When the Iran deal was signed three years ago, it met with stiff opposition from hardliners in Tehran and Washington. The former were infuriated at closing off possible pathways to the bomb while the agreement lasts in return for sipping from the poisoned chalice of an untrustworthy Satan. The American neocons were frustrated that regime change by all means necessary was closed off as long as the agreement held.
An ultimatum designed for rejection
When President Donald Trump announced the US exit from the nuclear deal on 8 May, therefore, his main motivation was not to stop Iran from getting the bomb through cheating on the deal. Rather, he was driven mainly because the deal was working as intended and this was a critical international roadblock to forcible regime change.
On Monday Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issued an ultimatum to Iran that is intentionally designed to be rejected. The dozen demands include:
- Fully account for alleged past work on nuclear weapons development;
- End all uranium enrichment;
- End nuclear-capable ballistic missile launches;
- Stop all support to Hamas, Hezbollah and Palestinian Islamic Jihad;
- Withdraw all forces from Syria;
- End support for Houthi rebels in Yemen.
Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif responded with a tweet:
US diplomacy sham is merely a regression to old habits: imprisoned by delusions & failed policies—dictated by corrupt Special Interest—it repeats the same wrong choices and will thus reap the same ill rewards. Iran, meanwhile, is working with partners for post-US JCPOA solutions.
We have been here before. The Rambouillet ultimatum to Serbia was designed to pave the pathway to war on rejection and worked. By contrast the ultimatum to Saddam Hussein was accepted by him but did not stop the determined march to war in Iraq in 2003 anyway.
What is new and surprising about the Trump cabal’s approach to ‘diplomacy’ is the sheer audacity and brazenness of their demands. What will be of interest in the days and weeks ahead is if the Europeans, whose history is the most poignant on the lessons of appeasement, stand firm and make common cause with Russia and China on this one issue of confronting an America under Trump that threatens to go completely rogue.
Disappointing early indications
The early indications had not been promising. On 17 March, Reuters reported that, in an effort to persuade Washington not to scuttle the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), Britain, France and Germany were proposing new European Union sanctions on Iran over its ballistic missiles and role in Syria’s war.
In other words:
- The JCPOA imposed, in return for sanctions relief, a robust transparency, inspection and consequences regime in addition to the substantial dismantlement of Iran’s materials and infrastructure for making the bomb;
- This was made possible because the international community, including the US and the Europeans, concluded that stopping and reversing Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons program was the most urgent priority and linking this to other issues was making it impossible to resolve the nuclear file;
- The JCPOA is a painstakingly negotiated international agreement involving Iran plus six external powers that was also unanimously endorsed by the UN Security Council in Resolution 2231;
- The International Atomic Energy Agency continues to certify Iran’s compliance with the deal. Director-General Yukiya Amano told the IAEA Board of Governors as recently as 5 March: ‘If the JCPOA were to fail, it would be a great loss for nuclear verification and for multilateralism’. At a press conference afterwards, he added: ‘The IAEA now has the world’s most robust verification regime in place in Iran. We have had access to all locations that we needed to visit’.
- The US administration was threatening to abrogate the JCPOA unilaterally;
- Therefore the Europeans were going to join the US in violating the deal by imposing additional sanctions pressure Iran on unrelated issues – a precondition that would have ensured no negotiations began in the first place.
Is appeasement in the Europeans’ DNA? For they certainly seemed bent on reprising the lesson. For people who read their history – admittedly, a vanishing minority – this is reminiscent of the logic of appeasement. Hitler coveted part of Czechoslovakia and threatened to go to war to annex it. The Europeans were desperate to avoid war. So they faithfully promised Hitler that if only he pledged not to go to war, they would put pressure on Czechoslovakia to cede Sudetenland to Germany. He agreed, they were successful in coercing their supposed ally into sundering its territorial sovereignty, and Hitler grasped their cowardly weakness and kept making additional demands until war broke out anyway.
In Winston Churchill’s memorable phrase, Neville Chamberlain had chosen dishonour over war and got both.
The volatile and blustery Trump is emboldened by each fresh triumph of his autocratic style of ‘diplomacy’, tweets his victory as proof of his uniquely superior negotiating skills, and moves on to the next target item and country. As with Hitler, each attempted appeasement vindicates Trump in his own mind on his choice of methods and whets his appetite for still more concessions on other fronts against other countries.
It began with Trump’s unilateral abandonment of the Paris climate change pact. On the trade front he attacked NAFTA and engaged in recriminations and renegotiations with Canada and Mexico. He rejects the option of dispute resolution by the World Trade Organization (WTO) under internationally agreed rules. He has imposed unilateral tariffs on steel and aluminium. Instead of taking him on collectively, affected countries, for example Australia, have pleaded for special treatment and exemptions, pointing the finger of blame for global oversupply at China. But as the paper’s economics editor Larry Elliott pointed out in The Guardian, the protectionist Trump is on the path to a full-scale trade war whose first target is China but Europe will surely follow.
On the nuclear front Trump repeatedly threatened to abrogate the deal with Iran and duly followed through on 8 May, encouraged speculation about independent nuclearization by Japan and South Korea in violation of their NPT obligations, and his Nuclear Posture Review, published in February, is built on the pretence that the NPT does not contain any disarmament clauses. How else would one explain its attack on the 2017 Nuclear Ban Treaty that it has ‘polarized the international community and seeks to inject disarmament issues into nonproliferation fora, potentially damaging the nonproliferation regime’?
Trump also pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership but the other countries went ahead anyway, as they did with the Paris climate pact. That would seem a better pointer on how to deal with a recalcitrant and petulant administration in Washington determined to turn its back on the world. The rest of the world should reaffirm, abide by and put in place additional planks in the normative architecture of the rules-based multilateral global order that has underpinned international prosperity and security.
Promising post-JCPOA exit signs of spine
The post-US exit from the Iran deal indications are more reassuring. Perhaps the Europeans have relearnt their painful lesson on appeasement. The three big Ms of Europe – French President Emmanuel Macron, UK PM Theresa May and German Chancellor Angela Merkel – have publicly criticised Trump’s decision, closed ranks and resolved to assert a united European position. In this ‘new age of American imperialism’, French Finance Minister Bruni Le Maire called for collective action ‘to defend our European economic sovereignty’, adding: ‘Do we want to be a vassal that obeys and jumps to attention?’ Donald Tusk and Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Council and Commission respectively, said the threat to Europe from US ‘capricious assertiveness’ was serious. Europe must act to protect the JCPOA in the interests of global and European security.
Trump acts on a vision of US exceptionalism that confers global rights without corresponding obligations, going even farther than President George W. Bush in abandoning any consideration for the judgments of friends and allies. In a powerful speech on the floor of the Senate on 19 March 2003 entitled ‘The Arrogance of Power’, the late Robert Byrd lamented the looming threat of war in Iraq: ‘We flaunt our superpower status with arrogance. We treat UN Security Council members like ingrates who offend our princely dignity by lifting their heads from the carpet’.
Ramesh Thakur, a former UN Assistant Secretary-General, is emeritus professor in the Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University. His most recent book is The United Nations, Peace and Security, second edition Cambridge University Press (2017).