WASHINGTON ― President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal will weaken U.S. relationships around the world and create problems that U.S. foreign policy will be grappling with for years, but it’s also a boon for the U.S. rival that American intelligence said helped Trump get elected: Russia.
Trump’s move will likely lead toward progress on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s two chief goals: splintering the U.S.-led alliance of democratic powers that currently dominates global affairs and fortifying Russia’s alternative network, which includes Iran and its partners across the Middle East.
A split between the U.S. and its three most powerful allies – France, Germany and the U.K. – was clear immediately after Trump’s announcement. The leaders of the latter three countries issued a joint statement expressing “regret and concern” and saying they want to sustain the Iran agreement, which promised Iran some freedom from international sanctions in exchange for limits on and guarantees of transparency about its nuclear development. They reiterated what Trump’s own military advisers and new secretary of state have said: Iran is abiding by the deal.
“America moves further away from our key allies, which has implications that are extremely important and detrimental,” said Rep. John Garamendi (D-Calif.), a prominent member of the House Armed Services Committee.
The U.S. committed to the 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran, Germany, France, Russia, China and the U.K. All the other countries plan to stay in the accord.
The U.S. and Europe have always had disputes. But the worry is that something fundamental is shifting.
Trump’s reneging on past U.S. commitments on Iran and climate change, along with his willingness to wage a trade war with Europe and continuously misrepresent NATO, has made it hard for America’s foreign partners to think he truly sees them as friends.
That the president made his Tuesday announcement despite from his own party’s top national security voices and independent experts reminds other countries that they can’t assume that U.S. supporters of traditional diplomacy and international norms will be able to keep American relationships on track. The implicit promise of an experienced, largely bureaucratic foreign service is that it brings professionalism and longterm thinking to whatever policy an elected official wants to pursue ― and on Tuesday, U.S. diplomats didn’t even have a plan for next steps after Trump’s speech.
The Europeans would prefer that the U.S. continue to operate as it traditionally did, said Federiga Bindi, a former official in the Italian government and a senior fellow at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. “I think with [the Iran deal announcement] they start to see who Trump really is. The U.S. is never going to recover from that.”
The Trump administration did try to soften the blow of the announcement. The president spoke of developing future Iran policy alongside foreign partners. And a White House statement said foreign companies that began work in Iran under the terms of the accord ― including some huge European firms ― would have a grace period to exit before potentially being hit with U.S. sanctions that Trump wants to reapply.
But that only underscored how U.S. priorities now diverge from those of its longtime allies. European leaders are committed to the Iran deal because they believe it prevents the spread of nuclear weapons and they know Iran will not stay in unless it receives some economic benefit. So now those same leaders, Bindi said, must try to shield their companies from U.S. sanctions by, for instance, helping them create ways to do business in Iran that can’t be disturbed by American regulators. But there’s only so much time in the day. It’s unlikely that European officials will focus much on trying to craft the “better deal” Trump pledged, particularly because the president didn’t seem to care about the months of work they and their American counterparts put into negotiations for side agreements that he had suggested might help convince him to stay in the deal.
Meanwhile, in Moscow, Putin began his fourth term in office this week with a chance to show that unlike the U.S., Russia does abide by international promises like the Iran agreement.
The accord was useful for Russia because it wanted to avoid more countries gaining nuclear weapons and thereby making one of its own assets less valuable. “It never really was comfortable with Iran’s potential for breakout,” said Michael Stephens of the Royal United Services Institute in London.
But a world in which U.S. credibility is in the gutter and the deal is in tatters is hardly a nightmare scenario for Putin.
As the U.S. puts more economic pressure on Iran, the Islamic republic will find it harder to acquire friends. That leaves Tehran with Moscow. Though the two are uneasy partners, they have cooperated to combat international initiatives that might challenge their own interests. In Syria, for instance, they fight side-by-side and present a united front in global organizations to defend their mutual friend Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Hard-liners in Tehran want to deepen that relationship. In the process, they seek to boost the sense of righteous resistance to the West that keeps aggressive nationalism strong among their base and ensure that their country remains a Putin-style autocratic society, rather than gaining more exposure to the Western liberties that many ordinary Iranians have clamored for.
A more isolated and paranoid Iran means “the Russians gain geostrategically,” said Reza Marashi, the research director at the National Iranian American Council and a former State Department official.
The United States, he added, is helping reinforce a perception that the Russians want to strengthen: that today Washington may hold sway in the southern half of the Middle East, but the north ― including key areas in Syria, Iraq, Iran and Turkey ― is under Moscow’s influence.
And that plays precisely into what Putin deeply desires ― to make Russia, 27 years after the fall of the Soviet Union, once again look like an equal to the U.S.