So in the end it was simply braggadocio. Donald Trump didn't have the balls to go for an immediate shooting down of the nuclear deal with Iran.
That will be the line taken by his most scathing critics after a much anticipated October 13 White House announcement in which the commander-in-chief laid out his new strategy towards Tehran and the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the greatest foreign policy achievement of his predecessor Barack Obama and an accord that Trump so despises, having called it “the worst deal ever” and “an embarrassment” to America.
Ranged against Trump, determined that the deal should survive even a 'nuclear no', are the major European Union powers, Russia and China, in fact almost the whole world apart from Israel and Iran's regional archrival Saudi Arabia. And that's not to mention US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Pentagon chief Jim Mattis, the nuanced remarks of whom have lately made it quite clear that they think staying in the multilateral deal is certainly, for now, in their country's national interest. So what's a president, who for years before entering the Oval Office had boasted to his base that he would nix the JCPOA at the first opportunity, to do?
Compromise doesn't come easy
Compromise clearly doesn't come easy to this demagogue but on this occasion Trump had to content himself with refusing to recertify US recognition of Iranian compliance with the deal — something he is asked to do every 90 days and which he has done twice before — and placing the ball squarely in the court of Congress. Find me a fix within 60 days or I'll terminate US participation in the deal, he essentially said, while not mentioning the small difficulty that, given it is a multilateral deal, the other five major powers that signed up for it will be entitled to try and continue with it whatever sanctions the US attempts to throw at them. The sight of that might be painful to American businesses that are already having to frustratingly stand by while European, Russian, Chinese, Japanese, South Korean and other counterparts pluck at the Islamic Republic's low-hanging fruit. That was made accessible to foreign investors when, in early 2016, the deal removed crippling restrictions on Tehran's economic activity in return for an inspection regime that bars Iran's path to developing a nuclear weapon.
"In the event we are not able to reach a solution working with Congress and our allies, then the agreement will be terminated," Trump said during his White House announcement, adding. "It is under continuous review and our participation can be cancelled by me, as president, at any time."
Describing Iran as a “fanatical regime” that sponsors terrorism — something many analysts point out can be more easily said about Trump's ally Saudi Arabia — Trump said he was intent on denying the Iranians “all paths to a nuclear weapon”. The International Atomic Energy Authority (IAEA), which has eight times vouched for Tehran's compliance with the JCPOA, says the current deal is already doing that very effectively but Trump wants to see the removal of the “sunset clauses” in the agreement, one of which permits the lifting of restrictions on Iran's nuclear enrichment programme after 2025. He also wants to see restrictions brought in to curb Iran's ballistic missile development programme, but the difficulty with that is that the authors of the accord never set out to include it. Nor did they seek to address Iran's backing of various armed groups in the Syrian, Yemeni and other conflicts of the Middle East, but again Trump wants linkage to this activity and Tehran's projection of its influence across the Middle East.
Strafing the Guards
The US president also demanded that new sanctions be introduced against Iran's elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Though he stopped short of designating the IRGC as “terrorist” — as some observers had feared he might — Trump strafed the Guards by calling them the "corrupt personal terror force of Iran's leader", an incitement to those hardliners in Iran who themselves would like to see the end of accords with what they see as the duplicitous West, but again nothing to do with the existing JCPOA. It is concerned with matters such as curbing Iran's uranium stockpile and ensuring the country honours its pledges not to build any more heavy-water reactors for 15 years and allow in nuclear inspectors.
In response to Trump's announcement, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said the US was "more than ever isolated". "As long as our rights are guaranteed, as long as our interests are served, as long as we benefit from the nuclear deal, we will respect and comply with the deal," Rouhani stated.
Yukiya Amano, head of the IAEA, said he was satisfied Iran was implementing the deal according to "the world's most robust nuclear verification regime".
EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said that there had been no violations of the JCPOA by Iran and remarked that it was not in the power of "any president in the world" to terminate the seven-country agreement.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, on the other hand, congratulated Trump for "boldly confronting Iran's terrorist regime" while Saudi Arabia backed the "firm strategy".
Over to you Congress. After all, there are several billion dollars of Boeing aircraft supply deals drafted with the Iranians that are awaiting your answer.