Donald Trump

The end of US internationalism: how Trump’s ditching of the Iran nuclear deal affirms American unipolarity – with Obama’s help

Dan Steinbock says the end of US participation in the Iran nuclear deal seals the conclusion of American interest in upholding a multipolar world order, but it was achieved thanks to a loophole Obama left behind

PUBLISHED : Friday, 25 May, 2018, 1:38pm
UPDATED : Friday, 25 May, 2018, 6:37pm

The Trump White House plans to break the Iran deal and sanction companies from Europe and Asia doing business in and with Iran. Ironically, it was former president Barack Obama who paved the way for unilateral sanctions. 

For three years, the comprehensive nuclear accord (JCPOA) has offered Iran relief from USUN and multilateral sanctions on energyfinance, shipping, autos and other sectors. That era recently came to a halt. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the ultraconservative former CIA head, said Washington will impose “the strongest sanctions in history [on Iran] once they come into full force”. 

In contrast, Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi has reiterated Beijing's support for the deal. By the same token, the other key signatories of the nuclear deal – the UKFranceGermany and Russia – say the deal will be sustained. 

American internationalism began a century ago, when president Woodrow Wilson purported to make “the world safe for democracy”. The objective is now to ensure US unipolarity in a multipolar era by any means necessary. 

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Regionally, President Donald Trump’s quest for primacy leans on Saudi Arabia for economic and geopolitical support, as seen by the US$110 billion arms deal with Riyadh a year ago, and reinforced security ties with Israel, as reflected by US recognition of Jerusalem as its capital – another major policy mistake. 

Now the administration’s objective is to restore primary sanctions lifted in January 2016. As secondary sanctions on firms remain in place, along with sanctions applying to US companies, including banks, the White House will fortify them. 

In a typical unipolar move, Trump’s administration is extending sanctions to EU firms that have done business in and with Iran since the 2015 nuclear deal, raising risks for their US access. As Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin says, EU-Iran business agreements will be voided as “the existing licences will be revoked”. 

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Along with Renault, PSA Peugeot Citroen and Sanofi, French companies have huge stakes in the deal, thanks to the US$21 billion Airbus contract and the oil giant Total’s US$2 billion deal to develop the South Pars oilfield. Some 120 German companies, including Volkswagen and Siemens, operate in Iran and another 10,000 do business with Iran. Royal Dutch Shell would be adversely affected. 

Economic pressure could significantly harm Iran’s oil industry, the fourth-largest reserve holder of crude oil in the world and whose largest buyers include China, South KoreaTurkeyJapanItaly and India

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Under sanctions, Iran has shifted towards Asia and maintains a vital role in the China-led “Belt and Road Initiative”. Indeed, through the worst days of the 2010-16 sanctions, Asian countries remained engaged in Iran’s economy. In the coming years, these countries hope to support Iran in becoming a major regional trading hub and to diversify its economy away from oil and gas. But if the White House sanctions EU companies for business with Iran, it will sanctions firms from Asia as well. 

Ahead of the 2003 Iraq war, current National Security Adviser John Bolton, then the undersecretary of state for arms control, relied on false data from US-based Iraqi exiles to make the case for regime change. Since last autumn, Bolton has been urging the US to implement another change in regime based on intelligence from the Iranian opposition group Mojahedin-e Khalq, delisted as a terrorist organisation by secretary of state Hillary Clinton in 2012. It is an Iranian opposition group which has relied on paid advocates in the US, including officials from both parties, and which advocates the overthrow of the Iranian government. Bolton has stated he wants a new regime in Tehran before 2019. 

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With his pledges to withdraw from the climate and nuclear accords, and America’s key trade agreements, Trump has electrified the debate on the legality of US withdrawal from treaties and other international agreements. 

While the US constitution sets forth a process whereby the executive has the power to make treaties with the advice and consent of the Senate, it does not specify how such treaties may be terminated. But when the president enters into executive agreements, these do not receive the Senate’s advice and consent. But such “political commitments” are not seen as binding. As a result, the US will withdraw if the Iran deal is not renegotiated. 

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Ironically, it was Obama who created the opportunity for such strategic manoeuvres. When his administration concluded JCPOA, it considered the plan of action a non-binding political commitment, allowing the Trump administration to argue it has the ability to withdraw. True, on 2015, the UN Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 2231 endorsing the Iran deal, so Trump’s critics could argue that the resolution converted at least some provisions in the JCPOA into obligations binding under international law. 

But such critics seem largely absent. When Obama concluded the Iran talks, most Democrats hailed the accord. Yet Democrats went along in late 2016 when Congress extended the Iran Sanctions Act for a decade. 

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As a legal scholar, Obama knew the loopholes his administration left to its successor. His supporters say he concluded the deal out of political expediency (lacking Republican support in Congress). Others see it as a “Wilsonian” failure (adequate authority to sign the deal but not implement it). But radicals believe Obama was used to pave the way to withdrawal. 

In a recent meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, German Chancellor Angela Merkel sought a common strategy to ward off a trade war, keep markets open and unity on the nuclear deal. This is a stance aligned with the interests and values in Beijing. 

Whatever the legal pretexts for Trump’s withdrawals, they herald the end of Wilsonian internationalism in America. In the past, Washington, Brussels and Tokyo shared similar interests and values, it was said. As the White House is substituting unilateral bullying for multilateral diplomacy, those days are fading into history.

Dr Dan Steinbock is an internationally recognised strategist of the multipolar world and the founder of Difference Group. See