When the Trump administration withdrew from the Iran deal in November 2017, he was essentially giving in to the detractors of the July 2015 agreement.
With the current focus on Iran’s possible defiance of the deal’s uranium enrichment limits, it is worth examining the dominant myths articulated by political elites and media commentators, in both the US and Middle East, who were skeptical or critical of the agreement.
The first myth was that the US, by agreeing to the deal in 2015, would lift sanctions that in turn would allow Iran to destabilise the Middle East. The second was that the US had abandoned its regional allies for Iran. The third was that allowing Iran’s nuclear program to remain intact would set off a nuclear arms race in the region.
These three myths were fear-based predictions, essentially forecasting scenarios that never materialised from 2015 to 2019, an indication that the deal, even without the US as of 2017, had worked.
The Trump administration chose to force Iran’s hand with renewed sanctions, deeming the Revolutionary Guards a terrorist organisation, and its recent deployment of an aircraft carrier group in response to an undefined threat from Iran to American forces.
The myths about destabilising the region are more likely to come to fruition now, not as a result of the deal which was effective, but because of the Trump administration’s provocations.
Myth No. 1: Lifting sanctions allows Iran to destabilise the region
An example of the first myth was articulated in 2015 by the Congressional Speaker of the House of Representatives, and Republican, John Boehner who said: “It would be naive to suggest the Iranian regime will not continue to use its nuclear program, and any economic relief, to further destabilize the region.”
After signing the deal in 2015, Iran did not engage in any activity that further destabilised an already unstable region.
In fact, the US and Iran had worked as de-facto partners with mutual interests in combatting Daesh, which was defeated as a result of American, Iranian, and Iraqi coordination.
Destabilisation in countries like Yemen and Syria took place due to poor choices made by their political elites in 2011 in the face of protests, not by Iranian intervention.
Lifting the sanctions had little effect on Iran’s role in the Syria conflict. The turning point in the Syrian civil war was when Russia intervened in the fall of 2015, which occurred just a few months after the deal was signed.
Yemen had its own problems long before the Iranian-Houthi relationship. Those problems were only exacerbated by the Saudi air campaign that began in spring 2015, prior to the deal being signed. Despite past Iranian support for Yemen’s Houthis, they did not make any military gains after the deal was signed in 2015.
Myth No. 2: The US abandoned regional allies for Iran
Back in 2015 Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, needing a reason to criticise the Democrats, warned of the deal’s ramifications: “It’s incredibly dangerous for our national security, and it’s akin to declaring war on Sunni Arabs and Israel by the P5+1 because it ensures their primary antagonist Iran will become a nuclear power and allows them to rearm conventionally.”
American allies in the Middle East have witnessed the complete opposite of this scenario. By 2019, the Trump administration has only strengthened ties with Sunni Arab countries such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
Trump prevented Congressional resolutions seeking to end American support for Saudi Arabia’s campaign military campaign in Yemen.
The Trump administration have given unequivocal support to Israel, recognising its claim to Jerusalem, the Golan Heights, and the West Bank settlements.
Echoing Graham’s statement, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu had warned: “Iran will get hundreds of billions of dollars with which it will be able to fuel its terror machine,” a euphemism for Hezbollah.
However, no conflict has emerged between Israel and Hezbollah since the deal, not even after Israel targeted the latter’s forces and facilities deployed in Syria. On the contrary, Trump’s withdrawal from the deal only gives Iran an incentive to remove any restraints on Hezbollah.
Myth No. 3: Iran’s nuclear program would set off a nuclear arms race
In 2015 Steve Forbes, Chairman and Editor-in-Chief of Forbes Media, wrote of the Iran deal: “From all that we now know the agreement will set off a chain reaction of nuclear proliferation in the most unstable region of the world.”
The notion of an Iranian nuclear program creating a domino effect in the region has been echoed by policy makers and media commentators, but it is both Israel and the US who contribute to this effect, not Iran by itself.
Technically nuclear proliferation began in the Middle East with Israel’s undeclared nuclear arsenal, with estimates ranging from 100-200 nuclear warheads. It was Israel’s nuclear program that led Saddam Hussein to pursue a nuclear program in the seventies, and Syria’s similar concern that led it to embark on constructing a nuclear reactor, which was destroyed in an Israeli air strike in 2007.
The Trump administration has further supported Saudi Arabia’s attempt to develop nuclear infrastructure. This support demonstrates that not only was the first myth unfounded, but American aid to Riyadh’s nuclear aspirations only gives Iran further incentive to develop a nuclear deterrent against both Israel and Saudi Arabia.
The Iran deal offered the first opportunity to witness how American-Iranian engagement in fact produced relative stability for an already unstable Middle East.
The Trump administration chose a policy of confronting and isolating the Islamic Republic, which in the past, especially under the George W Bush administration, did not modify its behavior in the region. Furthermore, Trump’s actions, are very much like that of the Bush administration, in that both are choosing to pick a fight in the Gulf.
While two of the myths assumed that the deal with Iran would result in it destabilising the region and sparking nuclear proliferation, in fact, it has been the US that has led both to occur.
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