If, like me, you had too much spare time late Tuesday night, you may have seen some worrying news unfolding on social media.
The first fruits of the US withdrawal from the Iran deal took some finding on the main news sites, but was in your face on Twitter (well, if you count a friend in Germany retweeting what a journalist in Israel was saying about events in Syria as being in your face!) An alleged air strike on a weapons depot near Damascus and rumours of the Israel Defence Forces calling up personnel. Despite first appearances, they proved to be linked to Iran – and, I’d argue, indicators of the only real reason US President Donald Trump was right to leave the Iran nuclear deal.
The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA – the so-called Iran nuclear deal) was signed in 2015 by Iran, the five permanent members of the UN’s security council, Germany and the EU. Although some media outlets managed to miss the EU out in their online reporting! Unconscious Brexit bias? Probably not. JCPOA was signed explicitly to stop Iran developing a nuclear weapon. In return heavy economic sanctions, some dating back a decade, were lifted.
What’s controversial about that, so far? Why on earth would Trump want to back out? How can he have been right to withdraw from such a worthwhile agreement? Well, there are arguments to put forward. Firstly, Trump has long said the deal is bad, partly because it doesn’t address Iran’s destabilising behaviour in the region.
Statement on the Iran Nuclear Deal: https://t.co/O3SpryCKkc
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 8, 2018
We hear reports of Iranian troops on the ground in Syria – and it was only on Monday that an Israeli cabinet minister threatened to topple Assad, if Iran helped Hezbollah attack Israel from Syrian territory. Trump also points out that the JCPOA didn’t target Iran’s ballistic missile programme – and do we really want another country with long range weapons capability, nuclear or otherwise? Several commentators, including Canon Andrew White, have argued that the Iranian government simply can’t be trusted – and therefore Trump needed to withdraw from the deal.
Against all of this, let’s put some facts. President Trump has promised to withdraw from the Iran deal since his election campaign. We’ll come back to that in a minute. When it comes to the effectiveness of the deal – and Iran’s compliance with it (isn’t that partly how we measure trustworthiness?) it seems they were complying. There have been multiple inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the day after Trump’s withdrawal, the IAEA stated Iran was keeping to the requirements of the deal. After the 2015 deal, Iran shipped 98% of it’s enriched uranium abroad, and plugged a reactor that could produce plutonium with concrete. Yes, Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu claims Iran still had their nuclear progress so far on file – but that’s a far cry from actively continuing to develop a weapon.
Then there’s the ballistic missiles programme and the behaviour of Iran in the region. Let’s turn to one of the key people behind the 2015 deal. Former US President Barack Obama. He points out that everyone knew about these issues when the deal was signed It wasn’t intended to solve all the ills of Iran. He says, “We were clear-eyed that Iran engages in destabilizing behavior – including support for terrorism, and threats toward Israel and its neighbors. But that’s precisely why it was so important that we prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.” And, Obama says, “[T]he JCPOA does not rely on trust – it is rooted in the most far-reaching inspections and verification regime ever negotiated in an arms control deal.”
So, on balance, was Donald Trump right to leave the Iran nuclear deal? I have to say, based on the reasons he’s given and the available evidence so far, I’d have to conclude no, he wasn’t. Except – and this brings us back to his campaign promises – whatever we think of his decision he had a diplomatic mandate for it from the American people. He had been elected, at least partly, on a promise to withdraw from the deal. And that, when it comes down to it, is really the only argument that convinces me. Right or wrong, he had a mandate, and he’s acted on it and seen it through.
Does this make the Middle East more stable? Does it show North Korea that Trump can be trusted over nuclear deals? I suspect we’ll find out all too soon.
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