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Trump Kicks the Iranian ‘Can’ Down the Road | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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US President Donald Trump. REUTERS/Eric Thayer

Over the past six months, in one way or another, President Donald Trump has kicked several of the cans inherited from Barack Obama down the road.

After several attempts at abolishing it, the so-called Obamacare has been kicked into legislative oblivion. Obama’s policy of courting the Castro brothers has been slightly modified but not scrapped. The Paris Climate Accord has been verbally dismissed but not definitely buried if only because it won’t become binding until 2020.

The latest can to be kicked down the road is the so-called Comprehensive Joint Plan of Action (CJPOA), the curious press release which enumerates things that Iran must do about its controversial nuclear project in exchange for the temporary suspension of sanctions.

On Monday, the US State Department informed Congress that the president would extend the waiver for suspending sanctions for a further three months. The department justified the decision by claiming that Iran had respected the letter of the CJPOA while violating its spirit.

Trump’s extension of Obama’s favor for Iran comes exactly two years after the CJPOA was unveiled in Vienna and hailed by President Hassan Rouhani as “the greatest diplomatic victory in Islam.”

The truth, of course, is that Iran has violated both the letter and the spirit of the CJPOA.
For example, it has reduced the number of centrifuges enriching uranium but not overall productive capacity because new high-powered machines have a higher output than the older ones which are de-commissioned. In any case since Iran has no nuclear power stations that might need the enriched uranium as fuel one must assume that whatever uranium is enriched would be stockpiled for other purposes including nuclear warheads when and if the leadership wants them.

To keep alive the fiction about needing uranium for fuel, Tehran periodically announces plans to build nuclear power stations with help from China or Russia. However, everyone knows that Iran doesn’t have the money to spend on such vanity projects and that neither Russia nor China is keen to invest in an economically insane project. A report prepared by the Iranian Ministry of Energy shows that nuclear power would cost at least 40 percent more to produce than power from natural gas of which Iran has plenty.

Another example concerns the stockpiles of “heavy water” that Iran has built over the years. The plutonium plant in Arak has been de-commissioned, temporarily blocking one of the two ways that Iran might have developed nuclear warheads. But what is Iran going to do with the reserves it has already built up? Under CJPOA these reserves must be sold on the world market. But what happens when you can’t find a buyer? To de-fang that question, Obama had promised to arrange for the stockpiles to be bought by US companies in case other buyers were not found. Two years later, there are no buyers around and it is unlikely that Trump could persuade American companies to buy the Iranian stockpiles which may or may not be up to their standards.

The CJPOA was never meant to solve the problem of Iran’s real or imagined nuclear ambitions. Nor was it meant to reaffirm the authority of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty which Iran has publicly admitted violating at least until 2003. It was meant as part of a broader strategy by Obama to “empower the moderate faction” in Tehran, help them win a greater share of power and, eventually and hopefully, modify the nastier aspects of Tehran’s behavior.

Two years later, everyone knows what some of us knew from the start: There are no “moderates” within the Khomeinist regime and no chance of it significantly changing behavior dictated by its ideological DNA.

This does not mean that the Khomeinists are incapable of changing their behavior. They do only when they have to. In Syria, for example, Tehran has lowered its profile not because it has become aware of the cost of its folly but because Russia has asserted itself as the master of ceremonies.

In Iraq, too, the liberation of Mosul has lowered Tehran’s profile if only because the Iraqi security forces, endorsed by the Shi’ite leadership in Najaf and backed by Sunni Arab tribal chiefs achieved victory.

In Yemen, too, Iran has been reduced to second fiddle if only because the groups it sponsors, notably the Houthis, have all but failed in their war objectives.

The mullahs have also been forced to eat humble pie on the thorny issue of Hajj. Having advanced 16 demands in order to resume pilgrimage by Iranians, they had to withdraw every single one of them. The mullahs also agreed that Iranian pilgrims be electronically tagged so that all their movements can be traced round the clock. The notorious march in praise of Khomeini, with the slogan “God Is One, Khomeini is the Leader” (Allah Wahed, Khomeini Qa’ed) will now take place in a tent outside the city in the desert. Tehran, of course, will take films to show on its TV to perpetuate the illusion that Muslims from all over the world worship the late “Imam”.

With such panoply of diplomatic setbacks in the background, it is no surprise that the mullahs are clinging to CJPOA as their chief achievement.

Is Trump right in letting them cling on, at least for another three months?

The answer must be yes if only because Trump does not seem to have fully studied the Iranian problem let alone devising an alternative policy. He has spoken of regime change as opposed to change of behavior without any evidence that the new approach is backed by concrete measures. In such a situation, it would make no sense to denounce the CJPOA and provoke a dispute with European allies without being able to offer them an alternative. In other words, kicking the can down the road was the least bad option.

However, the Iranian “can” will return in three months’ time, forcing Trump to choose between a new version of Obama’s failed strategy and a more effective way of dealing with what both he and Obama have described as “number one challenge to US national interests”.