Just two years ago, Barack Obama, along with the Governments of Britain, France, Germany, Russia, China and the European Union, agreed a deal with Iran to limit its nuclear programme. Leaders from around the world praised the deal, hailing it both as an example of global cooperation on a difficult, but pressing, issue and as an opportunity for Iran to working its way back to international acceptability.
Israel outlined its opposition to the deal primarily due to its continued (and understandable) suspicion of Iran, but was one of the very few countries or organisations to do so. It should be remembered that during the years and months immediately before this deal was sealed, there were regular press reports that the Israeli Air Force was preparing a preventative strike to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. Such a dramatic step could well have launched the whole region into a devastating war. Looking back at the last two years, we should take the relative absence of such reports as the first victory of this deal.
However, I’m not writing here to celebrate any victories delivered by it. Instead, we’re talking about the deal again because Donald Trump has refused to certify that the Iranians are complying with the terms, as he is required to do every 90 days. This means that Congress now has 60 days to restart sanctions against the Iranian regime. At the same time, the President has increased the level of rhetoric about Iran’s policies in the Middle East, and referred to them again as exporters of terror.
The problem with the President’s position is that most international observers believe that Iran is complying with the deal. All the other parties have maintained their backing for it, and it remains unclear what further steps Congress will take. The President himself hasn’t set out what he would like to happen next, and has provided no detailed plan for what would replace the current agreement. He appears to think that Iran will either change the terms of the deal just to make America happy, or decide to leave the agreement entirely and be seen as the bad guys once again. All because of his campaign rhetoric about the ‘worst deal ever’ and his need to dismantle President Obama’s achievements.
Trump has prodded a functional, if imperfect, international deal with no end goal. I am pleased to see that the other signatories of the deal have maintained their support. However, our Government should make absolutely clear that the President is on his own on this one.
It’s important for us to defend this deal. As I said before, we cannot forget how dangerous Iran’s nuclear programme was just two years ago. We were facing a rapidly narrowing set of options for how to tackle it, and this deal was by far the most attractive. Iran was able to hit pause without losing face, and was reassured by the role of its allies in the deal. Britain, France, Germany and America were able to delay a rapidly developing programme that some felt was just months from completion, and which would have been a huge threat to ourselves, and our allies in the Middle East, particularly Israel.
But another, perhaps even bigger reason to defend the Iran deal is to show that international diplomacy, of which it was the result, can actually work. We live in a world with a steadily increasing number of complex threats and competing interests with few obvious solutions. There are three standard ways of dealing with such events in international politics. You can ignore them; you can seek a negotiated compromise, or you can take forceful action through economic sanctions, threats of war or actual conflict. The Iran nuclear deal stands largely on its own as a modern issue that has been solved through the negotiated compromise route, after years of economic sanctions that helped nudge Iran in that direction.
The other options have been more often used. But whenever we face, or choose not to face, Russian expansionism, China’s behaviour in the South China Sea, North Korea, Syria or any other international issue, there has been no similar negotiated compromise. Although there has been some cooperation and negotiated ceasefires in Syria, there has been nothing that comes close to the Iran deal. This is partly because there are some things on which you cannot compromise, and partly because we seem to have collectively decided that it’s easier to ignore issues entirely or deliver half-hearted sanctions, to show that something has been done to signal our displeasure, and then move on.
The Iran deal is imperfect. There are aspects to it that are not what we would have chosen from the outset. However, that is how negotiations work; no negotiation delivers complete victory. Iran can also move further, and prove those who believe the country is a malign influence on the Middle East wrong. One way would be to work to bring the Kurdistan Regional Government and Baghdad closer together, and help them move towards a peaceful solution rather than the current confrontation. Even so, Trump is too focused on a dichotomy of winners and losers: he’s too obsessed with his own, as yet unevidenced, PR as the master dealmaker.
The damage to America’s credibility and trustworthiness as a maker and arbiter of international agreements will be huge, if other countries start thinking a new President will come along every four years and scrap everything. This is especially concerning because international politics has to become more about delivering mutually beneficial outcomes to preserve stability and peace, not less. If we want to be serious about maintaining this route towards solving international crises, rather than consigning it to the history books, then we need to defend this deal – imperfect or not.