [the sanctions] and it did not hurt them until the United Nations imposed multilateral sanctions. So you can count on the Iranians to get around the sanctions.”
In fact, Cook said, “bilateral sanctions are generally weaker than multilateral sanctions, and to the extent Europeans continue in the agreement, the [U.S.-imposed] sanctions would not be as strong as those that originally brought Iran to the table. Right now, the Iranians have no intention of knuckling. It would be bad from them politically to do it. It was a difficult deal for them to sign to begin with. … By getting out, Trump has given domestic political leverage to the hardliners [in Iran]. It was clear the deal had flaws in it, but I’m not sure the president thought through what the reaction might be [of his withdrawal]. He thinks it will have a positive impact on [talks with] North Korea. I’m not sure.”
Gilead Sher, Israel’s chief negotiator at the Camp David summit, said that aside from the nuclear issue, the situation with Iran and its proxies attempting to establish bases in Syria and sending an armed drone into Israel presents a situation that is “explosive, delicate, and fragile.”
“In the conventional realm, there is a pressing necessity to avoid confrontation and escalation on Israel’s northern border,” said Sher, co-chair of the Israeli non-partisan NGO Blue White Future, which develops approaches to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Michael Koplow, policy director of the Israel Policy Forum, noted that the “point of the deal was that it bought time. But time for what? By exiting the deal, you have smashed the hour glass. Now what? Is the U.S. going to force the Europeans to choose between us and Iran? The Europeans will conclude they have little choice but to be dragged along.
“If I am an Iranian, the only way for additional leverage is to restart the nuclear program. Absent some coherent strategy from the White House about how to stop that, what do we do next?”