BRUSSELS — To anyone who has ever played the game Jenga, President Trump’s announcement on May 8 that the United States is pulling out of the Iran deal and reintroducing sanctions on Iran, felt as if he just withdrew that block that seemed a little loose but still under enough pressure not to be removed in full confidence. At Jenga, you pull the wrong block, and the entire tower crumbles.
After months of consultations with partners, including visits from French President Macron and German Chancellor Merkel, calls with London and Beijing, and high-level talks with the European Union, the U.S. administration concluded that it had no other choice than to withdraw from the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) designed to curb Iran’s nuclear capabilities. Why? Because Iran acted in bad faith before the deal was signed, and because it is just a bad deal to start with. The United States is not withdrawing from the deal because Tehran is not complying with it. As confirmed by National Security Advisor John Bolton immediately after the President’s announcement, and regardless of the administration’s flawed analysis of the state of Iran’s nuclear program given assessments by allies and the IAEA, “the deal allows them — even if they are in compliance — to increase their research and development on the sophistication of their nuclear capabilities.”
President Trump’s decision is not directly related to Iran’s nuclear capabilities. He confirmed in his remarks that Washington is concerned with Iran’s growing regional influence, its ballistic missile program, and its malign regime. This last point, indicates a more radical shift in the U.S. Iran doctrine and support for regime change. In the broader scheme of things, denouncing the deal is also confirmation of the U.S president’s worrying lack of trust in the UN system and his dislike of multilateralism.
There is no doubt of Iran’s growing presence and influence in the Gulf and Middle East. From Yemen to Syria through Iraq, Iranian involvement has tilted the balance of power sufficiently to raise alarms in Israel and Saudi Arabia. Yet there too, the nuclear concern can be seen as a pretext for more traditional woes. Riyadh fears the consolidation of pro-Iranian groups on the Arabian Peninsula; Israel fears a continued Iranian presence on the Mediterranean — if not at its border. These are legitimate concerns and they reflect consistent patterns of a struggle for regional influence between three powers. But their linkage with the JCPOA is a misguided extrapolation.
The European Union was quick in its support to see the deal survive beyond the U.S. withdrawal. Brussels’ unwavering commitment and dedication to finding solutions to keep Washington “in” is commendable. For the EU, it is also about salvaging its greatest diplomatic achievement of the past decade at a time where support for the European project is weak. Additionally, Europeans will now have to decide how to address reintroduced sanctions which should trickle in throughout the next 90 to 180 days. The EU has already indicated being “particularly worried by the announcement of new sanctions … and is determined to act in accordance with its security interests and to protect its economic investments.” Measures could be taken to protect European investments in and with Iran since the signature of the deal. This may send a strong signal to both the United States and Iran, but it would also require businesses to make the impossible choice between abiding by either U.S. or EU requirements. It would unfortunately also cement transatlantic disunity at a time when close cooperation is most needed. Some in Washington seem aware of this, and for the time being, the door has been left open by the U.S. Treasury for potential sanctions exemptions on a case-by-case basis.
The greatest uncertainty at this stage remains whether other parties to the deal will preserve the capacity to meaningfully engage with Tehran. The White House, disregarding Iran’s strategic culture, seems convinced that it is in a position of strength and that Tehran will inevitably want to make a new deal under pressure. This is far from certain. In this context, the role of President Macron will be critical. Not only has he positioned France at the forefront of European foreign policy, but his simultaneous engagement with the United States, Russia, and China may help bridge differences and bring back stability and peace in the region. Dialogue with Tehran is unavoidable, and there is a clear opportunity for Paris to be a welcomed power broker.
In addition to reactions from the Iranian government, particular attention will also have to be paid to the Supreme Leader’s Friday prayer sermon. While other parties to the deal may continue to express their support for its continuation, Iran will not be satisfied with the status quo, and will request more assurances. Trump’s tactical focus on the malignity of the regime’s behavior will also likely not stand uncommented.
In Jenga, the higher the tower goes, the wobblier it gets. Our shared tower is growing taller and less stable every day thanks to President Trump’s block-by-block decisions.Whose turn is it next to remove a block?