Former reality show star turned US President Donald Trump loves the drama and tension of an ultimatum. It appeals to the ringmaster in him. He revels in having the whole world hold its breath in anticipation of his next announcement.
None of Trump’s serial deadlines is likely to be more consequential than the one looming on May 12.
That is the day on which he must sign a presidential waiver on sanctions on Iran, or violate a landmark multilateral agreement on the future of Iran’s nuclear program signed in 2015 by Iran, the permanent members of the UN Security Council — the UK, the US, Russia, France and China — plus Germany, the EU and Iran itself.
Illustration: Mountain People
Trump has threatened to keep his signing pen in his pocket.
The dramatic tension over what he will decide is fast diminishing. The greatest uncertainty now is over how rapidly it will be followed by a slide toward a new conflict in the Middle East.
Trump has repeatedly stated his hostility toward the nuclear agreement — the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) — made impossible demands for the deal to be changed and named hawks to two top positions in the past month — Mike Pompeo for US secretary of state and John Bolton for national security adviser. Both men have devoted much of their careers to vilifying the agreement.
Bolton is a splenetic opponent of most forms of multilateral diplomacy, which he sees as a sign of weakness — and of the nuclear agreement in particular.
“Trump can and should free America from this execrable deal at the earliest opportunity,” Bolton wrote in August last year, when White House chief of staff John Kelly was trying to have him barred from the White House for fear of his bellicose influence on Trump.
Now Bolton is on the inside, able to lock more moderate voices out of the Oval Office.
“I think the Bolton appointment is another nail in the coffin of the Iran deal,” said Kelsey Davenport, director of nonproliferation policy at the Arms Control Association.
The European signatories of the JCPOA have recently been meeting a senior US Department of State official in Berlin, trying to come up with a formula that would address Trump’s two main stated objections to the deal — the unstated one is that it was signed by the administration of former US president Barack Obama.
They are apparently close to an agreement on how to address Trump’s main complaints — the expiry after a number years of some of the limits on Iran nuclear activities and the absence of restrictions on missiles.
The Europeans would agree to a commitment to a follow-on agreement when the JCPOA elements begin to expire and to push for sanctions on Iran for long-range missile development.
However, there would be no change to the agreement. Britain, France and Germany agree it is non-negotiable and represents a commitment to the international community.
However, Trump insists on the JCPOA being “fixed,” and failing that he wants it destroyed.
“We have given up hoping. He wants to tick the JCPOA off, another thing he said he would do in the campaign, that he did,” a senior European diplomat said.
In that regard, the transatlantic talks were “a dialogue of the deaf,” the diplomat added.
In Brussels, the agreement’s three European signatory nations have proposed new sanctions on members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and other entities, for Iran’s development of ballistic missiles and its role in the Syrian conflict. Other European states are hesitant.
Trump’s brinksmanship has forced Europe to tread a fine line.
“The Europeans should avoid taking steps that would jeopardize the deal in order to appease Trump, thereby killing the JCPOA in an effort to save it,” said Robert Malley, a former US State Department official who helped negotiate the JCPOA and is now president of the International Crisis Group. “One risk they run is that they’ll end up failing to placate the administration while further alienating the Iranians.”
In Berlin, the State Department Director of Policy Planning Brian Hook was representing the US in the middle of last month, two days after his boss, then-US secretary of state Rex Tillerson, was fired unceremoniously by Trump.
The US president told journalists he had not seen eye-to-eye with Tillerson on Iran, because Tillerson thought the deal could be saved, unlike his replacement.
Pompeo is not to face Senate confirmation hearings for the secretary of state post until late this month.
European officials said they had felt Tillerson was anxious to cooperate with them to come up with a solution that would be face-saving for Trump, but not destroy the nuclear agreement.
From his comments after firing the Tillerson, Trump clearly sensed that the former secretary of state was not representing him, but trying to manage him.
With Tillerson’s fall, Hook was trying to manage the relationship with the Europeans in the face of a leadership and policy vacuum.
The morning session in Berlin was taken up by discussion on supplemental measures that the Europeans were prepared to negotiate over. The afternoon session on “fixing” the JCPOA got nowhere, as there was no wiggle room between trying to amend the deal and the European stance that the deal is non-negotiable.
“First we have to reach an agreement with the Europeans, and if we can’t reach an agreement with the Europeans then we will report that to the president,” Hook told reporters later. “If we can reach an agreement, then that will be presented to the president by the secretary of state and the national security adviser, and then he will make a decision on whether he wants to remain in the deal or stop waiving sanctions.”
Both officials making that presentation, Pompeo and Bolton, are dedicated opponents of the agreement. They are not likely to give any European proposals a sympathetic reading.
One of the last best chances to save the deal will be the state visit of French President Emmanuel Macron to Washington on April 24, and his address to a joint session of the US Congress the next morning.
French officials say the JCPOA, and the effort to save it, will be close to the top of the agenda.
If these 11th-hour appeals for clemency fail, there are still nuances with which Trump can carry out the execution. He could seek to inflict a slow death — not sign the waiver on sanctions, but tell the US secretary of the treasury to hold back on their enforcement, like drawing back the bowstring, but not actually firing the arrow.
Alternatively, Trump could let the arrow fly — not sign the waiver, slap on the sanctions that were suspended as part of the JCPOA and, for good measure, formally announce he is taking the US out of the agreement.
To press home the point yet further, the US could trigger the resumption of UN sanctions, even in the face of opposition from other permanent members of the UN Security Council, under a “snap-back” mechanism built in to the deal.
Any variation of these presidential options would open a transatlantic rift. European diplomats refuse to speculate about a “Plan B” of what to do if and when Trump restores sanctions, claiming all their resources are focused on “Plan A”: Trying to bridge the gap with the Oval Office.
However, European capitals have insisted that they will keep faith with the deal that they signed in Vienna in 2015. One option under active consideration consists of countermeasures aimed at insulating European companies from secondary sanctions, which target not Iran, but anyone doing business with Iran.
Such countermeasures were drawn up for an earlier sanctions crisis, over Cuba, but never used. They could include using euro-denominated accounts to finance deals with and in Iran beyond the reach of the US Treasury.
“I think it’s critical that the EU, Russia and China, and other states too, try to hold the deal together,” Davenport said.
“Failure to support the JCPOA would be a capitulation to the US position, but would also send a dangerous message that risks non-proliferation norms more broadly,” she added.
However, there are serious doubts over what any of these measures could do to relieve the chilling effect of a Trump walk-out on risk-averse corporations when they make decisions on whether to trade and invest in Iran.
Companies like the French oil giant Total are expected to pull out if Trump does not sign the waiver on May 12. Large-scale sales of Boeing and Airbus planes would also be in jeopardy.
Tehran, which has stuck so far to the limits on uranium enrichment and other nuclear activities laid down in the agreement, would be faced with the dilemma of whether it is worth sticking to an agreement that is providing little or no benefit.
“Tehran seems to have changed its position. A few months ago, they said they would be interested in continuing the process even if the US left. That now seems to have changed, because of pressure from hard-liners and general discontent with the way things have been going,” said Ariane Tabatabai, visiting assistant professor of security studies at Georgetown University.
Trump’s vocal hostility to the deal has contributed to a drying up of Western capital and trading partners, which in itself represents a violation of the JCPOA.
Iranian officials have said they would resume production of 20 percent enriched uranium in the event of US violation of the agreement, which would trigger an immediate crisis.
In technical terms, it is considered most of the way along the road to weapons-grade material.
“It remains to be seen if they will actually go through with it,” Tabatabai said. “I don’t think they would necessary go back to all the activities, like resuming enrichment at high levels. It wouldn’t make a whole lot of sense to kick out [UN] inspectors and resume enrichment at 20 percent, when they are winning the blame game.”
Even if Iran is cautious in its response, there will risks of an escalatory cycle. Any violation on Iran’s part could lead other signatories to declare the JCPOA dead, and for any residual foreign investment to evaporate, leading to calls in Tehran for bolder action.
Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are all egging on the Trump administration to take a more confrontational approach. The White House might not need much encouragement.
Trump has said that if Iranian ships harass US naval vessels in the Gulf: “I’ll blow them out of the water.”
Bolton, one of the architects of the Iraq invasion, is a persistent advocate of military action. He wrote a New York Times commentary in 2015, the year the JCPOA was signed, titled “To Stop Iran’s Bomb, Bomb Iran.”
Neither Trump nor Bolton has ever experienced war. Both avoided service in Vietnam: Trump on account of “bone spurs” on his feet, Bolton joining the National Guard and serving in the US.
“I confess I had no desire to die in a Southeast Asian rice paddy,” he wrote later. “I considered the war in Vietnam already lost.”
US Secretary of Defense James Mattis, a US Marine veteran previously considered a hawk on Iran, is fast emerging as the lone pacifist of the Trump administration, urging diplomacy on the Iranian and North Korean fronts.
If Trump carries out his threat on May 12, it might be that a retired general who has sometimes (reluctantly) gone by the nickname “Mad Dog” ends up the last best hope of staving off another Gulf conflict.
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