Despite pleas from Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron, President Donald Trump appears likely to pull America out of the Iran deal, which Barack Obama’s administration made in an attempt to prevent Iran from gaining nuclear weapons. Although Trump has twice certified that Iran was in compliance with the agreement, known as the JCPOA, he must do so again by May 12, and the signs from his administration—with hawkish voices like Mike Pompeo and John Bolton in key roles—are that he will not this time. Indeed, Trump’s closest ally in the region, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, gave a speech on Monday in which he accused Iran of planning to back out of the deal and lying for years about its program.
But if Trump is set on exiting, the questions of what it will mean for Iran and the broader Middle East remain.
To talk about the latest developments, and the Middle East going forward, I spoke by phone with Karim Sadjadpour, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace who was once based in Iran with the International Crisis Group. During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed Trump’s actual foreign policy doctrine, why Israel and Saudi Arabia might regret playing to Trump’s anti-Iran instincts, and what the end of the nuclear deal would mean for nuclear politics.
Isaac Chotiner: Do you think Trump declaring Iran not in compliance and pulling out of the Iran deal will have an immediate impact in the region, or will this be more like a slow-burning fuse?
Karim Sadjadpour: I think if Trump unilaterally pulls out of the Iran deal, Iran will be very likely to react by saying the United States has reneged on its side of the deal, and therefore they are going to reconstitute their nuclear activities. I don’t think Iran is going to go from zero to 100, meaning they are not going to kick out all inspectors and announce that they are going full speed ahead on nuclear weapons. I think what they are more likely to do is go from zero to 20 and take a more deliberate approach to restarting their nuclear activities in a way to maintain the guise that it is still a civilian nuclear program. And most importantly, they will want to create fissures to separate Europe and America, and Russia and China from the United States.
What do you think the reaction from Israel and Saudi Arabia will be?
To take a step back: I look at the nuclear deal in three different boxes—the nonproliferation box, the domestic box, and the regional box. In the nonproliferation context, I would argue and I think most of the world would argue that the nuclear deal has been successful. It has curtailed Iran’s nuclear activities and subjected the country to more transparency. In the domestic box, it has been somewhat of a disappointment. The Obama administration had hoped that the deal would be transformational for Iran and empower forces of moderation, and that really hasn’t happened.
But in the regional box, you have had the greatest disappointment. The nuclear deal lifted major financial restrictions on Iran, so it gave Iran a pretty significant cash injection, and Iran simply doubled down on its long-standing regional policies of opposition to Israel and Saudi Arabia, and funding Assad and Shia militias. I think that Prime Minister Netanyahu would be happy if the deal unravels. I think the Saudi leadership—if they believe the United States is going to increase its presence in the region, that would be welcomed by the Saudis. But if we simply see a unilateral withdrawal from the nuclear deal followed by withdrawal from the region, that is something that the Saudis very much fear. That you are untying Iran’s hands, untethering Iran from the JCPOA but not tying it with a regional strategy to counter Iranian activities.
We see proxy wars all over the Middle East, and the United States has been backing the Saudi side in most of these disputes. How worried are you about the prospect of an actual war between Saudi Arabia and Iran?
The proxy wars will certainly continue because neither the Iranians or the Saudis are really paying the human cost of their rivalry: It is Syrians, Yemenis, Iraqis, and others who have paid the enormous humanitarian cost. Frankly, the risk of Israeli-Iranian confrontation in Syria is much higher than Iran-Saudi direct confrontations. According to some estimates, Iran and its proxies have 50,000 men in Syria even if you don’t count the Assad regime’s military as part of Iran’s forces, which some would. But as Iran continues to build and solidify its presence in Syria, and now use more sophisticated technologies such as more armed drones, the Israelis see that as an existential threat, and they have hit weapons depots in Syria, which have allegedly killed Hezbollah and Iranian operatives.
Do you think the Trump administration has any plan for all these things that might happen or worsen if they pull out of the Iran deal?
I think to the extent there is a coherent Trump strategic doctrine, it could be called the Divorce Doctrine, which obviously mirrors his personal life.
Ugh, I was going to make that joke.
So is there any sense from Saudi Arabia and Israel that they are playing with fire by stoking Trump’s anti-Iran instincts?
No. I haven’t seen evidence from either Prime Minister Netanyahu or other leadership in the region that they are looking several steps ahead at the potential consequences of unraveling the nuclear deal. I think Israel and Saudi Arabia were so incensed by the Obama administration’s efforts to bring about equilibrium in the region that they are simply content to return to what they see as the status quo ante, which is an American alignment with Tel Aviv and Riyadh, and hostility to Tehran. But that needs to be wedded to an Iran strategy. The Trump administration has some folks like Secretary of Defense Mattis who are capable of thinking strategically about Iran, but when you have a president focused on these daily self-inflicted crises, it is difficult to have a clear sustained strategy on any foreign policy issue.
What effect do you think pulling out will have within Iran and on the Iranian government?
Any time you have heightened insecurity in a country, I think that plays to the strength of security forces. In Iran’s case, an unraveling of the nuclear deal would really render President Rouhani a lame duck, and strengthen the Revolutionary Guard, who I would argue have already been strengthened the last two years. But it would strengthen them even more. Iran is experiencing a convergence of numerous crises: They are hemorrhaging money in Syria and on Shia militias in Iraq and Yemen, they have domestic and environmental crises, women are taking to the streets and taking off their headscarves, the currency is in a downward spiral, and so it is totally unpredictable. I am skeptical that pulling out of the deal is going to bring about the collapse of the Iranian regime that is then replaced by an Iranian government that resembles Norway. More likely this plays to the security forces who are undemocratic and hostile to the United States.
And yet you say these forces have already been strengthened during the last two years, when the deal was in effect. That’s not a particularly hopeful picture for reformers in Iran.
I have always subscribed to [historian] Ibn Khaldun’s thesis when it comes to Iran, which is that regimes are oftentimes built and destroyed over three generations. The first generation builds it, the second generation preserves it, the third generation loses it. The Soviet Union lasted three generations. The Islamic Republic of Iran is kind of entering its second-generation leadership and, again, I think it was fanciful that the nuclear deal was going to transform Iran into a democracy, and I also think it is fanciful to think pulling out will lead to the collapse of the Islamic Republic. Like the Soviet Union, this is a system you essentially have to contain and constrain until it crumbles under the weight of its own malaise and internal contradictions.
One thing I forgot to mention that is relevant is that there are three main actors in the equation: Trump, Netanyahu, and Ayatollah Khamenei, who are all facing major internal political crises at home. I am not making the argument that it is a Wag the Dog situation, in which they would necessarily launch wars for internal political expediency. But I would say that an external conflict could benefit all of them domestically and divert the conversation.