After U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s speech on Monday explaining the United States’ new policy toward Iran, it’s easy to understand Washington’s dissatisfaction with the multilateral agreement to cap Iran’s nuclear ambitions. It now seeks nothing less than the transformation of the Iranian regime and its behavior, and is apparently encouraging the Iranian people to overthrow their government. To merely set out those objectives reveals the folly of the Trump’s administration’s policy.
After President Donald Trump withdrew the U.S. from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the world waited to see what he would offer in its place to discourage Tehran from pursuing its nuclear ambitions. Pompeo’s speech was the U.S. alternative, and it is breathtaking in its sweep. He identified 12 items that the U.S. wants from Iran in any agreement. They range from acknowledgment of Iran’s efforts to build a nuclear weapon — which Tehran denies ever wanting to do — to a halt to uranium enrichment. Pompeo demanded full access to all locations where clandestine research is suspected to occur and an end to all ballistic missile tests. All hostages must be released, and Tehran must withdraw all its forces from Syria and end its support for rebels in Yemen. All this must be agreed in a treaty, rather than fixes to the JCPOA.
If Iran agrees, then the U.S. would lift all sanctions, restore full diplomatic and commercial relations with Tehran and give it access to advanced technology. If Iran fails to do so, however, Pompeo promised “unprecedented financial pressure on the Iranian regime … the strongest sanctions in history.” As a result, Iran would be “battling to keep its economy alive.” If Iran refuses to moderate its behavior in the region, the U.S. “will track down Iranian operatives and their Hezbollah proxies operating around the world and we will crush them.” One European observer suggested that the U.S. was asking “for everything but conversion to Christianity and reads more like a demand for unconditional surrender than an actual attempt at negotiation.”
Predictably, Iran dismissed Pompeo’s demands, with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani retorting, “Who are you to decide for Iran and the world?” More troubling for Pompeo and the U.S. is European rejection of the demands as well. Federica Mogherini, the EU foreign policy head, complained that Pompeo’s speech failed to show how pulling out of the JCPOA reduced the threat of nuclear proliferation. British Foreign Minister Boris Johnson, one of the stewards of the “special relationship” between London and Washington, argued that “a new jumbo Iran treaty is going to be very, very difficult,” and predicted that the U.S. would end up rejoining the JCPOA and work to remedy its shortcomings.
The world now faces two real dangers as a result of the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw. The first is that Iran could decide that it is no longer bound by the deal and could begin uranium enrichment — and bomb development — in earnest. Fortunately, Tehran is unlikely to do so given the continuing European (and Russia and Chinese) support for the JCPOA.
The second danger, which is far more likely, is that the U.S. imposition of sanctions will drive a deep wedge between Washington and its allies and partners in Europe and Asia. European, Russian and Chinese businesses have expanded business ties with Iran since conclusion of the JCPOA and the U.S. move will force them to choose between Washington and Tehran. Pompeo conceded that “re-imposition of sanctions and the coming pressure campaign on the Iranian regime will pose financial and economic difficulties for a number of our friends.” Still, he continued, “we will hold those doing prohibited business in Iran to account.” As European Council President Donald Tusk recently complained, “with friends like that, who needs enemies?”
Japan is torn. Foreign Minister Taro Kono has repeatedly expressed support for the JCPOA since the U.S. decision to withdraw, told his Iranian counterpart that Japan will continue to back the deal and insisted that key parties should continue implementation regardless of the U.S. move. In addition to dismantling a valuable arms control tool, Japan faces the prospect of losing a key source of energy supplies — it has been the sixth-largest importer of Iranian oil since Iran re-entered the international oil market — along with influence in Tehran as China fills the gap left by Tokyo’s retreat. In the early 2000s, Japan was set to develop valuable oil fields in Iran but had to abandon those efforts after the imposition of sanctions. The JCPOA allowed Tokyo to resume its plans, but the newest twist again sidelines Japan, while China has shown no reluctance to swoop in and replace Japan. U.S. moves that risk displacing Japan make no sense as Washington worries about a return of “great power competition. Yet such short-sighted thinking from the U.S. seems sadly typical these days.