Trump, Iran, and Stability in the Middle East

MADRID – It is unfortunate that so few international agreements have been reached in recent years. During a period when great-power competition has generally trumped cooperation, two significant exceptions – the Iran nuclear deal and the Paris climate agreement – offer hope that formalized, multilateral responses to global challenges are still possible.

But now Donald Trump is threatening to renege on both agreements, and his election as President of the United States has revealed their fragility. If the US withdraws from, or fails to comply with, either deal, it will strike a heavy blow to a global-governance system that relies on multilateral agreements to resolve international problems.

To see what is at stake, consider the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action between Iran and the E3/EU3+3 (the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, plus Germany and the European Union). The JCPOA’s first anniversary coincided with Trump’s inauguration, so it is worth recalling how it came about – and what could happen if it falls apart.

Europeans first made contact with Iran about the issue back in 2003, when they negotiated with then-Secretary of the Iranian National Security Council, Hassan Rouhani. Both sides even reached an agreement in 2004; but it did not last long. In 2005, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s election as President of Iran marked a turning point. While the negotiations officially continued, scant progress was made. Meanwhile, Iran’s nuclear program advanced rapidly, even as its people suffered under heavy economic sanctions.