Never forget how different matters would be if Trump hadn't smashed the Iran nuclear accord
Depending on how you interpret such things, we are either at war or on the cusp of war with Iran. “De-escalation” is the cry of world leaders. Not at the White House, And, without doubt, not among the leaders in Tehran.
As events unfold over the next few days and weeks, and the world awaits the inevitable but unpredictable Iranian response to the assassination of Gen. Qassim Soleimani, we should remember every step of the way that the situation would be very different if Donald Trump had not wrecked the 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran.
A wise leader, even a merely shrewd one, who was unhappy with any agreement—this one took 20 months of wrangling among negotiators from the U.S., Iran, and five other nations to complete—would use it as leverage to get other agreements negotiated. That, indeed, was one hope of the soft-power advocates of the Obama administration and their counterparts among U.S. allies. If, they calculated, Iran could be convinced to agree to become far more transparent about its nuclear development, stop certain related operations altogether, and promise under inspections not to exceed certain limits in some operations, then perhaps other aspects of the Islamic Republic’s international behavior could be limited as well. Time would tell, they said, whether the nuclear accord would open other doors after four decades of enmity.
Into the Oval Office stomped Donald Trump. Instead of making an attempt to build on the agreement he labeled “horrible” (in great part because he couldn’t stand that President Obama had made this happen), Trump chose to trash it. At first, he couldn’t find an excuse to withdraw because the International Atomic Energy Agency responsible for verifying everybody is complying with the agreement’s provisions had repeatedly found that Iran was doing exactly what it had promised. Soon enough, 16 months into office, Trump shrugged off Iran’s compliance and announced that sanctions were returning anyway unless Iran knuckled under and followed U.S. parameters for a new deal. These, issued by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, read like bullet-points of a surrender document.
After years deeply hurt by sanctions that eventually brought Tehran to the negotiating table, the economy began to pick up after they were lifted. Oil production and exports soared. But as of November 2019, Iran was only exporting around 10% of what it had been a year earlier because of the reimposed sanctions. For a government dependent on oil to provide subsidies that are part of its longstanding social contract with the Iranian people, this has been a serious blow. In mid-November, the government cut the gasoline subsidy by 50%, sparking the first mass protests since the Green Movement uprising of 2009 after the rigged election drove people to the streets. While it began at least outwardly as an economic protest, with banks being heavily targeted for attacks, some began challenging the legitimacy of the mullahs’ regime itself. The response was murderous, with as many as 450 protesters gunned down.
U.S. intelligence sources claim Iran has been behind the scenes or directly involved with attacks on oil tankers and on Saudi Arabia’s major oil operations and, of course, the attack that killed an American contractor. Meanwhile, the U.S. now has two carriers in the Persian Gulf, has dispatched 750 troops to add to 14,000 or so already in the Middle East, and took a cyberwar approach against Iranian missiles after Iran shot down a reconnaissance drone. Both nations reportedly have been involved in cyber attacks of various sorts since 2005, when the United States inserted the Stuxnet worm into the software of the system controlling Iran’s uranium-concentrating centrifuges.
Nobody needs to sugarcoat the behavior or ideology of the Iranian regime. Nor of General Soleimani. These aren’t good guys. Plenty of Iranians at home and abroad will say as much. But reckless assassinations of prominent Iranian leaders amid an almost total absence of diplomatic efforts while tightening the economic screws will not, as Pompeo claimed today, make us safer. On the contrary. We’re on the precipice. Donald Trump put us there. We should never let that fact be papered over.