Not that anybody expected he wouldn’t be, but Donald Trump was Donald Trump during his first address to the UN General Assembly on September 19, conflating Iran with North Korea as he called the nuclear deal with Tehran “an embarrassment” that is “one of the worst and most one-sided transactions the United States has ever entered into”.
His sweeping dismissal of the agreement, which he seems bent on dismantling despite appeals from world leaders including French President Emmanuel Macron who called it “solid, robust and verifiable”, was swiftly condemned by Iran. The country’s semi-official Fars news agency reported Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif as saying, “Trump’s shameless and ignorant remarks, in which he ignored Iran’s fight against terrorism, displays his lack of knowledge and unawareness”. He later tweeted: “Trump’s ignorant hate speech belongs in medieval times – not the 21st century UN – unworthy of a reply. Fake empathy for [ordinary] Iranians fools no one.”
Trump – who in his address threatened to “totally destroy” North Korea – now seems likely to refuse to renew the White House’s 90-day recognition of Iranian compliance with the nuclear deal in mid-October. He could then hand the decision of whether to continue with American participation in the agreement to Congress, which is hostile to Iran at the best of times.
Should the US go ahead and refuse to take part in the deal any longer, formally under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the other signatories – France, the UK, Germany, China, Russia and Iran – may then face the dilemma of whether to keep it alive minus America. In comments made on the eve of Trump’s address to the UN in New York, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian was noticeably reticent on this point when asked if it was an option.
Trump portrayed Iran as a sponsor of terrorism and as a rogue nation, telling his audience: “The Iranian government masks a corrupt dictatorship behind the false guise of a democracy. It has turned a wealthy country with a rich history and culture into an economically depleted rogue state whose exports are violence, bloodshed and chaos.” Trump seems largely concerned with Iran’s expanding influence and roles in conflicts and political jockeying across the Middle East, such as in Syria, Yemen, Lebanon and Iraq, and with its ballistic missile development programme. But whatever the merits of his arguments or otherwise, these matters are not strictly relevant to the JCPOA as it was painstakingly drawn up with the goal of preventing Iran developing a nuclear weapon.
Eight times compliant
The International Atomic Energy Authority has eight times certified that the Iranians are in compliance with the deal and German Chancellor Angela Merkel has several times urged that the Iran negotiations that led to the JCPOA be used as model to find a solution to the North Korean crisis.
But Trump seems single-minded in his determination to topple his predecessor Barack Obama’s signature foreign policy achievement, and many billions of euros of trade and investment lined up in Iran since the nuclear deal opened the way to relieving international sanctions against Iran are now in real peril.
Though his arguments with Iran are essentially non-nuclear and could perhaps be solved through diplomatic means, Trump shows no sign of wanting to sit at a negotiating table with the Iranians (a suggestion from Macron that Tehran and Washington agree to renegotiate the deal when its terms expire in 2025 has, for instance, elicited little response from the Trump administration). Instead, the American president is on course to restart the US-Iran cold war in a move that might only please Iran’s adversaries such as Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
As Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Foundation and author of a new book, Losing an Enemy - Obama, Iran and the Triumph of Diplomacy, wrote in The Guardian on September 19: “Though it did its utmost, Europe failed to prevent the Bush administration from launching the disastrous invasion of Iraq. On Iran, Europe can still stop Trump from following the footsteps of George W Bush. It is not just the nuclear deal that is at stake, but the entire stability of the Middle East.”