Middle East update: May 8 2018

Obviously the big news of the day is Donald Trump’s announcement that he’s decided to violate the Iran nuclear deal. But there are a few things to cover elsewhere.


Not long after Trump’s big announcement, Syrian state media reported explosions near a military base south of Damascus. These turn out to have been at least two Israeli missiles that the Syrian military says it shot down outside of the town of Kiswah, though it has not said if there were other missiles that hit their target. Earlier in the day, the Israeli government said that the Israel Defense Forces were on “high alert” due to “irregular Iranian activities” in Syria. It also said it was opening up bomb shelters in the Golan Heights. Far be it from me to connect any dots between Trump’s announcement, Israel’s warning that Iran is about to do nefarious deeds of some kind, and the Israeli strike on what may have been an Iranian facility in Syria.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t connect those dots, mind you. Connect away, in fact.


Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan told parliament on Tuesday that “if one day our nation says ‘enough,’ then we [the royal ‘we,’ I guess] will step aside.” Over a million Turks promptly took to Twitter and tweeted “#Tamam,” which means “enough.” The tweeting doesn’t mean anything, though it’s kind of funny, but the word “Tamam” seems like a pretty handy slogan for the unified opposition heading into June’s general election.


Apart from current Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and former PM Nouri al-Maliki, there’s one other man seriously bidding for the PM job in next week’s Iraqi election: Badr Organization head Hadi al-Amiri. As arguably the most prominent leader within Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Units, Amiri can exploit the country’s victory over ISIS as much as Abadi. But his militia background and his ties to Iran make him significantly more divisive, especially with Sunni voters.


Congress wants the Trump administration to prod the GCC toward adopting a common missile defense system that coordinates all six countries’ warning and tracking systems and would set out procedures for responding to incoming missile strikes. This has been a long-standing US priority, and is possible since all six GCC members use US-made missile defense systems, but the project has taken on a new significance as a way to rebuild relations between Qatar on the one hand and Saudi Arabia and the UAE on the other.


Our big-boy president said he would trash the Iran nuclear deal (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA) and, well, he’s done just that:

US President Donald Trump announced today that he was withdrawing the United States from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and reimposing economic sanctions that had been waived in exchange for restraints on Iran’s nuclear program.


Iran and the five other powers that negotiated the deal — Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China — signaled that they would try to maintain the deal without the United States. But the three European leaders whose diplomats had been working intensively with the Trump administration to try to craft a compromise that would keep Trump in the deal over the past four months said they deeply regretted his decision and feared it could start to unravel global nonproliferation efforts.

I disagree with Laura Rozen’s phrasing there–it would be more correct to say that Trump announced his plans to violate the nuclear deal, because that’s what this is: a violation. The United States is obliged to relieve sanctions against Iran so long as Iran abides by the terms of the deal, which limit Iran’s civilian nuclear program and block its hypothetical path to a nuclear weapon. Iran has abided by the terms of the deal–even the US and Israeli national security establishments acknowledge this–so there’s no other way to view what Trump did today than as a decision to violate that US obligation.

Trump decided to forego any half measures like a short term sanctions waiver or only a partial reimposition of sanctions in favor of the full reimposition of all US sanctions that had been levied against Iran prior to the nuclear agreement, plus additional unspecified sanctions that have yet to be revealed. The nuclear deal, then, is likely kaput, though it will die a slow death. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said on Monday, and reiterated again on Tuesday, that Iran will continue to abide by the deal’s restrictions as long as it’s clear there’s something in it for Iran. That’s essentially throwing down the gauntlet before European leaders, who support the deal and must now figure out a way to make it worth Iran’s while despite these US violations. Which is probably a losing bet. Among the sanctions Trump is reviving are the dreaded secondary sanctions, which punish foreign firms that try to do business in Iran, and while there are things European governments can do to try to shield their firms from US penalties, ultimately its the risk of being cut off from the US market that will drive European firms away from Iran. As it has already been doing since Trump was elected and people started thinking about if and when he might do exactly what he did today.

Nothing about Trump’s announcement made any logical sense if you were considering it within the framework of an honest effort to defend the United States and tackle problematic Iranian behavior. But as Paul Pillar notes, that’s not what this was about:

The dishonest nature of the main opposition to the JCPOA is apparent from the glaring illogic of the opposition’s principal arguments. Most of the attacks against the agreement concern matters that would be worse without the agreement. Alarm about a possible Iranian nuclear weapon, as Trump expressed today, makes no sense when coming from the lips of someone who is trying to kill an agreement that closed all possible paths to such a weapon. Fulmination about a possible Iranian “breakout” toward a bomb makes no sense when it is said in the same breath as castigation of an agreement that changed breakout time from a couple of months to more than a year. Perhaps the most supremely illogical of the opposition attacks has concerned the “sunset” clauses applicable to some of the restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program. Of course, without the JCPOA, Iran would be able to indulge in the restricted activities right away, which is obviously worse than a prohibition of those activities that lasts a decade or more.


Such opposition arguments would not come from someone honestly concerned with conducting diplomacy in the interests of U.S. and international security. They instead are illogical straws grasped by people who have had other reasons to try to kill the agreement.

How this decision shakes out will be made apparent in the weeks and months to come, but there’s no mistaking where things stand right now: the United States has chosen to violate and attempt to scuttle a deal that was working as intended, to which the United States voluntarily agreed. In doing so he’s widened the rift between the United States and its European allies, left Washington isolated and unable to rebuild the strong sanctions regime that existed prior to the deal (Russia and China, for example, will not go along with new sanctions), and given Iran a green light to, eventually, abandon the deal itself for lack of benefit, thereby ending its restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program and its rigorous inspections system that helped monitor for Iranian violations and also worked to counter the war narrative coming out of Washington and Tel Aviv. Which is a feature, not a bug, for the regime change obsessives who have been advising Trump on this issue. Also a feature for those guys is its likely effect on Iranian politics, which should strengthen anti-West hardliners at the expense of moderates and reformists, at a time when Iran will likely soon be picking a new supreme leader. Violating the deal might even, according to the Pentagon, draw an Iranian military response, though that seems like more narrative-building along the lines of Israel’s warnings about Syria. It’s made Benjamin Netanyahu, the Gulf monarchs, and Trump’s largest financial backers very happy, which by itself ought to tell you that this was the wrong decision.

Also, I’m sure it made at least one guy in the White House very happy:

The question is: now what? Because there’s no backup plan in place for the nuclear deal. There is, instead, the fantasy of a “grand bargain,” one that addresses all of Trump’s issues with the nuclear deal. It would reimpose the JCPOA but supplement it by extending its limits on Iran’s nuclear program indefinitely, impose new restrictions on Iran’s missile program, and seek to control Iran’s support for Bad Guys in the Middle East, like Hezbollah, the Houthis, and Bashar al-Assad. This is the idea that was floated (stupidly, since all it did was encourage Trump) by French President Emmanuel Macron during his visit to Washington a couple of weeks ago. He’s still floating it, in fact. It’s pure, uncut, weapons-grade fantasy. The US didn’t have the leverage to negotiate a deal like that, which is more akin to an unconditional surrender than a negotiated agreement, back in 2012, and it has less leverage now than it did then.

It also had more credibility back then. As Ryan Cooper writes, Trump has pretty much destroyed the notion that anybody can trust the United States to keep its word:

In a Tuesday announcement at the White House, President Trump withdrew the United States from the nuclear deal with Iran. “We cannot prevent an Iranian nuclear bomb under the decaying and rotten structure of the current agreement,” he said. “Therefore, I am announcing today that the United States will withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal.”


This sends a powerful signal to the rest of the world, most especially close U.S. allies: America is a deranged, crumbling basket case of a nation that can’t be trusted to understand elementary logic or hold to its word, much less treat other nations with a modicum of decency or honor. The United States has become a rogue state.

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