Costs and benefits of the Iran stance

Brian M Downing

Candidate Trump made plain his opposition to the 2015 JCPOA, better known as the Iran nuclear deal. In recent weeks President Trump was on the path toward decertification, stiffer sanctions, and bolder confrontation. However, he faced opposition from his own cabinet and even from retired Israeli generals and Mossad chiefs.

Last week’s announcement was less forceful than anticipated. Iran was not certified in compliance with the nuclear deal, but the White House refrained from further action, for now. The issue of sanctions is in the hands of congress, where no significant pro-Iranian faction dwells but where platoons of politicians mindful of anti-Iranian pressures gather.

How are world capitals responding? Will the US benefit from this either geopolitically or financially?

Sunni states

A year ago, Iran’s foes in the Gulf would have welcomed decertification and escalating hostility toward Iran. In recent weeks, probably because of fiscal concerns and potential unrest from allying with the US and Israel, Riyadh has begun a dialogue with Tehran.

Sunni capitals may be displeased with Washington. Tough talk and the prospect of tougher actions will not help the cause of dialogue. Indeed, mistrust between sectarian capitals is likely increasing. The US is not attentive to matters of timing.

Sunni capitals may turn against Iran as swiftly and unexpectedly, though. Iranian actions in Kurdistan and eastern Syria may bring another about face.

The EU

Most European leaders already see the American president as inexperienced and artless in world affairs – useful though he may be against Russia. Concern is growing that the US cannot be trusted to act responsibly or consistently.

The EU sees the US as too close to the Israeli Right, which in the estimation of European leaders, is unreasonably opposed to Iran. Further, the US and Israel are undermining the two-state negotiations and supporting the gradual expansion of settler control of the West Bank. Neither is conducive to regional stability, as numerous Israeli politicians and security chiefs have noted.

European capitals may benefit from the American position, though. No sooner had the ink dried on the nuclear deal than EU delegations flew into Tehran to expand trade. They are unlikely to encounter competition from American firms.

The Far East

Allies such as Japan, S Korea, and Taiwan welcome a firm stand on nuclear proliferation, though they are likely concerned by a possible distraction from N Korea. Pyongyang, after all, already has nuclear weapons, is making strides in missile technology, and over the years has acted more aggressively than Tehran has.

Action against Iran will be judged a misallocation of resources from East Asia. It will also embolden the North and endanger the region’s oil supplies from the Gulf. Reckless actions will increase China’s standing in the world and hasten its stride toward regional hegemony.

US interests

Late last year Boeing negotiated an impressive sale of civilian aircraft to Iran. Pressure will grow, perhaps in both Washington and Tehran, to limit or end the deal. American firms, especially those dealing in consumer goods, may have to look on as foreign competitors benefit from Iran’s millions of urban, western-oriented young people.

American standing and leadership will continue to suffer. American commitments to treaties are subject to sudden change. The country seems headed for greater conflict with Iran. Confrontations in the Gulf may lead to skirmishes. Ongoing insurgencies inside Iran may become more intense.

The US may expect increased Iranian support to insurgents in Afghanistan. Tehran sees the Taliban as a rabid Sunni band, one that massacred its consulate personnel in 1998. The IRGC, however, has delivered weapons to the Taliban over the years, chiefly as a warning that hostile actions from Washington will bring retaliation.

The present Iranian policy confuses and distances longstanding allies and brings no material rewards. Americans might ask whether this new president, a businessman who once questioned the usefulness of many foreign involvements, isn’t investing heavily in another dubious enterprise.

Copyright 2017 Brian M Downing

Brian M Downing is a national security analyst who has written for outlets across the political spectrum. He studied at Georgetown University and the University of Chicago, and did post-graduate work at Harvard’s Center for International Affairs. Thanks to Susan Ganosellis.