US President Donald Trump shows the document reinstating sanctions against Iran. Photo:  AFP / Saul Loeb
Then-US president Donald Trump shows the document reinstating sanctions against Iran after pulling out of the JCPOA in 2018, a move applauded by Israel at the time. Photo: AFP / Saul Loeb

In deciding to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal, US President Donald Trump has struck one more blow against the norm that successor governments should honor bilateral or multilateral agreements made by their predecessors.

Like his June 2017 decision to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord, this step too will reinforce the view that the international system is inherently lawless, with one set of standards for the strong and the powerful states and another for the weak.

It will give weight to the argument that understandings can be broken at will by the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, who are clothed with veto powers without fear of serious repercussions. This is particularly harmful for the world order at a time when predictable and consistent patterns of conduct of all states are necessary for global stability.

Trump’s supporters have argued that as the nuclear deal was concluded in the US only on the basis of an executive decision of a president it was open to his successor to set it aside or modify it. This is especially so as he had, when he was running for office, strongly indicated his opposition to it.

There is little doubt that it would have been preferable if the deal had the status of a treaty, but would that have restrained Trump? In any case, executive actions too, particularly in areas as serious as those concerning nuclear proliferation, should not be set aside without going through concerted attempts at renegotiations with all the principal parties.

Confusion and the erosion of trust that will make future deals difficult and will inevitably be the consequence of unilateral action.

Confusion and the erosion of trust that will make future deals difficult and will inevitably be the consequence of unilateral action

It was simply insufficient for Trump to tell France, Germany and the UK to make Iran agree to new terms or the US would turn its back on the deal. This conveyed insensitivity and an arrogant disregard for Iran’s dignity. At a time when the current should flow toward democratization of the international system, Trump’s step is a reminder of the time when strong states “did what they will and weak states suffered what they must.”

This can only lead to subterranean means of restoring national honor; this is not what is needed in an increasingly intertwined and interdependent world.

Some US administration officials have asserted that breaking away from the deal was necessary to signal to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un that Trump would be unwilling to have an agreement on the Iran model. He would only be satisfied if North Korea gave up the nuclear option altogether. That would imply giving up any attempt at enrichment and building ballistic missiles. It would also mean, in view of North Korea’s low level of development, a lower profile in the region.

Would Kim be willing for this? Would it also not be natural for him to think that even if Trump might adhere to an agreement, what would be the guarantee that his successor would not throw it aside? This is likely to make a deal more difficult, for now Trump will be sitting across from a more wary Kim Jong-un when they meet in Singapore next month.

The cement that holds the international system together is trust that is achieved after contending national interests are reconciled. Trump comes from a business background where bluff and bluster, persuasion and coercion are part of the negotiating process. To an extent, these are also part of the diplomatic game, but leaders of great powers can cause great global turbulence through careless words publicly spoken.

Trump has sown confusion through his tweets. Has that helped in creating international confidence? Certainly, he has added to the confusion and damaged trust through his action on the Paris Accord and now with the Iran nuclear deal.

Global problems such as climate change, international terrorism and the issues that emerge from the intensification of the digital age, including cybersecurity, demand greater cooperation among the major powers. At such a time by reneging on the Paris Accords and now the Iran deal, Trump is harking back to an earlier age when interstate relations generally did not impact the whole world but only a handful of countries. That luxury is no longer available, especially when dealing with matters that affect the entire world.

If Trump thought the Iran nuclear deal did not do away with the possibility of eliminating the possibility of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons, at a future date, the way out was through patient and perhaps time-consuming negotiations. Certainly not through breaking international rules. This is especially so when there is need to encourage China to conduct itself responsibly. It is hardly tenable to call upon China to abide by international rules and norms while Trump breaks with the deals that his predecessor made.

Trump’s action has generally caused consternation throughout the world. France, Germany, Britain, China and Russia have “regretted” the decision. Israel and Saudi Arabia have welcomed it. Both these countries were strongly opposed to the deal and lobbied hard to prevent it. Later, as the deal allowed Iran to seek to assert its influence in the region, they reinforced Trump’s desire to undo it. The region will now see new undercurrents of tension.

India has large and comprehensive interests in the region that need to be safeguarded. The government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has strongly pursued India’s bilateral approaches and strengthened relationships with regional states, including Iran. Now it will have the messy task of seeking to move its interests in the hydrocarbons sector and in developing connectivity without giving offense to either the US or Iran. This will not be easy. New Delhi’s initial cautious official statement reflected its wariness.

There is little doubt that India or its companies will not seek to violate US sanctions, whether in maintaining oil purchases or moving ahead with the Chabahar port. In the past, New Delhi and Tehran devised innovative ways for India to continue to purchase Iranian oil. Chabahar is a strategically important project for Afghanistan, as for India. It gives the former the opportunity to break the difficulties encountered in the traditional Pakistan route. This is evident from reports that more cargo is moving to Afghanistan through Chabahar during the past few months.

Vivek Katju

The author is a former diplomat with the Indian Foreign Service and retired as a secretary to the government of India. He has extensive experience dealing with Pakistan and Southeast Asia.

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