Veteran Middle East negotiator Dennis Ross was a critic of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, also known as the Iran deal, and recognized the need to shore up provisions on inspections and sunset clauses. What he — like many reasoned voices (some who opposed the JCPOA and some who did not) — now sees is something arguably worse than the JCPOA:
Ironically, had Trump worked to isolate the Iranians by focusing on their deception on nuclear weapons and brought the Europeans along, he might have had a chance to succeed. But the British, French, and German governments immediately issued a strong tripartite statement emphasizing their “continuing commitment to the JCPOA,” while also urging “the US to ensure that the structures of the JCPOA can remain intact, and to avoid taking action which obstructs its full implementation by all other parties to the deal.” Not only are America’s key European allies going to stick to the deal, they apparently also intend to resist the Trump administration’s imposition of secondary sanctions on the parties sticking to the deal—both to incentivize the Iranians to remain in the agreement and to protect European Union companies.
Instead of cooperative partners working to pressure Iran, Ross sees “a very real risk that the United States will not have partners to join it in pressuring the Iranians in a way that might change their behavior and bring them back to the negotiating table to address the problems Trump wants to fix.” That certainly seems to be the case as we now see the European Union rushing to insulate Iran from U.S. sanctions. (“Officials are also preparing to move ahead with plans to get Iran fuller access to the EU’s lending arm, the European Investment Bank, and to bolster European credit lines for firms with little U.S. exposure wanting to invest in Iran,” the Wall Street Journal reports. “Iran has said it will continue to abide by the nuclear accord only if Europe guarantees continued economic benefits from the agreement.”) Rather than turning the screws on Iran to address some of the items President Trump identified, the E.U. is now looking at “financial instruments that would sit beyond the reach of Washington’s powers and an agency that would enforce European law against foreign-based companies—a tit-for-tat rejoinder to Washington’s powers over non-U.S. companies.”
In other words, we are losing, not gaining, leverage by leaving the JCPOA. We had no Iran policy on non-nuclear items when the JCPOA was in place and — no surprise — we still do not. Iran and Israel have been skirmishing in a series of escalating military encounters in the air over Syria. But Trump’s desire to bug out of Syria may have added to tensions. Former ambassador Eric Edelman tells me that “Trump’s lack of strategy and recurrent statements that he wants the U.S. the hell out of Syria has, perhaps, encouraged more risk-acceptant behavior by both Iran and Israel.”
Ross sees that escalating tension as one of the unintended consequences of pulling out of the JCPOA. “In the wake of Trump’s decision on the Iran deal, it was not surprising that Iran retaliated against the Israelis for their strike on April 9 that killed Quds Force officers,” Ross writes. “In this case, it took Gen. Qassem Suleimani just one day before launching Iranian and Hezbollah rockets from Syria against Israel. The four rockets that penetrated Israeli airspace were destroyed by Iron Dome missiles, and the remainder hit within Syria. What the Iranians hoped to show was not just that they could retaliate against Israel but also that there were costs to the U.S. decision, and they hoped to contrast their ability to act with Washington’s reliance on tough talk.”
Saying, as national security adviser John Bolton and other administration spinners do, that our withdrawal from the JCPOA makes us safer is nonsensical. Bolton declared that “What President Trump did by pulling out of the deal is get back to what the real objective should be: stopping this dangerous regime from threatening us and our friends around the world with nuclear weapons.” Getting rid of the deal makes sense only if we get a better deal. Unfortunately, we’d be lucky to get back to the pre-withdrawal status quo, considering how quickly (and predictably) the E.U. is moving to assuage Iran and cushion any blow to its economy. Having left the deal, we are less likely to obtain a replacement. Trump did Iran’s work for it — he split the alliance, divided the international consensus on sanctions and made Iran into the innocent party.
Beyond the nuclear issue, the region will not be safer unless and until the United States develops an adequate policy of coercive diplomacy that can convince Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his Iranian and Russian senior partners to reach a resolution of the war in Syria without complete extermination of Assad’s foes. We didn’t need to leave the JCPOA to do that. Indeed, by leaving we may have made Iran more insistent on sticking by its man in Damascus.