The Iran agreement isn’t about Iran alone. It’s about upholding confidence in the international order.
According to reports, President Trump was having “a bit of a meltdown” when his advisers could not present him with a plan for scuttling the nuclear deal with Iran.
Trump (with extreme reluctance) had to note that Iran is indeed honoring its part of the deal. But he has sent his advisers back to the drawing board and asked them to produce a plan to blow up the deal within a couple of months.
Unraveling the Iran deal would indeed be dangerous. It would produce significantly more than just “a bit of a meltdown” in the Oval Office.
No one doubts that Iran is honoring its part of the agreement. It has accepted the most intrusive set of inspections we have seen in any international agreement. As U.S intelligence agencies have repeatedly confirmed, Iran ended the military dimension of its nuclear program in 2003. Ending it made perfect sense, in much the same way that maintaining the program up until then did.
Until then, the United States and others, at least on the political level, had warned time and again that Saddam Hussein was on the verge of getting a bomb. If that was the case, Tehran had every reason to believe Iraq was a threat (he had attacked Iran before) and deterrence was a logical response. But then the United States did Iran the immense favor of taking out the Hussein regime, reluctantly confirming that the alleged nuclear program didn’t exist. There was no longer a need for an Iranian nuclear weapons program. Later on, U.S. intelligence reached the conclusion that Iran’s program had been stopped. However, fueled by understandable skepticism about the nature of the regime in Tehran, there was still fear that Iran was carrying on with its program.
But Europe wanted peace rather than war and worked to bring a reluctant United States and a hesitant Iran into a diplomatic process that eventually produced the nuclear deal. The agreement was strongly supported by Russia and China and endorsed by the United Nations Security Council.
However, now Trump wants out of the nuclear deal. His latest tactic seems to be to claim that places all over Iran need sudden and intrusive inspections. Of course, the international community and Iran balk at this, being aware of the game being played. Trump, in reaction, could then be inclined to say that the deal is over and war is on the horizon.
At some point, we might even see Secretary of State Rex Tillerson stumbling through some dramatic presentation to the U.N. Security Council. It’s cut-and-paste from the road to the Iraq War.
Europe would certainly not go along with this, for one because it would risk undercutting the elaborate inspections systems that the agreement depends on. But primarily because Europe has seen that the deal actually works — if anything, it’s the United States that is behaving questionably — and Europe has absolutely zero appetite for a new cascade of conflicts in a region on its doorstep.
There could be some applauding a collapse of the deal, notably the hard-liners in Iran who were as opposed to the deal as Trump evidently is. Confrontation with the United States would make it easier for them to harden the regime against a society in which most the younger generation is clearly moving in a more liberal direction on policy in general. As any visitor to Tehran can testify, Iran is among the most Western-like and secular societies in the region. It’s certainly not an easy place to contend with; it’s a self-conscious society and a regime with deep traditions of how to deal with the outside world. Its economy is at the moment the most dynamic in the region, and it boasts an impressive base of talent and technology.
Iran has a human rights record that, as with some other counties in the region, remains appalling, and a number of its policies regarding its region are contrary to those of the West, notably on the key issue of Israel. Europe is convinced that engagement, rather than confrontation and conflict, will go a longer way toward getting Iran to change its behavior.
But there is more to the picture than that. With the United States walking out of the Paris climate accord, cutting U.N. funding and sowing doubts about NATO and other trade commitments, the Iran agreement isn’t about Iran alone. It’s about upholding confidence in the international order.
This op-ed was originally published in the Washington Post on 1st August 2017.
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