The July 2015 Nuclear agreement between the Iran, the US and five other nations (JCPOA) was meant to herald a new period of diplomacy and openness for US/Iranian relations. Many saw it as President Obama’s finest foreign policy achievement. Unfortunately for him it wasn’t long before Donald Trump claimed he would tear it up on his first day in office on his election campaign trail. Furthermore, towards the end of Obama’s presidency there was almost a complete breakdown in relations between him and Prime Minister Netanyahu of Israel, who views Iran as Israel’s existential enemy.
So, when Donald Trump became President in January 2017 the signs were ominous. However, he did not immediately tear up the agreement, despite earlier threats. What he has done is intermittently threaten Iran and recently added additional sanctions in July, claiming Iran has broken the “spirit” of the deal by building ballistic missiles and funding terrorists. There is little doubt in my mind that Trump wants to focus on the Iranian deal at some point and may still try to reverse it.
The Iranian administration realise this but also, they cannot completely submit to the US or they will alienate the more hawkish elements of the Iranian political spectrum. The Qatari diplomatic crisis is a good example of how they have used soft power to defy the US and add to their regional prestige without giving Trump a rallying call to tear up the accord. Fortunately for Iran, Trump does not seem to be as heavily invested in an eventual overthrow of the Syrian regime as the previous administration and continued Iranian involvement will probably not be enough to force further action from the Americans.
Even if Trump really wanted to force the Iranian hand through further sanctions and the threat of armed action, there is nothing so far in his seven months of presidency to suggest that he has the focus or mental fortitude to do so. He seems to be bouncing from one arena to the next and so far, all his moves seem reactionary. The current standoff with North Korea (which I still see ending peacefully) has come from nowhere as Trump had given very little previous indication that North Korea was at the top of his agenda. His rhetoric of responding with “fire and fury” is language not normally associated with a US president.
Iran can benefit from this lack of strategic vision and unclear foreign policy. They can continue to discreetly push their agenda in the Middle East without creating a crisis that leads to direct confrontation like Kim Jong Un has just done. Their biggest concern would be Israeli sabre rattling like in 2013 when a pre-emptive strike seemed potentially imminent.
However, the US and Israel would no longer have the support of the major European powers; Germany, France and the United Kingdom, who signed the JCPOA. Germany and France have recently agreed to a large number of trade deals. They both view the Iranian domestic market (80 million strong) as a potentially lucrative source of new trade. Just last week Renault signed a joint venture agreement with the IDRO (an Iranian semi-state body) to produce 150,000 vehicles a year in Iran. Total, the French oil company, also recently signed a $4.8B agreement with the National Iranian Oil Company.
When you combine these expanding trade ties with Trump’s lack of focus and easily distracted foreign policy approach you can see why every month the potential for Iran to return to being an economic and political pariah state diminishes. While I can see Trump or Israel leading one final push for this, they will fail to achieve this aim without the support of the major European nations.