BRATTLEBORO—When President Donald J. Trump decided in May that the United States would walk away from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA, otherwise known as the Iran nuclear deal), all eyes were on the Iranian government to see how it would react.
But, as former ambassador and UN diplomat Peter Galbraith described the situation in the Middle East in a Nov. 30 talk to the Windham World Affairs Council at Centre Congregational Church, if the goal was to weaken Iran and reduce its influence in Iraq and Syria, Trump’s decision has not worked.
In fact, he said the opposite has happened.
Six months after the Trump administration’s decision to abandon the JCPOA, Galbraith pointed out that Iran hasn’t pulled out of the agreement, is still abiding by its provisions, and has done nothing provocative against the United States, especially when compared to the continued nuclear missile testing being done by North Korea.
Additionally, he said, Iran’s influence in Syria and Iraq remains strong, and the Kurds, the most reliable military partner of the U.S. in the Middle East, are now tilting toward Iran.
“If Iran’s goal is to diminish U.S. influence in the region and in the world, from their point of view, Donald Trump is doing just that,” said Galbraith, summing up the apparent Iranian strategy as “if your adversary is about to jump off a very high building, it’s not necessary to push.”
‘Iran kept its word’
JCPOA was a jointly negotiated agreement signed in 2015 by Iran, the United States, Great Britain, France, Germany, Russia, China, and the European Union. It placed strict limits on Iran’s nuclear program beyond those required by the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which Iran is a signatory to.
Galbraith said Iran entered in the JCPOA for two main reasons: “First, to gain relief from crippling economic sanctions and, second, to end its international isolation.”
Signing the agreement gave Iran total relief from sanctions from the European Union and partial relief from the United States.
In pulling out of JCPOA, the Trump administration reimposed direct economic sanctions on Iran and has threatened the same against any country that trades with Iran.
Galbraith said that being unable to sell or buy directly from the United States “will not have a big impact on the Iranian economy.”
The problem for Iran is the so-called secondary sanctions, which will prevent non-U.S. companies from having access to the U.S. market or using the U.S. banking system if they do business with Iran.
Iran is working with Europe, China, and Russia to find a way to foil the Trump sanctions, Galbraith said, and he believes Iran is winning the perception war with the United States.
“By all accounts, Iran was abiding by the JCPOA. Iran kept its word; under Trump, the United States did not.”
Then there is the other reason Trump gave for scuttling the JCPOA — his claim that it had no limits on Iran’s “other malign behavior, including its sinister activities in Syria, Yemen, and other places all around the world.”
The problem, Galbraith said, is the incoherence of the Trump administration’s Middle East policies, and how it has made the ongoing conflicts in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen worse.
The other factor that has been overlooked by the Trump administration, Galbraith said, is that few things are static when it comes to diplomacy, and that “time is an enormous factor” in resolving conflict.
“The world as it is today is not necessarily going to be the world in the future,” he said.
Weakness from within
Trump believes the 15-year “sunset period” for the treaty was not long enough. Galbraith harkened back to what he called one of his formative experiences — the time he spent in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe in the late 1960s.
“I was struck by one thing — basically, nobody believed in communism,” he said. “If you have a country where, by and large, people don’t believe, sooner or later the system is going to collapse.”
It took another two decades for the collapse of the Soviet Union. Galbraith thinks a change in direction in Iran will happen more quickly. Why?
“One of the things that is so striking in Iran is that people openly talk against the regime,” he said, adding that social media is also strong in Iran, with young people easily finding ways to work around official censorship of the internet.
He also pointed out that Iran has the most open election process of any Middle East country and that candidates opposed to the ruling Mullahs have gotten strong support from Iranians.
The roots of the war in Yemen
While Galbraith said that hard-liners in the Trump administration are pushing for a war with Iran, he noted that the biggest destabilizing influence in the Middle East is not Iran but Saudi Arabia, whose role in the ongoing civil war in Yemen has killed more than 10,000 people over the past three years.
Like many conflicts in the region, the Yemen war has roots in the never-ending battle between the Sunni and Shia wings of Islam, with Saudi Arabia, a Sunni-majority nation, claiming that Iran, a Shia-majority state, is helping the Houthis, the Shia insurgency that controls most of the Northern part of Yemen.
Calling it the world’s worst man-made humanitarian disaster, the United Nations says 75 percent of Yemen’s 22.2 million people are in need of aid and 8.4 million Yemenis are at risk of starvation.
Backed by the U.S., Saudi Arabia is deeply involved in the Syrian and Yemen conflicts as a way to contain what it sees as rising Iranian influence in the region.
However, Galbraith said Iran still sees itself — and not Saudi Arabia — as the dominant force in the Middle East.
The conflict in Yemen, rather than Syria, could spark a major war, said Galbraith. While both Iran and the Saudis are battling each other via proxies in Syria and Yemen, the situation in Syria is more stable, while the war in Yemen is not.
Also, President Trump’s strong support for Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the young ruler of Saudi Arabia, makes the Middle East situation even more volatile, said Galbraith, given both leaders’ habit of behaving unpredictably.
“It’s an extraordinary moment that we’re now in,” he said.