The Israeli-Palestinian issues – settlements, ‘two-state solution’ and the American embassy’s relocation to Jerusalem, etc. – hogged the attention during Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s meeting with President Donald Trump in the White House on Wednesday. The Iran question became a sub-text.
This was rather odd, but not entirely surprising on the part of the beleaguered Trump administration. For Netanyahu, the Iran nuclear deal was a historic mistake, which he did everything to kill, while for Trump it was the “worst deal in history”, and at one point he’d vowed to “rip it up”.
Clearly, Trump and Netanyahu missed a historic opportunity. The joint White House readout on their talks merely says: “The President and Prime Minister agreed on the need to counter the threats posed by Iran and its proxies… so as to create a more secure Middle East to the benefit of all countries. The two leaders agreed that the Iran nuclear deal is a terrible deal for the United States, Israel, and the world. The President assured the Prime Minister that Iran must not, and will not, obtain nuclear weapons capability.”
Again, at the joint press conference by Trump and Netanyahu, Trump simply dodged the questions on the Iran deal and on what he intended to do about Iran’s alleged belligerence. The message is loud and clear: Iran nuclear deal is here to stay.
It seems this is also what the US and Israel have come to accept as the reality. A Jerusalem Post analysis puts it succinctly: “They may not like the deal, they may not have made it, and they may enforce it more aggressively than the Obama administration, but attempts to ‘rip it up’ are officially over.”
Trump made a threatening noise that Iran will never get a nuclear weapon. But on the other hand, he could have announced something in specific terms – anything at all – but he didn’t. What explains the strategic ambiguity?
For a start, the US’ European allies are pleased with Iran’s full compliance with the terms of the deal so far and, of course, they see potential in trade and economic relations with Iran. The EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini visited Washington a week ago to stress the importance of the Iran nuclear deal and claimed that she was assured by top Trump administration officials of Washington’s “intention to stick to the full implementation of the agreement.”
The British Prime Minister Theresa May ignored Netanyahu’s demand that the UK should follow Trump’s lead on new sanctions against Iran over its recent missile tests. The rebuff is significant because the UK has been Israel’s staunchest ally in Europe. Significantly, Moscow went a step further to assert the Russian-Iranian partnership, with Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov saying on Thursday that Iran is “a reliable, stable partner, a near neighbor. Friendly relations between Russia and Iran do not depend on external circumstances.”
Clearly, as things stand today, if Trump imposes sanctions against Iran, there will be no takers in the international community. Besides, Trump cannot but be oblivious to the fact that this is an inopportune moment to ratchet up tensions in the Middle East by provoking Iran – just when the Syrian peace talks are about to begin in Geneva on February 23 in which large-scale participation by the Syrian armed opposition is expected for the first time. (By the way, Russia, Turkey and Iran adopted a document on Thursday on a joint trilateral group to monitor the ceasefire in Syria and facilitate the elaboration of confidence-building measures among the warring sides.)
On its part, Tehran also has shown restraint so far. It probably senses that these are early days and the Trump administration’s last word has still not been spoken. The Iran Daily newspaper noted in a commentary on Wednesday that Iran’s foreign policy establishment has “thus far taken a prudent and wise approach vis-à-vis the White House’s smear campaign.”
The commentary left it open that Trump might either “press ahead with his anti-Iran stance”, or, “come to his senses and adopt a more logical tone.” The departure of National Security Advisor Michael Flynn will raise Iran’s comfort level. Flynn was the key figure in crafting the anti-Iran strategy. Simply put, the issue is wide open, in Iran’s estimation.
Of course, this is not necessarily the end of the story. Iran is agonising over its options, too. Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi, who was a negotiator at the P5+1 and Iran talks, reportedly told the Majlis’ National Security and Foreign Policy Committee on Wednesday, “Trump may adopt any scenario, and the worst scenario is, while keeping the JCPOA, put pressure on the Islamic Republic, introduce new non-nuclear sanctions in order to deprive Iran of the benefits of the JCPOA.”
That is to say, while Iran does not want to be the one to break the deal, Iran senses that it will be hard-pressed not to react to additional pressure by the Trump administration to deny it the economic benefits, which it is entitled to get from the deal.
Meanwhile, it is all but certain that Iran will not mothball its missile development program and it could even resort to testing more missiles. The Trump administration can seize any future missile testing as an excuse to bring very severe pressure on Iran to renegotiate the terms of the deal.
The bottom line is how Iran would choose to respond to any deliberate undermining of the deal by the Trump administration (just short of ripping up the agreement as such) aimed at compelling Iran to renegotiate the deal. Iran has categorically rejected any renegotiation of the terms of the deal.
In the final analysis, much would depend on the success of Iranian diplomacy to consolidate the tide of international opinion, especially European opinion, which is currently running in its favor. The main challenge would be that Iranian diplomacy might have to contend with several variables.
The prevailing regional security environment in the Middle East, the US’ ties with Russia and China, the US’ trans-Atlantic leadership, and the Trump administration’s domestic compulsions will be significant factors.