As May 12—the date for President Trump to make a decision on whether the United States will withdraw from the JCPOA—looms in the background, and the confrontation between Israel and Iran is reaching very dangerous levels. The escalation seems to be driven by Israeli calculations that a major Israeli military confrontation with Iran will overcome any residual hesitation the U.S. administration may have about reneging on the nuclear deal.
However, regardless of President Trump’s decision on the JCPOA, this game of chicken can be very dangerous. The Iranian regime, if pushed to the wall as a consequence of repeated attacks on Iranian targets in Syria, may lash out against Israel regardless of the consequences. Its credibility is increasingly under attack from domestic opponents who have become emboldened in expectations of the United States reneging on the nuclear deal thus exposing Rouhani and Zarif to ridicule.
Tehran is also likely to let loose its regional proxies, such as Hizbullah and Iraqi-Shia militia, to attack Israeli and American targets in the region without making any distinction between the two. American targets in Iraq and Syria are far more vulnerable to such attacks than fortified Israeli positions within its borders. Therefore, the likelihood of damage to American targets will be far greater.
Prime Minister Netanyahu’s dramatic PowerPoint presentation about the Iranian nuclear weapons program may be old hat for the knowledgeable. but is aimed at bolstering Trump’s resolve to walk out of the nuclear deal. In fact, without access to the intelligence reports at Netanyahu’s disposal, I had predicted as far back as 2011 that “it is time for world leaders to recognize the inevitability of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons capability, even if it remains untested, with Tehran following the policy and adopting the rhetoric of deliberate ambiguity .” It was the JCPOA signed in 2015 but agreed upon between the United States and Iran as early as November 2013 in Oman that prevented such an eventuality.
Nevertheless, Netanyahu’s latest statement reiterating known facts about Iran’s nuclear program has been music to President Trump’s ears and to those of his closest advisors on the issue: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton. Both of the new appointees reinforce the president’s visceral dislike of Iran and, even more, of the JCPOA negotiated by his predecessor Barack Obama. Their appointment in the run up to May 12 had sent the clear message that President Trump has decided to renege on the deal.
America’s European allies have drawn exactly the opposite lesson from Netanyahu’s disclosures. They have made the point publicly that this endorses their position that had it not been for the JCPOA Iran would have raced toward acquiring nuclear weapons capability and either succeeded or landed the world in a major conflagration with unpredictable outcomes. To them the JCPOA is the kingpin in the strategy to prevent Iran from going nuclear anytime soon. Reneging on it would expose the world once again to the same dangers .
While the Europeans, especially France, are willing to entertain the idea of renegotiating the deal with Iran to keep Trump on board, it is widely recognized that the Iranian government is firmly opposed to doing so. The political climate in Iran has reduced any wiggle space that the Rouhani-Zarif duo may have had on the nuclear issue. Trump’s anti-Iranian rhetoric is the primary factor undermining the Rouhani administration’s credibility within Iran. Any show of weakness by the Iranian government at this stage will spell doom for it and return Iran to an undiluted hard line regime that would make Ahmadinejad look like Mahatma Gandhi.
Tehran has two options left. One, continue with the implementation of the JCPOA ignoring America’s withdrawal since as Foreign Minister Zarif has argued Washington under Trump was never a serious party to the deal. This would isolate the United States and divide the western alliance if the Europeans continue to honor their commitments to the JCPOA.
However, an American withdrawal will probably hobble that deal beyond repair. The American and European economies are so closely intertwined that American threats of sanctioning European firms dealing with Iran are likely to scare off most European entities interested in dealing with Iran.
Moreover, as it is Iran has not begun to receive the substantial economic benefits it had expected from putting its nuclear program in cold storage as a result of American foot-dragging. The financial returns are minimal, certainly not enough to balance the political negatives for the Iranian government to stick to a hobbled deal.
This is where the second options kicks in. Iran could decide to withdraw from the JCPOA following the American withdrawal, declare it null and void and end the intrusive inspections tied to the agreement. It would be extremely difficult for the other parties to the JCPOA to hold Iran responsible for scuttling the deal and to reimpose sanctions if Tehran takes this step in response to the American withdrawal.