Trump's withdrawal from Iran deal far more consequential than many realize

If you've been following the reaction in the press to Donald Trump's withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, you would think the most important issue is war or peace with the Iranians.  Scuttling the deal, many are saying, will force Iran to "restart" its nuclear enrichment program (that it only paused anyway), which will force the U.S. to engage Iran militarily to stop the Iranians.

Whether Iran goes back to open enrichment of uranium is not the primary question.  What matters is that exiting the deal leaves the U.S. perfectly free to ratchet up the pressure on an already feeble Iranian economy and openly assist elements in Iran who want regime change.

Foreign Policy:

All nuclear-related sanctions are to be reimposed as quickly as possible, consistent with U.S. law.  No later than the first week of November, every one of the most powerful U.S. economic penalties ever inflicted on Iran will be back in full force.  That includes sweeping secondary sanctions against foreign firms caught doing proscribed business with the Islamic Republic.  Despite the frantic efforts of their leaders, it appears there will be no reprieve, no carveouts, no shielding of European companies from the brutally harsh consequences of what Trump has wrought.  Commercial entities the world over now have a brief window to unwind their interests in Iran's deeply troubled $400 billion economy or risk being shut out of America's $20 trillion market, including the ability to conduct transactions in the U.S. dollar, the international currency of choice. 

The reasons why the E.U. was so eager to sign off on a flawed deal were entirely commercial.  This was made evident in the weeks and months immediately following the agreement's implementation.  Dozens of contracts were signed between some of Europe's biggest companies and the Iranian government, suddenly flush with a hundred billion dollars in unfrozen assets.  Lifting the sanctions also opened the door for companies around the world to do business with Iran.

The E.U. is now trying desperately to salvage something of the deal, but one might ask, why?  As the Foreign Policy article points out, the U.S. reimposing sanctions will destroy the new commercial ties between Iran and the E.U. even if the Europeans keep the agreement in place.

Trump has hinted that if Iran begins industrial-scale nuclear enrichment, all options are on the table.

In his withdrawal statement, Trump warned, "If the regime continues its nuclear aspirations, it will have bigger problems than it has ever had before."  The next day, he further amplified the threat: "I would advise Iran not to start their nuclear program.  I would advise them very strongly.  If they do, there will be very severe consequences."

Meaning what, exactly?  It sure sounds like a threat to use military force.  And that would make perfect sense.  Surely, the president and his advisors understand that one likely consequence of killing the deal and reimposing sanctions is that Iran might begin expanding its nuclear program again.  A credible threat of force is clearly intended to deter such a dangerous move.  But what if it doesn't?  What if Iran calls Trump's bluff before sanctions can have their intended effect or, indeed, are even fully operational again?  Then he may have to strike Iran's nuclear facilities with all the attendant dangers and unforeseen consequences that entails, or risk being exposed as a paper tiger.  It goes without saying that absent a rock-solid commitment to move militarily against Iran's nuclear program in short order should it prove necessary, the president's decision to crater the Iran deal prematurely really would constitute not just a major gamble, but extreme diplomatic malpractice.

But Iran's nuclear program is only a small part of the administration's focus now that the deal is history.  With the president's withdrawal statement, background materials revealed the breathtaking nature of the policy shift:

  • Never have an intercontinental ballistic missile, cease developing any nuclear-capable missiles, and stop proliferating ballistic missiles to others;
  • Cease its support for terrorists, extremists, and regional proxies, such as Hezbollah, Hamas, the Taliban, and al Qaeda;
  • End its publicly declared quest to destroy Israel;
  • Stop its threats to freedom of navigation, especially in the Persian Gulf and Red Sea;
  • Cease escalating the Yemen conflict and destabilizing the region by proliferating weapons to the Houthis;
  • End its cyberattacks against the United States and our allies, including Israel;
  • Stop its grievous human rights abuses, shown most recently in the regime's crackdown against widespread protests by Iranian citizens;
  • Stop its unjust detention of foreigners, including United States citizens.

The administration is already seriously considering plans to assist dissidents in overthrowing the regime.  These other goals make it absolutely clear that Iran's days of being free to destabilize the Middle East and the world are over, and the regime's days are numbered. 

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