Empty chest-thumping won’t win US allies on Iran

Bloomberg | Bobby Ghosh: Even by the standards of hyperbole set by the administration of President Donald Trump, Secretary of State Michael Pompeo’s contention that the U.S. is “Leading the World Against Iran’s Threats” is a doozy. That chest-thumper is the title of a statement issued on the second anniversary of the American withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal. As an accounting of the administration’s strategy to contain the Islamic Republic since then, the statement completely disregards the cost to relations with U.S. allies.

There is no gainsaying the claim that Trump’s tough economic sanctions have “prevented Iran from funding and equipping terrorists with many billions of dollars.” The region would have been even more unstable if the regime in Tehran was unhindered by the sanctions. The recent belligerence by Iran and its proxies can be attributed to their growing frustration at being shackled. So, the contention that “the Middle East is more peaceful than if we had stayed [in the deal]” just about passes muster.

But Pompeo can hardly boast of “leading the world” against the Iran when few other nations are inclined to follow. That the U.S. finds itself standing all but alone against a blood-soaked regime, a menace to its neighbors and a threat to the world, must rank as one of the administration’s—and the secretary’s—greatest failures.

Two years after Trump’s withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, none of the other signatories—China, Russia, Germany, France, Britain and the European Unions—has joined the American “maximum-pressure” campaign against Iran. On the contrary, they maintain the fiction that the deal is alive, even though the regime in Tehran is now in breach of its restrictions on uranium enrichment.

Worse, Pompeo can’t count on their support for his next task: making sure the Iranians don’t get their hands on sophisticated new weapons systems. The other JCPOA signatories are resisting the Trump administration’s plan to extend a United Nations embargo on arms sales to Iran, which is due to expire this fall, by triggering a “snapback” of pre-deal UN sanctions.

Perhaps the other signatories’ lingering resentment over the peremptory manner in which Trump treated them was inevitable. The president, plainly obsessed with dismantling the legacy of his predecessor, tore up the deal with scant consideration for their objections.

Could it have been otherwise? Some critics of Trump’s Iran policy have argued that the U.S. should have stayed in the JCPOA and sought new negotiations with Iran over its other malign activities. The Europeans—especially France’s President Emmanuel Macron—were working on a proposal along those lines. But having already secured the sanctions relief they wanted for signing the nuclear deal, the Iranians would have been unlikely to accept any post-hoc terms, and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei explicitly ruled out any other deals.

The other option was for Trump to ramp up economic sanctions against Iran for its other malign activities—in effect imposing the near-total blockade that now exists—while keeping the U.S. in the JCPOA. This probably would have angered the other signatories just as much as the unilateral American withdrawal: The Europeans, in particular, would have lost trade and investment opportunities potentially worth hundreds of billions of dollars.

Arguably, then, the U.S. was never going to get the other signatories to buy into its pressure campaign against Iran. But Pompeo has also failed to get much traction outside that select group.

There isn’t a great deal of sympathy for the American argument in the world outside the Middle East. Even within the region, ambivalence abounds. None of the countries that share a land border with Iran would, if asked, endorse the sanctions campaign. Kuwait, Oman and Qatar, three of the six Arab states on the other side of the Persian Gulf, maintain cautious-to-cordial relations with Tehran.

The Trump administration’s inability to build a substantial following behind its Iran strategy has, until now, mattered little: The brute force of American sanctions has overpowered any objections from other quarters. This level of power has allowed the U.S. to dispense with even an effort to build a substantial coalition.

Yet as a result, Pompeo will be fighting solo at the UN Security Council to extend the arms embargo on Iran. He can’t even count on diplomatic support from all the countries that would be most endangered if Tehran acquires new weapons systems. You would expect Arab governments to loudly and forcefully lobby for the embargo to remain. But, even allowing for some distraction because of the coronavirus epidemic, they have expressed little concern—much less endorsed the American effort to have it extended. Only Israel, which has little leverage of its own in the UN, has issued a full-throated call for an extension.

Again, the Trump administration may be able to deploy a combination of sanctions threats and the American veto in the Security Council to keep Iran shackled. If the embargo ends, the threat of tough penalties might prevent arms makers from doing business with Tehran.

This is sure to antagonize the other powers further, and do little to rally international support for the confrontation with Iran. Whatever else it might achieve, the U.S. will not be “leading the world.”

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.