The imposition of sanctions on Iran is designed to curb its “outlaw behaviour”, the US says. Donald Trump said the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action “cannot prevent an Iranian bomb” when he announced the US withdrawal from the treaty in May. This week his administration restored all sanctions lifted under the 2015 denuclearisation deal and added more (albeit with a six-month waiver for major oil customers). But the International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN body policing the agreement, has verified repeatedly that Tehran has complied with its terms. European co-signatories agree. Meanwhile, Mr Trump has continued to attack the “worst deal ever” – while boasting of progress with North Korea, which already has a nuclear arsenal and is unlikely to reduce it, whatever its nice words. This is not about upholding rules and commitments; it is about imposing might unilaterally.
Tellingly, the administration has shifted its rhetorical justification to a laundry list of more general foreign policy demands which it knows Tehran will not and cannot agree to, however desirable some of those measures might be. Its stated aim of a better treaty does not deserve to be taken seriously. Lord Lamont, the UK’s trade envoy to Iran, says bluntly that the sanctions are aimed at regime change, whatever the US denials. The administration sees ordinary Iranians as an instrument; but “ghost shipments” and barter with countries such as China, Russia and India will probably keep Iran going, and while Iranians will face real hardship, they are more likely to flee than rise against a repressive regime.
The bigger picture is that the nuclear non-proliferation regime itself is at stake, as President Macron warned when the US first announced its decision. Last month, Mr Trump signalled that the US was withdrawing from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, a critical pillar of the arms control system. Supporters say there is no point maintaining a treaty when the other party is not living up to it; the counter to this is that Russia has succeeded in provoking the US to end the deal, giving Moscow entirely free rein. Others claim, not convincingly, that the treaty could prove a constraint in countering China in the Pacific. More significant surely is the hawkishness of secretary of state Mike Pompeo and national security adviser John Bolton, who has a visceral loathing of arms control agreements – or anything that constrains the US as an international actor.
This makes the prospect of renewing the US-Russia New START treaty, the remaining constraint on the world’s two largest nuclear stockpiles, even dimmer. Some hope it might be possible to sell Mr Trump a new agreement which he could claim as a personal success, as with North Korea. With Mr Bolton at his shoulder, that seems a very faint hope. If the deal lapses in 2021, the only impediment to a new arms race will be financial.
Europe is still struggling to respond. It has attempted to counter the weaponisation of the dollar via a Special Purpose Vehicle, a clearing house allowing European firms to sidestep the Iran sanctions, but has yet to find a country willing to host it. Even if it does, few firms will risk their US business for Iranian deals. Yet as the French finance minister correctly identified earlier this year, this is not only about Iran but about European economic sovereignty. Such measures, even if symbolic for now, matter as a commitment to the international order and a sign of nascent alternatives to US might being wielded erratically and unilaterally.