the US presidency, Donald Trump had described that agreement as the worst in American history. And although his promises were inconsistent regarding the future of that agreement under his presidency, they sometimes went as far as declaring that it would be torn up in its entirety. Since his election last Tuesday, Trump seems to have walked those promises back slightly, coming down on the side of his more measured position in favor of renegotiating the deal. Still, the reaction of the European Union seems to reflect nervousness among the defenders of the nuclear deal, and a preemptive commitment to pushing back against its cancellation or weakening through renegotiation.
For whatever it is worth, the foreign ministers’ statement did not merely express that commitment through the airing of a grievance with the incoming Trump administration. Instead, the statement highlighted the European Union’s intentions to continue promoting trade and investment with the Islamic Republic, so as to demonstrate the value of the JCPOA to the West. This is nothing new, but the statement does also appear to have included an evolution in the tone that the European countries maintain toward Iran itself.
Since the implementation of the JCPOA in January, various Iranian officials have taken the position that the United States is not abiding by the “spirit” of the agreement, insofar as Washington continues to enforce banking restrictions that make it more difficult for European countries to financing their investments in Iran. In their excitement for such investments, some of the deal’s supporters have effectively endorsed this position and have taken to urging the US to expand upon its implementation measures. Critics, on the other hand, have been quick to point out that the JCPOA did not entail the removal of non-nuclear sanctions, and that the Islamic Republic had taken no concrete steps to justify Washington’s lifting of banking restrictions.
These steps might include an end to Iranian financing of international terrorism and the implementation of policies and procedures to demonstrate to international banks that the Iranian financial system is no longer a high-risk source of money laundering activities. Recommendations to this effect have apparently received less attention in recent months than American efforts to encourage European investment in Iran. But Reuters indicated on Monday that this might have begun to change with the foreign ministers’ statement, which specifically pointed out that Iranian banks required deep reform in order to make ongoing European investments a realistic possibility.
It is certainly possible to interpret this move as another aspect of the international reaction to Donald Trump’s election. Recognizing the risk that he poses to the long-term survival of the JCPOA, the European Union may be undertaking a strategy of encouraging Iran to better demonstrate the deal’s value to the West, thereby making it more difficult for President Trump to justify cancelation or radical renegotiation after he takes office in January.
But even if this does accurately describe the changing European and American strategies, it remains to be seen how the Islamic Republic of Iran will react to both. Some analysts speculate that, notwithstanding Iran’s desperate need for ongoing sanctions relief, the country’s hardline establishment will not be sufficiently motivated by the threat of renegotiation. More to the point, much of that establishment won’t even see renegotiation as a threat at all. This was the conclusion drawn by Eurasia Review in an article that it published on Monday about “Iran’s new hopes after Trump’s election.”
That article notes that the JCPOA has numerous domestic critics in Iran, including the whole of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. Many of these critics see renegotiation as a desirable option. Of course, the IRGC and the incoming Trump administration are advocating for alternative deals that would look very different from each other, but it remains to be determined for certain whether they can arrive at an agreement that somehow looks like a victory to both sides.
This seems doubtful if one focuses only on the Iranian and American criticisms that portray the deal as an act of capitulation by one side or the other. But the chances of a new compromise may be somewhat better if the terms of the theoretical agreement are broadened to include issues outside of the nuclear sphere. Last week, IranWire featured commentary from an Iranian political scientists who believed that the Iranian regime favored Donald Trump over his Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton, in part because Trump might be expected to express less interest in human rights and to leave channels open for back-room favor trading, akin to the agreement underlying the Iran-Contra affair.
The Eurasia Review article roughly agreed with this assessment, pointing out that Trump might be viewed as less friendly to Iran’s traditional enemies in the region. The article pointed out that Trump has been quoted as saying that Saudi Arabia will have to pay the price for the continued friendship and protection of the United States. It also pointed out that at least one Israeli news source described Trump’s election as the biggest victory for anti-Semitism since 1941.
To these observations it might be added that the American presidential campaign brought forth numerous accusations about the nature of Donald Trump’s relationship with the government of Russian President Vladimir Putin. In fact, in the immediate aftermath of the election, the Russians announced that they had been consistently in contact with the Trump campaign. Trump and Putin also spoke over the phone on Monday, before Trump ever reached out in a similar fashion to the leaders of established US allies. All of this is significant to the future of US policy toward Iran because Iran and Russia have been growing increasingly close, especially against the backdrop of the Syrian Civil War, wherein both countries support Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.
The US has been tentatively backing moderate rebel groups opposed to Assad’s continued rule. But in the second presidential debate, Mr. Trump spoke favorably of Assad, Moscow, and Tehran for “killing ISIS.”
On the other hand, Al Arabiya News General Manager Abdulrahman al-Rashed acknowledges Trump’s former statements about improving relations with Putin’s Russia, but does not take these assurances very seriously. Rashed notes that the future of US-Russian relations has significant bearing on the whole world and certainly the Middle East, but that Trump’s commitments may yet be deeply influenced by his Republican colleagues. Rashed writes that much hinges on Trump’s White House appointments, especially to the position of Secretary of State. A sufficiently hawkish White House would likely push the new president toward greater confrontation with both Russia and Iran.
But if Trump’s advisors do not overcome his affinity for Putin, then Russia could become a facilitator for agreements – perhaps even back-channel agreements – between Iran and the US. Some possible focal points for these agreements are apparent. They include the prospect of Iran purchasing weapons from the Russians, with the blessing of the White House, and by extension the United Nations. A report by The Diplomat pointed out on Monday that Iran is currently pursuing negotiations with Russia over the purchase of 10 billion dollars’ worth of military hardware, possibly including battle tanks.
Any such purchases would require UN licenses until 2020, at which time the embargo on arms sales to the Islamic Republic expires under the JCPOA. A short term licenses for such sales may be viewed as a substantial victory by the IRGC, which routinely smuggles arms to international terrorist groups; but it may be viewed as a comparatively small price to pay for the Trump administration, if it results in a stronger nuclear agreement, to last for upwards of 10 years.
Even if this is not the direction that US policy takes, it is clear that there is widespread uncertainty about what will happen after January. And as Rashed sees it, this period of uncertainty provides Iran with time to “tilt the balance in its favor” throughout the region, particularly in conflict zones like Syria and Iraq.
Toward that end, the Islamic Republic is taking steps to portray itself and its regional proxies as forces to be reckoned with. This was the conclusion of a report in National Yemen, which pointed out that Iranian state media and the media of the Houthi rebels in Yemen were very closely aligned in content and tone. One indicator of this is their simultaneous claims that the Houthi had made serious incursions into Saudi territory. National Yemen denies that there have been any such incursions apart from missile strikes, although it bears noting that Tehran has been credited with providing the Houthi with the weapons necessary to reach more and more distant targets.
The perception of Iranian strength in the region could help to provide Iran with greater leverage in future negotiations, and this image is bolstered by Iran’s burgeoning partnerships with much larger and stronger countries, including not just Russia but also China. On Monday, the Associated Press reported that the Iranian and Chinese defense ministers had met and signed agreements establishing joint military drills as the two countries work together to combat “terrorism.”
Iran’s growing incursions into other countries throughout the Middle East are indicative of a longstanding policy of exporting the Iranian revolution and creating a wide perimeter for the Islamic Republic’s national defense. Iranian officials have boasted of controlling four Arab capitals and of extending Iranian power to the shores of the Mediterranean. On Monday, Defense World effectively confirmed that this is not a new strategy, when it pointed out that Tehran had formally acknowledged that an Iranian missile factory had been transferred to Aleppo, Syria in 2002, to produce missiles that were used by Hezbollah in its July 2006 war with Israel.
There is no doubt that many Republicans in America expect their victorious presidential candidate to take strong action to stop this spread of Iranian power and military influence. But there are a great many uncertainties surrounding the Trump presidency, and it will remain unclear for some time whether he will constrain all of Iran’s illicit behaviors, and by what means.