Art of the deal : Iranian edition

Art of the deal : Iranian edition

President Trump’s decision to withdraw the United States from the Iran nuclear agreement negotiated by former President Barack Obama and reimpose sanctions was an important step toward a needed policy reset with one of America’s most malicious enemies.

In taking this action, Trump recognized that the 2015 nuclear deal imposed without the approval of Congress had a fatal flaw. In exchange for Iran making temporary concessions on its nuclear program, the U.S. and the world’s great powers agreed to provide tens of billions of dollars of economic relief and to turn a blind eye to the regime’s other malignant activities. It is also a symbolic declaration that the period of waxing Iranian influence in the Middle East is at an end.
The deal financed several years of Iranian expansion through Shiite proxies in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen. By imposing sanctions, President Trump will weaken an already ailing Iranian economy that has led to civil unrest that was under-covered by members of the media. The financial system is dysfunctional with proliferating, which gives US leverage to pursue in tougher negotiation, much like what the US is doing against North Korea.
The deal, much like most multilateral deal US has pursued in the past, such as the deal Clinton had with North Korea, it did not achieve its intended purpose but actually accomplished quite the opposite. Iran continued to exert its sphere of influence, it has imprisoned Americans, continued to develop ballistic missiles,  finance Hezbollah, and increased its interference in Syria and in Yemen. However, ever since the Obama administration negotiated the deal, the US actually seem like they were held hostage by fear that Iran could withdraw, turning a blind eye to Iran flexing its muscle to persuade themselves that the deal works, in turn and limited their own options in the area. Even worse, during the neogitation, in order to coax Iran into signing the deal, the Obama administration stopped an investigation into drug trafficking by the Iranian-backed Hezbollah, when there were ample evidence that it was funneling cocaine into the United States.”

Looking at the deal itself, it would only limit Iranian nuclear activities for a over a decade but not limiting them in developing ballistic missiles, which means should they renege on the deal a decade later, they can simply restart their nuclear efforts along with the ballistic missile advancement they’ve achieved during this time, giving it both nuclear material and the means to deliver it. The Israeli intelligence finding announced recently showed that Iran has kept all its research, which would presumably means they can restart at a time of their desire. Similarly, because of the Obama adminstration’s rush to accomplish the deal, they failed to outline clear rules for IAEA to conduct thorough investigation, leading to weak oversight. Worst of all, the signing of the deal was immediately followed by lifting of sanctions and embargoes that were previously levied on Iran within 4 to 12 months period. We all know that in any regular negotiation or business transaction for that matter, there would usually be a down payment, and subsequent payment plans correlating to the follow through of the deal. Therefore, letting go all of your negotiating leverage all at once is extremely unwise, which no wonder Trump, a self proclaimed deal maker, panned the deal as “bad deal”.

Critics of Trump’s decision argues that by pulling out of the deal, the U.S. has lost leverage. Had Trump left open the prospect of staying in the deal, he could have continued to push for a better deal with Europeans. Yet, since last October and this January, Trump called on Congress and European allies to fix a number of flaws and threatened to de-certify the deal to no avail as European allies only offered cosmetic tweaks that would have still enabled Iran to develop ballistic missiles. By leaving the deal, Trump is no longer constrained by its flaws. As a result of Trump’s decision, the U.S. will re-impose a series of sanctions on the Iranian economy and banking sector and punish foreign companies that do business with Iran. The U.S. Treasury Department would provide businesses with 90-day and 180-day grace periods, depending on the type of sanctions, allowing them to wrap up the deals they have with Iran before sanctions become formally enforced. Given how fragile the Iranian economy already is, these further measures could have a negative effect on the regime, ratcheting up pressure and providing plenty of leverage for the Trump administration.

Proponents of the deal will also argue that Iranians will now be able to blame the U.S. for reneging on the deal. Yet, US-Iran relationship have always been hostile for decades since the overthrow of the Shah regime, and there’s growing evidence that Iranians are growing impatient with the regime, so how much sway does the government still have is yet to be determined. There are also claims that Trump has alienated allies and signaled that the U.S. does not honor its commitments. Of course, European allies made their thoughts known that they would prefer to stay in the deal  as they have closer business ties with Iran than the US, as Airbus, Peugeot, Total all have economic ties to Iran. Yet otther regional allies such as Israel or Arab allies rejoiced at Trump’s decision. So which allies should Trump value more is ultimately a subjective question that ought to be up to his own choosing.

Looked at another way, Trump’s decision does the actual opposite of showing the U.S. isn’t serious about its commitments — it communicates to the world that there’s a new sheriff in town who is going to follow through on what he says, unlike Obama (of the infamous red line in Syria). “Today’s action sends a critical message: The United States no longer makes empty threats,” Trump declared. This is an important signal to the rest of the world, and North Korea in particular, as nuclear negotiations heat up.

The Iran deal was the signature achievement of Obama's second term, and it is now gone. In truth, though, Obama's legacy was disappearing long before Trump made his announcement. Obama's legacy, like much of his self-presentation, was a mirage, a pleasing and attractive image that, upon closer inspection, loses coherence. This is because he governed almost exclusively through executive fiat, which is easy to implement as it does not have to be dragged through the sausage making legislative process, which Obama hated, but also conversely easy to abrogate. Ironically, Obama's foreign policy legacy depended on his former rival Hillary Clinton winning a third democratic term, and her unexpected failure doomed the Iran deal and the reputations it had established. It was Barack Obama and John Kerry who allowed Donald Trump to exit the deal by rejecting proper legislative procedure. On a side note, Trump has spent much of his time in office reversing Obama policies that were made outside of, or in opposition to, America's constitutional framework with relative ease with exception of Obamacare, which was passed by the Congress and upheld by the Supreme Court.

As I have continually argued, Trump's deal making is simple, he presses hard in order to push for his ultimate goal. He prefers bilateral negotiation in which he can maximize the advantage US holds in contrast to multilateral negotiations in which US has to yield to interest of the "greater good". This can be attested by how he has pretty much quit or threatened to quit on all multilateral treaties ranging from Paris Climate Accord to long standing symbol of globalization such as NAFTA. I am not here to say that this is the correct approach, or leaving the Iran Nuclear Deal is the correct move, but I will also not argue that Trump's action will yield disastrous result because for someone as unconventional as he is, who knows what will happen next? In the sense of leveraging US interest in the Middle East, I am sure this is the better route for the US, as we definitely know that Russia and China are not on the same page as the US to say the least.

Chinese Version:《川普「交易的藝術」:伊朗核協議版——為何他總能輕易推翻「歐巴馬的重大成就」? 》 


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