Monday, October 30, 2017

Thoughts on the Iran Nuclear Deal (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)) and the Recent U.S. Decision Not to Certify Iranian Compliance With Its Terms

(Pix © Larry Catá Backer 2017)

Someone recently wrote me from abroad with a set of questions relating to the recent decision by the President not to certify that Iran was complying with all terms of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)  (here). 
Critics claim the decision could isolate the United States from its allies, set Iran sprinting toward nuclear weapons, and increase the likelihood of military conflict. Supporters argue that the move is the best way to block Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. Skeptics dismiss the act as mere political posturing—a way for Trump to appear to honor his campaign promises while kicking the can to Congress and ultimately sticking with the agreement. (HERE)
The questions were worth considering in some detail as they raise broader issues of the shape and nature of U.S. engagement abroad as well as the relationship between politics, efforts to shape mass consensus, and legal obligation. The questions and my answers follow below.  


1. On Friday, Donald Trump refused to certify Iran’s compliance with the nuclear deal despite repeated confirmations by the UN nuclear watchdog that Tehran is honoring its commitments. What is real motive behind Trump’s decision?

The great difficulty about inferring the motivations of leaders is that very few of us are privileged enough to know our leaders intimately.  What is left to us, then, is the cultivation of inference from statements and actions made in the course of an activity.   Some inferences are obvious.  President Trump campaigned for the Presidency against both the idea of the nuclear agreement and more specifically its terms.  He has consistently taken the position that the terms are disfavor able to U.S. interests.  Yet this approach cannot be understood in isolation as a specifically anti-Iranian or anti-nuclear project.  Instead it forms part of a broader objective that views the product of U.S. multilateralism over the last several decades as inimical in approach to U.S. interests as understood by the current U.S. Administration and other leaders in power. Mr. Trump has systematically and quite openly sought to challenge the basic terms and the fundamental approaches to U.S. multilateralism in everything from the U.S.’s trade pacts to its security arrangements worldwide.  It should come as a surprise to no one, then, that Mr. Trump would also take a similar position with respect to the Iran deal. The object is not necessarily to pull away from the world or from deal making; rather the object is to renegotiate the terms of these “deals” on terms that the President believes better serve U.S. interests.  And in a sense that position does reflect a strategic reorientation of the traditional post 1945 U.S. position.  Mr. Trump appears to be moving away from a position in which the U.S. sought to assert and maintain global leadership through the construction of a web of obligations built on U.S. subsidies (in various forms) to its partners from which it would be difficult for states to escape. Instead Mr. Trump has aligned his policy with one in which the autonomy of the multilateral systems themselves are de-centered and national interests (long and short term) instead become the basis for constant bartering among partners. In a way, many states ought to be relieved—the change in approach represents a return to old fashioned statecraft, and away from an experiment that, had it succeeded, might have substantially reduced the ability of states to threaten global orders.

2. How can Trump’s approach to the landmark nuclear deal shake the confidence of Washington’s allies in America’s word? Can it set a bad precedent in the world and push the world toward new crises?

Actually, the President’s approach can be viewed either as quite dangerous or quite clever. It can be viewed as dangerous to the extent that one interprets the move as a first step toward the abandonment of the “deal” and if one then assumes that without U.S. participation the “deal” would collapse.  But those are far too many assumptions to hold much value. It is quite clever, at least in the short term, precisely because of its subtlety.  While the action appears to shake the deal and signal U.S. withdrawal, its formal and practical effects are negligible—except in the important area of the wars for the control of international opinion and the shaping of narratives supporting national positions.  The refusal to certify does not automatically reimpose U.S. sanctions. Recall that the compliance certification was written into U.S. domestic law and is not an essential part of the “deal” itself. As commentators in the U.S. have noted, this is the best of all worlds for Mr. Trump—he can continue to develop a strong voice against the deal, and seek to undermine faith in its fairness to all parties, while at the same time permitting strict adherence to its terms. In a sense, all the refusal to certify has done is to ensure that the issue remains an important element of domestic and international attention as its principal effect is to permit the U.S. Congress to debate the issue for several months.

In this light, it is now possible to more directly answer the question. The only European leaders whose faith in Washington’s willingness to keep its word are those who have been away on another planet since November 2016.  The U.S. President has been remarkably transparent about his guiding ideology and his distaste for the terms of this “deal.” At the same time, the office of the President has been quite cautious in repudiating agreements to which it is bound, even as the U.S. Administration has been aggressive in seeking to renegotiate their terms. The open questions for the next year are: (1) whether such renegotiations are possible, and (2) what might happen if these renegotiations fail.  My sense is that the U.S. might then engage in the practices common to states unhappy about the terms of their international agreements but unwilling to repudiate them because of the resulting political costs—it may begin, through a process of strict adherence and narrow interpretation just within the boundaries of the plausible, do what it can to minimize what it deems to be the worst elements of the deal.  This is a practice that all states have long experienced and one for which all states ought to be prepared.  But it is neither unusual nor necessarily unethical.

3. In his speech he called Iran a rogue state. In your opinion which country is contesting the UN-endorsed nuclear agreement and act like a rogue?

The emerging rhetoric of the rogue state has proven useful to many states, especially when used as a tool to marshal support among mass opinion or to put pressure on other states to extract a sought-after response. Neither Iran nor the United States have been strangers to the use of this device in the effort to advance their respective interests.  And both have used this rhetorical tool with impunity when it has suited them. To that extent, states ought now to be well accustomed to and prepared for the use by its rivals of this tool and to develop effective rhetorical counter measures.  As a question of fact, however, the issue of “rogue” status becomes more complicated.  It depends, in large part on the context in which the accusation is made.  It is not unusual in the context of the relations between the United States and Iran for both states to accuse the other of actions that might, within their respective domestic ideologies, cast the opponent as a rogue state.  And, indeed, that pattern appears to have marked relations between the two states for much of the period after 1979.

Beyond that, the rogue state term has been used as a shorthand for identifying those states whose conduct falls beyond the behaviors considered self-legitimating by the community of states. Its sensibilities are grounded in the U.S. post WWII settlement that sought to embed boundaries on legitimate state actions. Those boundaries were built around respect for individual and group dignity (and a repudiation of the racist theories of the Third Reich) and against militarism (and a repudiation of Japanese Imperial policy). It has since expanded as the United Nations system has built a large and complex set of normative rules constraining state activity.  The concept is powerful in the sense that success in building consensus about the rogue status of a state (essentially its government) then removes the protections of legitimacy and permits other states to support revolutionary movements within that state and military action against it. The United States had used the term mostly before 2000; other states have also used the term, or sought to capture its meaning and effects, especially most recently Turkey and Russia.   Its invocation can sometimes produce spectacular effects, not just in terms of military interventions (now well-known) but also in pressuring states whose internal actions have produced instability, for example in Honduras after 2009. Its employment by the Trump Administration signals a willingness to potentially invoke its consequences. For that reason, states that are targeted ought to be concerned. Yet the use of the term, and its de-legitimating effects remains highly controversial. More importantly, the meaning of the term is also highly contested.  To some extent, then, the definition of a rogue state, and the application to it of international punitive action, may well depend on two things—the ability of states to create or avoid consensus about the threat to the world order of a targeted state, and the immediacy of the threat posed by the targeted state. In both lies the challenge and the opportunity for the United States and Iran.

  4. Israel and Saudi Arabia praised Trump’s strategy towards Iran deal. What’s your assessment of their reaction?

The praise also makes substantial sense. To a large extent, there is little else that might be expected given the web that Iran, Israel and Saudi Arabia have built for themselves in their relations (formal and informal) for the last generation.  Iran has made it quite clear for almost half a century that it views as impossible a sovereign state that is Jewish in national character, especially one that sits atop space with religious significance to Islam. At the same time, the relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia have been aggressively competitive, as modern incarnations of ancient enmities with origins as old as Islam. It ought to come as no surprise, then, that both states might be drawn together, even if discretely and informally, in support of any effort that might counter Iranian policies and objectives. And, in any case it is always useful for regional powers to act in the shadow of larger powers in managing their affairs. To that end, any instability that might either distract Iranian policy objectives or weaken Iranian geopolitical strategies would be welcome. It is likely, as well, that at least portions of the leadership of both states share the view that Iranian nuclear ambitions will not be adequately constrained by the agreement. But neither state plays a prominent role in the agreement or in determining global consensus on approaches to Iranian nuclear objectives.  As a consequence, any act by one of the signatory parties that appears to undermine the intent, if not the letter, of the agreement, would be welcome. Whether the actions of the United States have any effect in fact is less important than the appearance that the United States might take a stricter approach to the implementation of the agreement.  Even more important, the strategy of the United States might make it easier to strengthen Israeli and Saudi regional objectives while it weakens those of Iran.  This may be particularly important to both states in the front lines of their conflicts with Iran—Syria, Lebanon and Iraq.       

5. Some Democratic lawmakers have expressed concern that withdrawal from the deal could lead to war in the Middle East. What’s your analysis?

I think it is both premature and too late to speak to issues of war in the region. It is premature because there does not appear to be any effort to withdraw from the deal just yet.  As such, the responses from the Democratic leaders appears to stake a position in ways are meant to appeal to some element of the American electorate (and the donor class in the United States) as well as to forge informal alliances with similarly minded factions within the U.S.’s European allies. It is also too late because, frankly, the Middle East has not been free from war except for short periods since the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire. What the Democratic law makers may have meant was that such a withdrawal, were it to actually take place, and were that withdrawal to be combined with other actions that effectively voided the agreement, could make it more likely that war would flare again in new places and among new actors. The great danger, then, would be not the wars that have managed to remain contained, but wars that involve powerful regional states that might draw in the great powers. For the moment, those fears are overblown.  It is in no one’s interest to move toward regional war with the possibility of escalation.  Yet, to the extent that the actions of the United States embolden those factions within all relevant states which for reasons of religious prejudice, political ambition, or ideological imperatives seek it, the appearance of withdrawing can increase the likelihood that states might well blunder their way to war.

6. In his remarks, Trump spoke about Iran’s “proud history, its culture, its civilization, its cooperation with its neighbors.” However, he used the phrase “Arabian Gulf” rather than “Persian Gulf” in his speech. What’s your take on this?

Sometimes terms that have political sensitivity may be lost on foreigners who are to some extent indifferent to the politics of names. Other times, the invocation of one or another contested name may have strong signaling objectives. Perhaps a little of both is at play here. Yet the most profound mistake of analysis is to distort the power of signals—these are cheap shots—whose effects may distract from the larger objectives of the parties. It might have been more useful to place more emphasis on the reference to Iran’s historic culture as a pointed reference to the comparative current state of the nation, than to the name of a body of water that will continue to exist and with respect to which power will eventually determine control, whatever name is given to it. Indeed, from the Iranian side there might be great irony in the deference to the name in return for actual control of the Gulf. 

7. EU foreign policy chief said the nuclear deal is an international agreement and Trump cannot unilaterally terminate it. Do you believe that the JCPOA will survive without the U.S.?

The E.U. policy chief, is, of course, correct.  But as the responses above have made clear, there has not yet been a breach or termination of the agreement.  Indeed, like most multilateral agreements, this one was likely to have to be treated flexibly as the situation changed.  What has caused concern is the directness of the U.S. position—that it seeks to renegotiate the basic terms of the agreement itself.  But there is nothing profoundly irregular about that demand, especially where the United States continues to abide by its terms.  To the extent that it may signal strict rather than broad compliance, that is news that ought to be gratefully received by the other members to the agreement—there will be no surprised on that score.  For the Iranians, of course, that also poses a challenge.  If the United States can convince key parties to the agreement that some renegotiation is in order, the Iranians will have to prepare for that eventuality and propose their own positions.  That is merely politics, and a politics that has a very long history in the relations among states within multilateral agreement.   This is not a contract among merchants, but an agreement among sovereign states with paramount obligations to safeguard their interests while advancing the interests of a peaceful and harmonious world order. I have no doubt that the Iranians will work hard to protect and advance their own interests, but so will the United States.  It is to the hard work of aligning those interests sufficiently to avoid conflict that the best and brightest from both sides ought to turn their attention.

1 comment:

Joel said...

Well-thought out analysis.