Editor’s Note: David A. Andelman, a contributor to CNN and columnist for USA Today, is the author of “A Shattered Peace: Versailles 1919 and the Price We Pay Today.” He formerly was a foreign correspondent for The New York Times in Asia and Europe, and Paris correspondent for CBS News. Follow him on Twitter @DavidAndelman. This article has been updated to reflect more recent news events. The views expressed in this commentary are his.
Donald Trump has just thrown the whole steaming mess of the Iran nuclear treaty into the hands of a deeply wounded and divided Congress, having built no foundation for such an action with the five other nations that signed the accord – four of them desperately important for US national security.
At the same time, he has left much of the Middle East and Europe holding their collective breath, wondering whether Iran will now take this excuse to throw the treaty out and embark on a mad dash to build a nuclear arsenal. Indeed there are many forces, even in Iran’s archenemy Israel, who recognize the value of an entire decade without a nuclear-armed Iran on its doorstep.
If Iran is smart enough, and the pact’s other signatories diplomatically adroit enough, Iran could now play not the injured party, but choose a smarter path that will deeply wound the US whilst pulling the world back from the brink of a nuclear Armageddon toward which Trump has hurled us.
As CNN has reported, Trump had long ago decided to assert to Congress that Iran has failed to comply with the pact that bars it from developing a nuclear weapon for at least a decade. None of this process of “certification” is actually in the document itself—having been tacked on by a skeptical, Republican-controlled Congress to keep President Obama in line. Now, it has put the process itself on thin ice and with the tough language of Trump in his message today, ever more confrontational with the rulers in Tehran.
This certification process must be taken every 90 days. By refusing to certify compliance, he has now left it up to Congress whether to layer on new sanctions in reprisal. Iran has said that such action could lead to its refusal to recognize the terms of the pact and potentially launch it immediately into a program to develop a nuclear weapon in a year rather than a decade or more.
But Iran would be making an enormous mistake. Certainly, there are forces in Iran anxious to push President Hassan Rouhani and its supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who still pulls all the strings, into the path of pullout and arms development.
But there are other forces, particularly Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, a suave American-educated diplomat, and his predecessor, Ali Akbar Salehi, the MIT-educated head of Iran’s nuclear agency, who should see the enormous opportunity that Trump has presented them.
Iran should be shrewd enough to retaliate by simply declaring it will continue in the pact but freeze the United States out of all benefits. It will give every new foreign purchase, oil contract or trade deal to the other parties that signed the deal and continue to respect it. Let’s examine what that could mean.
Recall, first, the signatories: France, Germany, Britain, Russia, China and, of course, the United States.
Each has already availed itself handsomely with the conclusion of the pact, whose principal benefit for Iran has been its emergence from decades as a pariah state, to resume a prominent place in the global economy.
It must be remembered that Iran is among the wealthiest nations in the Middle East, its proven oil reserves second only to Saudi Arabia.
Its pre-sanctions oil exports, the second highest in the region, shrank to a trickle. Suddenly, with the ability to sell its oil abroad liberated by the lifting of sanctions, oil executives descended on Teheran. In August, Iran’s oil exports to China were expected to hit an 11-month high of 773,000 barrels a day, with Tehran offering incentives of 2 cents a barrel, according to Reuters.
Iran is en route to pushing its output to 4 million barrels a day by March, Iran’s Financial Tribune says.
And Iran has already certified oil giants from France (Total), Britain (Shell), Italy (ENI) and Russia (Gazprom and Lukoil) as potential partners.
So far, existing congressional sanctions as a result of Iran’s missile program have kept any US-based oil company out of the running. Iran could easily reverse this process.
But there is much more to Iran than oil. Iran is also an enormous customer – from commercial jets to autos and trucks, machine goods to iron and steel.
Western customers stand to reap enormous profits from the booming post-sanctions trade. By June, Iran had already placed new orders for more than 200 passenger jets since the lifting of sanctions, including 100 from the European consortium Airbus worth $18 billion to $20 billion, and 80 from Boeing, worth $16.6 billion, reports say.
Clearly, Airbus would be ready, willing and able to step into any breach left by the United States ditching the nuclear pact.
And then there are automobiles. France’s Renault signed a nearly $800 million deal for new car production in Iran, while Peugeot said it would be arriving in the market this year as part of a $480 million joint venture to produce 200,000 new cars.
Germany’s Daimler was the first to sign a major contract to return to Iran in January 2016 for production of Mercedes-Benz trucks.
Again, nice markets for American producers, which a shrewd Iran could simply bar from any future business dealings.
Not surprisingly, the Iranian leadership has been somewhat standoffish in terms of plunging headlong into any major American contracts, particularly with the erratic administration in Washington and a deeply damaged secretary of state and Congress it is being forced to confront.
Equally, America’s European partners in the agreement will be looking greedily at the commercial opportunities that might be posed though petrified at the potential consequences should Iran pull out and launch its dash toward a nuclear weapon – far more potentially destabilizing for Europeans in easy range of any Iranian missile than anything cooked up by North Korea.
And Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has scarcely been in a position to reassure any of the parties, backed as he is by an erratic President willing and able to reverse with the turn of a tweet anything he might negotiate.
A deeply divided Congress is hardly capable of taking a rational position.
The contrasts with Secretary of State John Kerry, who successfully undertook the delicate negotiations that led to the Iran nuclear deal, and President Barack Obama are striking.
Perhaps it is time for Trump to find a secretary he trusts to develop and carry out a viable plan in the first place that will not leave our allies twisting in the wind and American businesses with empty pockets.
Where are all those manufacturing jobs Trump promised, anyway? Not to mention the security of keeping nuclear weapons out of the hands of two new players with apparently little self-control over their eventual use.
Note: This article has been updated following news of President Trump’s strategy on Iran.