Is Trump’s Exit From Iran Deal a Prelude to War?

With Trump withdrawing from the JCPOA and European allies showing no signs that they’ll withstand US pressure, the Iran nuclear deal is in danger and the threat of war has increased, says Jamal Abdi of the National Iranian American Council

Jamal Abdi

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Story Transcript

AARON MATE: It’s the Real News. I’m Aaron Mate.

Making good on a longtime threat, President Trump has announced he’s withdrawing the U.S. from the Iran nuclear deal.

DONALD TRUMP: The Iran deal is defective at its core. If we do nothing, we know exactly what will happen. In just a short period of time, the world’s leading state sponsor of terror will be on the cusp of acquiring the world’s most dangerous weapons. Therefore, I am announcing today that the United States will withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal.

AARON MATE: Trump has directed his administration to reimpose sanctions that were lifted as part of the 2015 agreement which capped Iran’s enrichment of uranium. The deal’s other members say they want to keep it, but that will be difficult with the U.S. dropping out. Speaking in Tehran, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said Iran will hold talks with the deal’s remaining members.

HASSAN ROUHANI: If we come to the conclusion that with the collaboration of five countries it is feasible to attain what the Iranian people wish ,  despite the views of the U.S. and the Zionist regime, and also, and also the impolite remarks by Trump. We should see whether it is possible to just keep up with JCP O A, and also take steps in line with regional peace and tranquility.

AARON MATE: Joining me is Jamal Abdi, policy director of the National Iranian American Council. Welcome, Jamal. Your group has just put out a statement saying that this decision is reckless, and saying that it’s put the U.S. on the path to war with Iran. Why?

JAMAL ABDI: Well, to start with you just need to look at the people that are in the White House now. I think Donald Trump entered the White House with an intent to unravel the Iran deal, but largely motivated by his bizarre animus towards Barack Obama. Wanted to undo his legacy. Since then we have seen the people around him who argued against killing the deal at each deadline gradually being shown the door, and the people that have come in, people like John Bolton and Mike Pompeo, have long argued for military action against Iran. John Bolton wrote just a couple of years ago that we need to start bombing Iran. He wrote an article, an open memo to Trump about how he would leave the deal. And it included all of these measures that are steps that you would take as you prepare for war.

Fundamentally, though, I think the reason that this puts us on a path to war, it’s not just the advisers, it’s not just the precarious situation in the region and all the potential tripwires. But it’s that Trump has taken diplomacy off the table. He has made it so that no Iranian leader, certainly not Rouhani at this point in time, can enter negotiations with the United States after this black eye that has been given to his administration and to the entire notion that you can engage the U.S. This is an important debate that has that happening in the Islamic Republic for, for years for decades. And I think what Trump did today was he effectively said, he solved that debate once and for all and said no. Negotiating with the United States is a trap. You are going to be weakened by it. And if you take diplomacy off the table, there are measures that fall short of that, sanctions and pressure campaigns.

But the reason that the Obama administration entered negotiations with Iran, it was prepared to make the compromises necessary to get this deal, was that there was a recognition by the Obama administration that we were running out of ways to actually deal with the Iranian nuclear challenge, and we were rapidly approaching a situation in which we would need to either be prepared to live with an Iran that had the capability to break out and build a nuclear weapon without being detected, or we were going to go to war with Iran. And I think now we have once again reduced our options to those, you know, to those two.

AARON MATE: It’s worth remembering that Obama did try the route of crippling sanctions first, before diplomacy happened, as you’re just explaining. But the fact that those sanctions failed to work, I think, was a big part of the calculus behind the decision to make this deal with Iran, as your colleague Trita Parsi documents in his recent book.

Let me ask you, then, what happens with the sanctions with the U.S. now reimposing them? European allies, Russia and China, also are saying they’re committed to the deal, but can they make up for the huge consequences of now the U.S. reimposing sanctions that were lifted as part of the deal?

JAMAL ABDI: You know, not only are we now playing a game of nuclear chicken with Iran, we are now playing a game of, you know, economic chicken with, with Europe and the rest of the world. I think the words coming out of Europe are, are fantastic. The notion that we’re going to continue the deal and try to make this work. Rouhani and Iran saying the same thing. I think it’s going to be very, very difficult in practice to actually make that happen. If the United States, as President Trump indicated today, really goes full bore with these sanctions and makes it so that European entities that want to do business with Iran are going to be locked out of the United States, if you have Iranian banks designated as, as, you know, on the sanctions list, it’s going to be extremely difficult for these entities to do business with Iran. Unless, you know, Europe really does want to stand up to the United States and put blocking measures in place, and really fence off some of these operations.

And that would be a pretty significant undertaking. It’s not completely impossible. But I think the signals that came out of Europe in the lead up to this decision, in which you had Macron, you had Merkel coming to the White House and sort of validating, almost, what what Trump was saying, you know, being willing to play ball with this this absurd notion that Trump was trying to fix the deal instead of just kill it. I think that signaled to the Trump administration that they could bully Europe, and Europe was going to take it, and wasn’t actually prepared to stand up to defend this deal.

So you know, if I were to place a bet, I don’t think that Europe is ready to really stand up to the United States and protect the deal. But I hope that I’m proved wrong.

AARON MATE: All right, so then, we have 30 seconds. What, then, will be, do you think the Iranian government’s next moves, and what kinds of pressures are they going to be under now with U.S. sanctions back in place?

JAMAL ABDI: Well, I think this actually makes things, in some respects, more simple for the Iranian government. Whereas the nuclear deal, with the opening up of the of the Iranian economy actually put sort of upward pressure on the government from the population, this now, this move by the United States, I think, will risk creating this rally around the flag effect, and really, you know, sort of takes away that pressure from the population. But this is going to be very tough for the Iranian economy. I think that they’re going to look towards China and Russia as their, their main supporters, and hope that they can, as Rouhani said, rely on what he said were the two superpowers in order to keep the economy afloat.

AARON MATE: All right, we’ll leave it there for now. Join us in Part 2. My guest is Jamal Abdi, policy director of the National Iranian American Council.


AARON MATE: It’s the Real News. I’m Aaron Mate, continuing with Jamal Abdi. He is the policy director of the National Iranian American Council.

Jamal, I want to go back to more of President Trump’s comments from today at the White House, explaining his decision to withdraw the U.S. from the Iran nuclear deal. And in his speech he referenced last week’s speech from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

DONALD TRUMP: At the heart of the Iran deal was a giant fiction that a murderous regime desired only a peaceful nuclear energy program. Today we have definitive proof that this Iranian promise was a lie. Last week Israel published intelligence documents long concealed by Iran conclusively showing the Iranians’ regime and its history of pursuing nuclear weapons. The fact is this was a horrible one-sided deal that should have never, ever been made.

AARON MATE: That’s President Trump speaking earlier today. Jamal Abdi, can you talk about this claim of Trump’s that somehow Netanyahu proves something new, that Iran had been hiding its nuclear weapons activities, based on these documents that Israel says was stolen from Iran?

JAMAL ABDI: You know, Netanyahu’s presentation was a very elaborate rollout for what was essentially the entire thesis for why we got a nuclear deal with Iran in the first place. I mean, he essentially was making the case that was made 15, 20 years ago about the concerns with Iran’s nuclear program and the need to have verification measures in place. I don’t think that there was anybody, really, who thinks that Netanyahu revealed anything new. I mean, you know, at least Colin Powell, when he went to the UN, he had a little jar of anthrax. Trump has a PowerPoint presentation by Netanyahu with no new information in it.

I think it’s, it’s a pretty weak justification for this move. I don’t think that he, Trump or Netanyahu, has really managed to convince anybody. And you know, it’s, it’s also, not funny, but it’s interesting that Trump’s Secretary of State, when he was being vetted by the Senate, he actually played down the Iran nuclear threat. He said, well, if we leave the deal, there’s no threat. Iran’s not going to race to build a bomb. And this was after years of people like Pompeo saying that Iran was on the verge of building this bomb. And now Netanyahu trying to inflate that threat. I think this is just, this is a lot of PR nonsense, and I just don’t think there’s any there there.

AARON MATE: There is some uncertainty, from what I can tell, about what sanctions exactly Trump will reimpose. Is he going to reimpose all the sanctions that were lifted, or is he going to wait until he faces more deadlines to make a decision on those future sanctions. Can you explain what exactly you expect to, Trump to do now, now that he’s withdrawing the U.S. from the deal?

JAMAL ABDI: Yeah. Well, I thought it was interesting today. This was sort of the most Trumpian of Trump moves. So you know, a lot of us thought, OK, he is going to begin withdrawing, but he is going to have some conciliatory words towards U.S. allies in Europe, maybe talk about a phasing in of sanctions to provide some time for this so-called fix to the deal to materialize, a gradual ratcheting up of of pressure something on those lines.

Instead he just came out and said it, we’re withdrawing from the deal, and the sanctions go into effect immediately. Now, there are, you know, various logistical reasons that the sanctions will actually take between 90 and 180 days to come online. But effectively, this means that if you begin any investment in Iran now, if you don’t start wanting that down over the next few months you will then be subject to U.S. sanctions.

So this is, this is immediate. And you know, we were talking all the nuclear sanctions that were lifted under the deal. What kind of gets lost in this entire conversation is that, you know, Iran, even with the deal in place, remains one of the most sanctioned countries in the world. The United States maintains a total economic embargo of Iran which, you know, because the United States has the largest economy in the world, [inaudible] has pretty significant implications. So what this, though, is this means that the United States is slapping back on its secondary sanctions, which are really sanctions against other countries to prevent them from doing business with Iran. And those are going to be, according to Trump, total.

AARON MATE: And in terms of what this means for Iran’s nuclear program, I mean, it was the assessment of U.S. intelligence that whatever military purposes Iran may have intended for its nuclear program were ceased back in the early 2000s. And there’s some debate whether even Iran ever had a nuclear, anything close to a nuclear weapons program at all. But what do you think Iran will do now? I mean, now, as I understand it, the deal totally collapses and it’s no longer bound to admit these intrusive inspections that it has already undergone. I believe it’s already been 10 inspections since the deal came into effect. What do you think Iran does vis-a-vis a nuclear program, knowing that, looking to North Korea, for example, that having a nuclear weapon might be its best way to deter the regime change goals that the Trump administration officials have openly espoused?

JAMAL ABDI: Yeah. The lesson continues to be if you’ve got, if you’ve got a program, you should take it all the way like North Korea and develop nuclear weapons. Because everybody who ends up turning it over or subjecting themselves to intrusive inspections ends up getting played in the end. So this is not a great development for nonproliferation, or for the notion that you can actually utilize diplomacy to prevent the spread of WMD.

I think for Iran they have a number of options. I don’t think Iran is going to cede this card that it now has, which is that it is the reasonable party. It is not the United States that is the fair dealer here. And so I don’t expect that Iran would do anything, at least at this point, that is overly provocative, that would then give the United States the upper hand to mobilize the international community against Iran. So I think, you know, at most, you know, the Iranians, they have threatened, you know, we could potentially leave the nuclear deal. We could abandon the additional protocol, which is the enhanced [inspections], or we can leave the nonproliferation treaty completely. I don’t think any of that is going to happen, at least not in the interim.

But if it does, you know, Iran does have a lot of measures that they can take short of actually, you know, sprinting out or even covertly developing nuclear weapons. They can claim for medical purposes that they need to go back to enriching uranium closer to weapons grade. They could even say they need to be able to fuel nuclear submarines, and enrich very close to weapons grade. And so you know, regardless of intention, you know, we can have the debate about whether Iran sought nuclear weapons or sought a nuclear weapons capability. But regardless of that, this does, this is a bargaining chip. This is a form of leverage that Iran does have. And I think it’s going to treat it as such and try to play this card very wisely and strategically.

AARON MATE: And in terms of the U.S. withdrawl from this deal increasing the chances of war. You have many observers point out that war between the U.S. and Iran doesn’t necessarily mean an attempt to overthrow the government in Tehran, but that it will increase tensions in the proxy battles that are taking place, especially in Syria. So already today Israel has announced that it’s on higher alert because it detects increased Iranian movement inside Syria, and there are reports it’s carried out a new strike, on top of the dozens of strikes it’s carried out in Syria over the past several years. Do you think that this announcement today is a signal that the neoconservatives in the White House plan to ratchet up tensions with Iran inside of places like Syria?

JAMAL ABDI: Yeah, I think there’s a signal that the U.S. may, may potentially ratchet up some of these measures. You know, the White House, at least before Bolton and Pompeo came on board, was sort of divided between the old hands, the sort of pragmatic hawks like James Mattis, and you know, the people who are urging Trump to be more provocative and sort of reckless. And Mattis is still there, and I think a lot of people view him as this source of confidence, that he’s going to talk Trump away from doing anything too stupid. But even Mattis supports confronting Iran’s, [inaudible] cracking down on Iranian activities, and stepping up engagement of Iran and Iranian interests in the region.

So I think between the Mattis viewpoint and the John Bolton viewpoint, which is that we need to actually make regime change our policy and that there is no negotiating with this government, which I think was pretty clear he has gotten through to Donald Trump, because that is what Donald Trump effectively said today, I think you have sort of this, this road map to how a war begins. And it starts with Syria, potentially, as a flashpoint, and it ends with regime change inside of Iran. And I think that’s probably what some of the people in the White House are thinking is going to be the case now.

AARON MATE: And just to get up to date with what’s happening, there are explosions now today being reported in Damascus. I’m reading this from the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. Explosions reported near, near Damascus. Syrian reports claiming that Israeli jets have entered Syrian airspace, the Israeli army announcing that it believes that Iran is preparing an imminent strike across the border from Syria. That latter claim seems to be very unlikely. The idea, the notion that Iran would strike Israel from inside Syria, when really it’s been Israel, as I said earlier, that’s been bombing Syria repeatedly over, for several years, increasingly now targeting Iranian targets.

JAMAL ABDI: Ever since Trump took office, the name the game has been to try to goad Iran to do something stupid. To justify, before it was to try to get Iran to do something stupid within the context nuclear deal to justify the United States leaving the agreement and being able to credibly blame Iran, which, you know, the Rouhani government and the Iranians have been very disciplined. This is not the Ahmadinejad government. They have not fallen for some of these traps. They haven’t fallen for some of the provocations of Trump, you know, essentially violating the deal, but not in so many words, for many months.

Now I think the name the game may be to goad to Iran to do something stupid militarily. And I don’t, you know, I don’t see how it is credible that Iran would be lining up these activities right now. It does not make any strategic sense for them at this moment in time, when they have the support of the international community, to then do something provocative targeting Israel. Who knows. But I do, I do think that it’s pretty clear that Israel and [inaudible] of our other allies view this as an opportunity to begin to really start to escalate these things, and sort of dare Iran to cross some lines, because clearly now the gloves are off.

AARON MATE: We’ll leave it there. Jamal Abdi, policy director of the National Iranian American Council, thank you.

JAMAL ABDI: Thank you.

AARON MATE: And thank you for joining us on the Real News.