Donald Trump and the art of breaking a deal

With anti-Iran hawks getting key posts in the President’s team, the nuclear deal is the target

Published - March 24, 2018 12:15 am IST

Donald Trump has set a May 12 deadline for the US and Europe to address the issues he has with the nuclear deal. (FILE)

Donald Trump has set a May 12 deadline for the US and Europe to address the issues he has with the nuclear deal. (FILE)

It was no secret that U.S. President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson did not get along on several foreign policy issues. But when Mr. Tillerson was fired earlier this month, the one point of difference Mr. Trump cited was the Iran nuclear deal. Mr. Tillerson was considered a restraining presence on Iran within the Trump White House. The 2015 deal, widely seen as a signature diplomatic achievement of the Barack Obama presidency, curtails Iran’s nuclear programme in return for lifting international sanctions. But Mr. Trump hated it — he described it as “the worst deal ever” and during his campaign had threatened to “rip up” the deal upon being elected.

A difficult choice

Under U.S. law, the deal has to be certified every 90 days by the President. Mr. Trump has grudgingly certified compliance twice since his election. In October, he refused to certify the accord, but stopped short of scrapping it. Instead, he passed the buck to the U.S. Congress to decide whether new sanctions should be imposed on Iran. While Congress refused, the agreement is now back on Mr. Trump’s table. For now, he has set a May 12 deadline to the co-signatories — the U.K., China, Russia, France and Germany, besides Iran — to “fix the deal”. The Europeans and other powers have not shown any interest in renegotiating the agreement and the United Nations continues to certify that Iran is 100% compliant with its terms. So Mr. Trump faces a difficult choice here. In less than two months, he will have to decide either to live with the agreement or pull the U.S. out of it. The rising anti-Iran rhetoric, new actions and the rejig at the White House all suggest that the latter may happen.

Mr. Trump’s pick as the new Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, has been a hard-line critic of Iran. Defence Secretary Jim Mattis is another Iran hawk. And with Mr. Trump’s National Security Adviser (NSA) H.R. McMaster exiting, the last defender of the Iran accord in the top White House team is gone. John Bolton, who is known for his hawkish views towards Iran and North Korea, will be the new NSA.

There’s a rational argument in favour of the nuclear agreement, which the Obama administration as well as European powers put forward. Their main objective was to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. And after the election of Hassan Rouhani as Iran’s President in 2013, Tehran had also warmed up to engagement with the West. The only alternative to a diplomatic deal to stop Iran going nuclear was war, which would have been disastrous as Iran is a much stronger and more networked country than, say, Iraq or Libya. Closer cooperation between the U.S. and Iran has other benefits as well. Both countries have a shared interest in stabilising Afghanistan and Iraq and defeating the Taliban and the Islamic State.

But President Trump and his team are not driven by these obvious rational arguments. First, there is a clear pattern in the President’s foreign policy. Mr. Trump wants to undo most of his predecessor’s policy achievements. He withdrew the U.S. from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Paris climate deal. The Trump administration imposed tighter sanctions on Cuba last year. Second, in Mr. Trump’s world view, Iran is the troublemaker-in-chief in West Asia. In the initial months of his presidency, Mr. Trump had travelled to Saudi Arabia where he joined a summit of mostly heads of Sunni nations to hit out at Iran. He is tilted more towards the establishmentarian, allies-centric approach towards Iran than the geopolitical realist line that Mr. Obama had pursued.

In fact, this is not really about the nuclear deal. If Mr. Trump’s problem is with Iran’s nuclear ambitions, he would go with the deal at least as long as Iran stays compliant. Pulling out of the deal would not only strengthen the hands of Iranian hard-liners but also give Tehran the excuse to resume its nuclear programme. Rather, in Mr. Trump’s view, or in the view of America’s West Asia allies such as Saudi Arabia and Israel, the nuclear deal allows Iran to join the diplomatic and economic mainstream of the region. This has upset the existing power dynamics in West Asia. The Saudis and the Israelis are as much afraid of an Iran with nuclear power as they are of an Iran as a non-nuclear regional power. The Obama administration stopped the former possibility, but hastened the latter by lifting sanctions. This is what Mr. Trump is addressing.

Fickle superpower

It won’t be easy. Mr. Trump could pull the U.S. out of the nuclear deal but the Europeans are unlikely to follow suit, at least for now. The U.S. could impose fresh sanctions on Iran, but the possibility of the UN Security Council backing the sanctions is negligible. So the immediate consequence would be further diplomatic isolation of Washington. More important, it would damage the U.S.’s reputation as a dealmaker: While one President went to the extent of signing an agreement with a hostile nation, the next President is determined to undo it! How would it encourage other countries such as North Korea to trust diplomatic engagement with the U.S.?

0 / 0
Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.