Counting the Costs of Trump’s Iran Policy

Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal is likely to make addressing that country’s nuclear development more difficult. More broadly, it threatens to rob the world of a new and innovative approach to global governance and multilateral diplomacy at a time when such approaches are badly needed.

MADRID – With President Donald Trump’s announcement that the United States will begin reimposing sanctions against Iran, the short, strange life of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal – formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action – has entered a new and dangerous phase.

Trump believes that, by withdrawing from the JCPOA, he can pressure Iran to agree to a new, more comprehensive deal that would cover not just the country’s nuclear program, but also its ballistic missile tests, provocative regional behavior, and human-rights violations. But, as America’s partners and allies have noted, this is a highly risky gambit – one that contradicts the underlying logic of the deal.

The decision to withdraw from the JCPOA, despite Iranian compliance with all of its provisions, is likely to make addressing Iran’s nuclear program more difficult, not least because it will strengthen the position of the country’s hardliners. More broadly, it threatens to rob the world of a new and innovative approach to global governance and multilateral diplomacy at a time when such approaches are badly needed.

Trump claims that the JCPOA was a failure from the start, owing to the myriad non-nuclear issues that it neglected. Indeed, he called it “one of the worst and most one-sided transactions” into which the US has ever entered.

The JCPOA’s supporters have inadvertently reinforced this reading. French President Emmanuel Macron, for example, recently advocated bolstering the agreement with complementary deals covering other areas. In conceding the premise that the deal was somehow incomplete, supporters and detractors alike set it up to fail.

The truth is that the JCPOA was never supposed to be a one-off “transaction.” Instead, it was conceived as the first step in a long negotiation process. The “comprehensive” in its official title refers to the lifting of nuclear-related sanctions and the verification measures to ensure compliance. It did not indicate that the deal amounted to a comprehensive solution to all of the international community’s disagreements with Iran.

The point was to take a particularly knotty and urgent issue – Iran’s growing nuclear-enrichment capacity – off the table for a period of time, to allow for progress in other areas. Had all of the issues been negotiated at once, it is far from clear that a deal could have been reached at all, much less in a timely manner. After all, previous attempts to negotiate with Iran – notably under President Bill Clinton’s administration – failed precisely because they sought to secure too much. There were just too many potential spoilers.

The JCPOA was not simply a precedent for further agreements; it actually demanded them. The so-called sunset clauses that stipulate expiration dates for various restrictions imposed on Iran’s nuclear program – clauses that attracted so much derision from Trump and other opponents of the deal – were vital, because they necessitated further negotiation.

Thanks to the lifting of sanctions under the JCPOA, that negotiation would take place against a background of steadily improving economic conditions, which would persuade the Iranian public of the tangible benefits of a moderate and cooperative approach. This would strengthen the government’s resolve to strike deals on other controversial issues – precisely the opposite of the likely effect of Trump’s unilateral withdrawal from the JCPOA.

Simply put, the JCPOA was the foundation stone for a more comprehensive solution. Perhaps we should not be surprised that Trump has now taken a sledgehammer to it: systemic awareness has proved to be a major blind spot for the “Artist of the Deal,” whose worldview can be summed up in three words: quid pro quo. But awareness of Trump’s transactional worldview does not make it any less damaging.

The risks implied by Trump’s worldview are particularly acute in today’s fast-changing world. On one hand, power has shifted and become more diffuse, while the mismanagement – and misrepresentation – of globalization has created further uncertainty. On the other hand, the biggest challenges the world faces – from transnational terrorism to climate change – cannot be addressed by any country alone, and thus demand cooperative solutions.

It is now starkly apparent that we can no longer rely exclusively on the top-down Western-dominated structures that have underpinned the rules-based world order for the last 70 years. Though we should not dispense with those structures, much less the rules-based order, we must develop new, complementary instruments to foster cohesion and create the conditions for effective cooperation.

Such arrangements will often be ad hoc and flexible, rather than traditional binding deals, and will almost never be comprehensive. They will be relatively narrowly focused and designed to lay the groundwork for further progress. In this sense, they will be discrete components of a broader process. Call it Marshall McLuhan-inspired governance: the medium (or instrument) is the message.

The 2015 Paris climate agreement – from which Trump withdrew the US last year – is a case in point. Nobody believes that the soft and voluntary commitments that signatories have made will be enough to limit global warming to “well below” 2° Celsius (3.6º Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels. Nonetheless, the deal is valuable: it spurs action now, while acting as a platform for further commitments later.

The JCPOA was intended to have a similar effect, facilitating – indeed, demanding – efforts to address the myriad other disagreements between Iran and the rest of the international community. The US was an essential part of that process. Trump’s utter failure to understand this innovative approach is bad news for Iran, for the world, and for the future of global governance.