Donald Trump and the Art of Trashing the Nuclear Deal

Members of Iranian armed forces march during a parade in Tehran, Iran, September 22, 2017. via REUTERS

U.S. policies meant to dismantle the nuclear deal will be seen parochial and partisan.

Russia has also hosted Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the leader of the IRGC’s extraterritorial and elite Quds Force, three times over the past three years in violations of UNSC sanctions. Considering that Soleimani has direct control over Iran’s regional proxy forces, his frequent visits to Moscow are particularly unnerving. Reports of direct cooperation between senior Russian and Lebanese Hezbollah military personnel at operations rooms in Latakia and Damascus, and Russian special operations forces wearing Hezbollah insignia in Syria, do little to assuage these concerns. Previously, IDF Brig. Gen, Muni Katz and Nadav Pollak revealed at the Washington Institute that Hezbollah has gained exposure to Russian military thinking, intelligence analysis and planning as well as indispensable experience in complex offensive operations. As the authors warn, “this will be the first time [Hezbollah] will be able to watch how a first-tier military plans a fighting campaign.”

The Russian-Iranian alliance also has implications for the United States’ Middle Eastern strategy outside of Iran. While Russia has been careful to not needlessly antagonize the Israeli national-security establishment in Syria, it has seemingly stood by as Iranian efforts to empower Hezbollah have progressed. Despite that Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu had personally visited Russian president Vladimir Putin four times since last summer, Moscow has thus far been unwilling to push back on aggressive Iranian overtures in both Syria and Lebanon—with the most recent being the production of missile facilities in both countries. If Iran continues to defy Israeli red lines in Syria and Lebanon, then it is likely that the pace of Israeli cross-border operations will increase and disrupt American-backed ceasefires in Syria, which Jerusalem views as supportive of Iran’s goals.

Over time, Israel’s reaction to the JCPOA has progressively shifted between severe anxiety and measured reticence. Originally, Netanyahu had decried the deal as a “stunning historic mistake” because, because he saw it as a temporary agreement that provided legitimacy to Iran’s nuclear program. Yet, notwithstanding the Israeli national-security establishment’s enduring belief in Iranian malevolence, the deal faded from the political limelight as more immediate threats stemming from the SCW and Palestinians captured the public’s attention. Since then, Israel has primarily sought to monitor Iranian compliance within the scope of the deal, but its officials have often been unable to avoid disparaging its tenets. For example, while speaking on September 11 at an anti-terrorism conference, Israeli intelligence minister Yisrael Katz urged President Trump to renegotiate or withdraw from the deal as it “protects Iran’s ability to get nuclear capabilities in the future.” However, Carmi Gillion, a previous director of Israel’s General Security Service (the Shin Bet), argued in July for Foreign Policy that the JCPOA has not been all bad for Israel. By examining the regional security environment, Gillon found that the JCPOA has achieved laudable successes, such as dismantling the majority of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure and increasing its breakout time. A nuclear-capable Iran, Gillion says, would pose the apex existential threat to Israeli security and complicate Israeli and American policy options in addressing Iran’s malign activities. Gillon believes that the agreement has provided Washington and Jerusalem with time to develop a counterstrategy, when before time was of the essence.

Iran’s other neighbors have had more varied responses to the JCPOA, from unease to utter displeasure, but have accepted the agreement as it stands. Of all the states disturbed by an Iranian nuclear weapon, none has been so public in its intentions as Saudi Arabia, which remains mired a struggle with Iran for religious and regional hegemony. Although the Saudis are currently a party to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), there is evidence that Saudi Arabia would develop nuclear weapons in parallel to Iran. For instance, a 2008 report to the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee noted that states often choose to “dial up or dial down” their programs to “keep their options open” and that Washington cannot take Riyadh’s commitment to nonproliferation for granted. To drive this point further, BBC correspondent Mark Urban reported in 2013 that King Abdullah, the previous Saudi monarch, confirmed to Dennis Ross that Saudi Arabia would pursue whatever nuclear capability Iran achieved, including nuclear arms. In the medium- to long-term interim, Saudi Arabia’s technical shortcomings are insufficient to prevent the kingdom from developing a latent breakout capability given that Riyadh is pursuing a nuclear energy development as well as building the scientific and industrial base for a nuclear hedge.