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After The Iran Deal Pullout: Whose Plan B?

Given the chaotic policymaking process in the White House, Iran policy will likely be implemented in an ad hoc fashion subject to the interplay between President Trump’s continued incoherence and a drive toward confrontation pushed primarily by John Bolton.

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Much has been written about what comes next after the US withdrawal from the Iran Nuclear agreement, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). So far, this is guesswork. As many have observed, the administration itself has divulged no strategy going forward, probably because there is none. As Daniel Drezner described it, President Donald Trump’s Plan B has three steps. Step one was leaving the agreement, while step 3 was getting Iran to submit to US dictates. The all-important step 2, however, is missing in action. In effect, as US diplomat Henry Cabot Lodge put it over 100 years ago, Washington currently has “an animosity, not a policy.” Trump wants to be confrontational without bothering to figure out what that means. 

As Drezner suggests, Plan B is still pending. But there are some leading explanations for Trump’s decision and corresponding Plan Bs that may derive from it. Washington Postwriter Dana Milbank offers a psychological explanation for Trump’s behavior, which, unfortunately, appears to be quite astute. As Milbank sees it, Trump is all about sowing chaos, which continually puts him at the center of the world’s attention and generates great TV ratings—Trump’s metric of success—as opposed to actually solving problems.

On any given day, virtually anybody in the White House might be fired. We could find ourselves in a tiff with any foreign power, friend or foe. Rudy Giuliani might return, or Trump’s doctor, or a porn star, or the villain, Robert Mueller. Can a torture enthusiast be confirmed to run the CIA? Stay tuned!

It’s the same old reality-show interpretation of Trump’s behavior, but the president’s TV references and actions with respect to DACA and the Paris climate accords, along with his apparent need to rip up everything Obama accomplished, make this kind of argument credible, even convincing. He is so ego-driven that his aim is to act decisively (or rashly) in order to keep himself at the center of media attention. But he himself quite likely is clueless about what comes next, except more overheated rhetoric.

Plan B: War

Of course, there is a more conventional and sinister explanation, namely that the new foreign policy team led by extreme Iran hawks John Bolton and Mike Pompeo, has, as its Plan B, a much more confrontational approach to Iran, including a major war. Bolton has been calling for an attack on Iran and regime change for many years and has forged strong contacts with the Iranian exile group Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK), which was on the US State Department’s terrorism list until just a couple of years ago. The MEK is extremely unpopular inside Iran because it sided with Iraq during the eight-year Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, but this registers with Bolton to the same extent that the non-viability of Ahmad Chalabi in Iraq worried the neocons in the George W. Bush administration.

Closely allied with Bolton is Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who opposed diplomacy with Iran from the beginning and traveled to the US to deliver a speech in Congress in an attempt to torpedo it. Netanyahu’s record as a Middle East prognosticator would embarrass anyone with a normal-sized ego. The prime minister has been saying for close to two decades that Iran was within just a few months of having a nuclear weapon. And before the US invasion of Iraq he asserted with high confidence that US military action would lead to great outcomes throughout the Middle East. In a normal world, the Israeli prime minister would have no remaining credibility. But Likudist chutzpah is valued highly among the powers that be in Washington these days…as well as in the US press.

Just before Trump announced his decision, Netanyahu made an ostentatious presentation at the Israeli defense ministry, showing off a large number of documents and computer files that he claimed were seized from Iran and confirmed that the Iranians were untruthful back in the early 2000s about their nuclear intentions. Weapons experts and former diplomats and intelligence officials were unimpressed, saying that the cache only confirmed what they already knew and actually confirmed: that the JCPOA was working. But the presentation—in English—was meant for an audience of one: the US president who subsequently worked it into his announcement about the US withdrawal. Along with Bolton and company, Netanyahu’s Plan B is military confrontation and the Israelis have attacked Iranian positions in Syria several times recently just to prove it.

But to fully understand the Israeli angle and its links to hardliners in the US, it is useful to “follow the money.” In a piece on LobeLog, Eli Clifton has done just that. Billionaires Sheldon Adelson, Bernard Marcus, and Mark Singer have contributed to various hardline, pro-Israeli organizations such as the Republican Jewish Coalition and the Foundation for Defense of Democracies as well as huge sums to the Trump and republican congressional (both House and Senate) campaigns. Although Trump may have had his own reasons for pulling out of the JCPOA, there were and continue to be strong political winds pushing in the same direction. Republican mega-donors and a substantial part of the GOP’s caucuses in Congress are on board with the Bolton-Netanyahu version of Plan B.

Other Plan Bs

There may very well be significant opposition within the Department of Defense to the Plan B of the war hawks, given that Secretary Mattis and members of the Joint Chiefs have supported staying in the JCPOA. It is unclear at this point what role Mattis and his deputies played in the decision or might play going forward. Assuming they were skeptical about the pullout, they may only be able to influence how confrontation with Iran is pursued, rather than to limit it if the president decides to escalate.

What about anti-war groups? Despite a huge surge of organization and mobilization among progressive groups since Trump was elected, very little of that has been focused on foreign policy in general or on US-Iran relations in particular. In part, this is due to progressives viewing foreign policy as a complicated and remote issue, divorced from immediate domestic concerns such as immigrant and minority rights, criminal justice reform, economic inequality, and climate change. Many of these actually have significant international dimensions, so the potential exists to build a strong anti-war movement. And if the US does embroil itself in another large war in the Middle East, these other progressive issues will suffer alongside the great pressure to rally round the president. So, it’s a critical moment for progressives and democrats. But they have to seize it.

There is one last Plan B and it comes from Europe, where the stakes of the US pullout and  potential war are very high. Having borne the brunt of massive flows of humanity from Iraq and Syria over the past several years, the European countries have a critical interest in preventing another large war in the Middle East. In the countdown to the US decision, Emmanuel Macron, Angela Merkel, and Boris Johnson visited Washington in a concerted attempt to convince Trump to stay in the accord. Macron, in particular, engaged in discussions with US decision-makers about the possibility of expanding US-European concerns to include Iran’s ballistic missiles, activities in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen, and possibly finding a way to extend some of the sunset provisions of the JCPOA—all to Iran’s displeasure.

Now that the US has made its decision, Europe is faced with the stark challenge of finding a way to maintain the JCPOA. But the US pullout has also thrown a bomb into US-European relations made more difficult after the Paris climate accord withdrawal, Trump’s lukewarm statements about support for NATO, and the more recent trade tariffs. Europeans no longer have illusions about the US as a reliable partner.

What Can Europe Do?

In a long analysis, the International Crisis Group has proposed a series of steps European countries could take to ensure that Iran benefits from its continued adherence to the JCPOA. In the short term, Europe could continue to support a range of ongoing economic exchanges including purchases of Iranian oil and other export products; protecting European companies that might come under so-called secondary sanctions imposed by the US; using state credit and investment agencies to cover companies’ risks; and supporting infrastructure development projects in Iran through international development assistance.

Other measures could be taken in the medium term. They could include more robust trade and credit guarantees; making Iran fully eligible for loans for large public-sector projects from the European Investment Bank; a long-term energy partnership including the building of new pipelines and the provision of renewable energy technology; the establishment of an Iranian-EU Chamber of Commerce; and even civilian nuclear cooperation.

The efficacy of these short- and medium-term measures will depend to a large degree on the US response as well as how the EU responds to punitive actions the US might take. In addition to upsetting the multilateral approach to Iran and roiling Middle East politics, the US has pushed US-European relations into unchartered territory. In a Foreign Policyarticle titled “RIP The Trans-Atlantic Alliance, 1945-2018,” James Traub argues that the US withdrawal from the JCPOA was the last nail in the coffin of that partnership, which had been deteriorating for years even before Trump assumed office. But the shock of the US withdrawal and statements such as that of the new US ambassador to Germany that German companies doing business in Iran should “wind down operations immediately” have presented Europe with a “put up or shut up” moment. If the EU can effectively push back against the US on Iran and maintain its independence, it can head off a military crisis and restrain the US generally. If it cannot, the US is unconstrained and the consequences for the Middle East and Europe could be catastrophic.

It remains to be seen how far the Europeans can go. They are clearly not waiting passively. The German foreign minister was in Moscow last week to appeal to the Russians to encourage the Iranians to stay in the JCPOA, while Traub notes that Macron has spoken about an independent military force of 100,000 troops. Clearly European forbearance toward the US has nearly run out. In an interview with Traub, Mark Leonard, the director of the European Council on Foreign Relations stated that “[w]e’re going to have to treat the US as a hostile power” and “introduce countermeasures against US companies.”

Although there are competing Plan Bs for Iran policy and the JCPOA, the US has created several crises, both internal and external, each of which needs a Plan B of some sort. Given the chaotic policymaking process in the White House, Iran policy will likely be implemented in an ad hoc fashion subject to the interplay between Trump’s continued incoherence and a drive toward confrontation pushed primarily by Bolton. But this confusion, combined with the influence of the Likudist hard right and Trump’s default inclination towards confrontation may put Bolton in the driver’s seat. That is, unless the Europeans and a US anti-war movement can gear up quickly to mount an effective opposition politics.

Dan Sisken has a PhD in political science with concentrations in political economy, international development, and Middle East politics. He blogs at his website Progressive Strategy.

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