By Peter Zeihan and Michael N. Nayebi-Oskoui
The White House has been strongly hinting for two weeks that President Trump is unlikely to “re-certify” the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) or as it’s better known, the Iran Nuclear Agreement. The emotions from across the political spectrum range from jubilation to outright hysteria though, it’s important to note, the reactions don’t fit neatly within American party lines (plenty of Democrats had to be strong-armed into supporting the deal, and more than a couple Republicans believe it is in America’s interest to stay within the accord). The reality of the matter is much more complicated, though I believe it’s safe to tell everyone to take a deep breath and calm down.
A quick and dirty discussion of the mechanics of the JCPOA are in order. Technically speaking, it’s a non-binding political agreement (remember the Paris Climate Accords?). The Iran Nuclear Deal is not a treaty. It’s a series of interconnected agreements and a complex set of verification steps and was designed to make it easy for the United States to pull out or re-apply sanctions on Iran at will. To that end, the American president has to re-certify the agreement every 90 days, as well as sign off on a series of sanctions waivers that cover periods of time from a couple of months to a year. We’ll come back to this part.
The agreement, however, was approved by Congress, and in the event that President Trump or any of his successors decide to refuse certification of the deal – essentially declining to admit that Iran is holding up its end of the bargain – Congress has 60 days to attempt to change portions of the JCPOA they disagree with or (re)apply sanctions both old and new.
That last bit about sanctions is where things get tricky, before we even get into the fact that Congress couldn’t get anything done in 60 days in a normal political season, let alone when they’re racing to hammer out a budget and attempt to forge some sort of tax reform deal. The JCPOA and the Presidential waivers cover a web of sanctions that are both those passed by Congress and those that came into effect via executive order. The latter is where Trump could snapback previous executive sanctions and apply new ones if he feels Congress isn’t taking Iran to task as much as he’d like.
There are other complicating factors here, namely the five other nations who are members of the accord (including a France that has steadfastly refused to renegotiate the terms of the deal as its companies race to access Iranian energy plays and the third largest market in the Middle East). Europe as a whole and France, Germany, and Britain in particular are loathe to re-enter a difficult and prolonged negotiations with the Iranians given all the other problems they’re dealing with (like Russia, Merkel’s declining power, and an overhaul of the socioeconomic pillars of political life… just to name a few), and traditionally have had a much easier time dealing with Tehran than the Americans.
At the end of the day, though, not much is likely to immediately change. There is a strong argument to be made that it’s bad for America’s long-term interests to be seen as an unreliable partner to international agreements as well as further alienating EU/NATO partners, but the most likely scenario is that President Trump refuses to certify, the US Congress gets busy doing nothing, and that Iran continues trading and dealing with Europe, Russia, and China. Meanwhile, the US create a unilateral sanctions system to target Iran – perhaps with secondary sanctions to target European and Asian players who are doing business with Iran. That’d return us to the status quo ante that defined the US-Iran relationship for not only much of the Obama administration, but also the past four decades.
So… now what? If the US is serious about disengaging from the Middle East—and the relatively standoffish (in terms of the US response) American action in Libya, Syria, post-ISIS Iraq, and Yemen are goods signs that the US is indeed serious—there are few realistic options on how to contain the Middle East quagmire.
Option one is to establish a regional balance of power. This requires encouraging Turkey to be an independent actor rather than a state that is a mere adjunct of NATO (check), turning a blind eye to Saudi Arabia’s tendency to spawn Sunni terror groups (check), and somewhat rehabilitating Iran in the international community so that it can counter the other two. That last was the Obama administration’s rationale for the nuclear deal in the first place. The advantage of this route is that the region’s various players become locked into a never-ending death struggle that so consumes them, they lack (ideally forever) the freedom to act out-of-region.
Option two – which appears to be Trump’s preference – is to anoint one of the three major players to run the region in the Americans’ stead. Those of us who remember the heady days of sword-dancing and orb-touching from President Trump’s earlier visit to Saudi Arabia will not be surprised to hear that the likely beneficiary of the Trump administration’s emerging Middle East policy is Riyadh. What’s more important is that Riyadh certainly thinks so, too. From lip service moves such as allowing women to drive, to staging a practice war against mountain-bound Shi’ite-aligned rebels in Yemen, to buying-off and/or strong-arming regional Arab competitors such as Egypt and Qatar, the Saudis are certainly trying to set themselves up as the regional powerhouse.
But Saudi Arabia is an odd choice. It is a desert country completely dependent upon oil sales, predominantly to a China that hopes to challenge US hegemony in the Pacific. It is the only of the three that is not a democracy, and shows zero interest in even considering shifting its domestic politics in a liberal direction. It’s primary foreign policy strategy is to spam out militant groups to turn its rivals’ neighborhoods into post-apocalyptic carnage zones (its hands were in the rise of al Qaeda, the Taliban and ISIS). Between its deliberate lack of civil society, its brittle political culture and its monochromatic economy, it simply doesn’t have any of the “normal” levers of power that would allow it to be a regional hegemon without a great deal of ongoing help.
And if it needs a great deal of ongoing help, that doesn’t really mesh with the core American desire to get out of the region.