President Trump’s decision to abandon the Iran nuclear deal ranks as his most reckless policy move yet. It is also his biggest triumph so far in his continuing bid to reverse or shatter every one of his nemesis-predecessor’s major accomplishments, regardless of the consequences.
And there will be consequences. Some may turn out to be rather narrow, while others could have a global impact. Some may emerge as the direct result of US actions, while others will depend on how other governments and nongovernmental actors respond. Life will almost certainly become more difficult for ordinary Iranians, who are still coping with crippling US-imposed economic sanctions unrelated to the nuclear deal.
The worst outcome, of course, would be a full-scale regional or even global war. Such a conflict could even lead to the unthinkable: the use of nuclear weapons by one of several nuclear-weapons states. (That list, we should remember, does not include Iran.) And while war is certainly not inevitable, we need to recognize that there are many ways in which one could come about. One of the most commonly discussed could result from an Iranian decision to respond in kind to Trump’s violation of the deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
But first it must be emphasized that virtually all intelligence and nonproliferation agencies in the world—from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN’s nuclear watchdog, to all 16 US intelligence agencies, the intelligence communities of all the signatories to the deal, and even top Israeli military officials—agree (grudgingly or not) that Iran has complied with the JCPOA. Trump’s claims all had to do with what he asserted were the insufficiencies of the JCPOA’s terms, not that Iran had violated those terms.
Trump’s withdrawal from the deal, and his re-imposition of the nuclear-related sanctions that the JCPOA required the United States to lift, constitutes the only violation so far. And so far, Iran has made clear that it intends to stick to the terms of the deal, based on the fact that the other six signatories—Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia, and the EU—are still on board. But if forces within the Iranian government that were always skeptical of the deal use the US withdrawal to gain the upper hand and get Tehran to withdraw from it, the consequences could be incredibly dangerous, since not only the Trump regime in Washington but Israel and Saudi Arabia too would almost certainly respond by calling for war. What is preventing such a move so far is the Iranian government’s maturity and commitment to diplomacy.
Even if Tehran doesn’t abandon the JCPOA, Washington could launch a regime-change war against Iran, perhaps claiming that without a “better deal,” war would be the only way to keep Americans safe. We’ve heard that one before: Trump’s new national-security adviser, John Bolton, wasn’t just a cheerleader for confrontation with Iraq during the Bush administration; he played a major role in undermining diplomatic alternatives and setting the conditions for the disastrous 2003 US invasion. Bolton has long urged a US military attack on Iran and has long supported the opposition cult known as the Mojahedin-e Khalq, or MEK, which he thinks should replace the Iranian government. That group was removed from the US list of foreign terrorist organizations only in 2012 after a major lobbying campaign that involved the MEK paying former US officials millions of dollars in “speaker fees.” One of those officials, recently appointed Trump lawyer and former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani, told a gathering of MEK supporters a couple of days before Trump’s announcement that the president was committed to regime change.