Iran: From Theocracy to Regional Superpower?

Following years in isolation, Iran has reentered the international stage — which for some is cause for alarm. Tehran is now engaging in dialogue and has agreed to curb its nuclear program. But it is also involved in wars in Syria and Yemen – running the risk of upsetting the sensibilities of old enemies such as Israel, Saudi Arabia and the US. Donald Trump has now ditched the Iran nuclear deal.

U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision  to withdraw his country from the Iran nuclear deal would undermine peace and denuclearization prospects, U.S. experts said.

The move to scrap the 2015 landmark international deal aimed at containing Iran’s nuclear ambitions would escalate regional tensions by sparking a nuclear arms race, they warned.


Richard Baffa, a senior international and defense policy researcher at the RAND Corporation, told Xinhua that the U.S. withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was “very much expected.”

The decision was largely motivated by Trump’s personal serious opposition to the agreement as far back as in the presidential campaign, and the encouragement of his new national security team led by John Bolton and Mike Pompeo, Baffa said.

Their opposition is centered on both problems with the agreement itself as well as Iran’s regional influence, he noted.

Specifically for the agreement clauses, he said that “the problematic provisions include the sunset provisions (the restrictions expire in roughly a decade); the lack of attention to Tehran’s ballistic missile program; continued authorization for limited enrichment; and an inspection regime that may not be able to gain access to military sites.”

Israel’s role
Obama did not propose a geopolitical vision for the region when he knocked down the 2010 deal, nor when he concluded the 2015 nuclear agreement with the P5+1. He simply reduced the entire issue to nuclear energy and potential armament.

To state it differently, Obama saw Iran solely through the lens of its nuclear programme. This reductionist equation obscured his view of the larger regional transformation that was already well under way when the nuclear deal was signed.

Obama’s lack of geopolitical vision rendered him a prisoner to the deal. His consequential indecisiveness in Syria can’t be detached from his obsession with leaving behind the nuclear deal as his major foreign policy legacy.

This legacy, however, was shortsightedly undone by Trump, who has opened the geopolitical Pandora’s box in the process. The Trump administration, aided by Israel, has now invested in a new crisis in Europe, Russia and the Middle East.

Trump withdrew from the nuclear deal days after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu raised claims about Iran’s nuclear ambitions, similar to those he made in 2002, when he said there was “no question whatsoever” that Iraq’s Saddam Hussein was working towards the development of nuclear weapons.

“Trump believes he can negotiate a better deal than Obama, but he doesn’t understand that many other countries were involved and there are complex interests at play.”

“The ability to reopen negotiations is likely to be quite limited and the United States will have little leverage without the support of European allies, China, and Russia. It took all of those parties to reach the original deal,” he added.

Chris Galdieri, assistant professor at Saint Anselm College in the U.S. state of New Hampshire, told Xinhua that Trump “is largely motivated with undoing as much of Obama’s presidency as he can manage.”

“Adding to that is the fact that Trump is now surrounded by hawks like John Bolton, and this is not at all a surprise to me,” he said in an interview.


The move has been conjectured for months, despite last-ditch efforts by European leaders and supporters to salvage the July 2015 agreement between Iran and the six world powers of Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States.

RAND’s Baffa told Xinhua that the Iran nuke deal was “high on the agenda” of French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson in their visits to the United States recently.

He noted that the issue of secondary sanctions, which Trump warned in his speech, “has the potential to increase tensions” along the two sides of the Atlantic.

As for the Middle East, Baffa said “an Iranian departure from the deal along with a move to re-start its nuclear program,” sparked by Trump’s decision, “would have profound, destabilizing implications for the region.”

“In the near term, the Israelis will be alarmed and the military option almost certainly will be back on the table. Over the mid-term, the Saudis and others might pursue a weapon of their own,” he said.

More worrisome prospects are waiting ahead.

Dan Mahaffee, senior vice president and director of policy at the Center for the Study of Congress and the Presidency, said that “with Sunni Arab allies and Israel, the United States is moving towards a policy of more direct confrontation with Iran, rather than the rapprochement under the Obama administration – which Trump and many of his hawkish allies believe was naive.”

Brookings’ West also noted that the risk is that Trump’s decision will spark an arms race in the Middle East.

“Iran may restart its nuclear program and that could propel Saudi Arabia to develop its own nuclear program. The region is likely to become more volatile and chaotic as a result of the deal nullification,” he said.

Galdieri told Xinhua that Trump’s decision will undercut the U.S. relations with the Middle East, as well as with its European allies.
“I think it hurts them, simply because Trump has now declared that the U.S. can’t be trusted,” he said.

“European-U.S. efforts to negotiate a supplemental agreement intended to address Trump’s complaints failed to yield results because Trump stubbornly refused to guarantee that he would uphold U.S. commitments under the JCPOA,” said Daryl G. Kimball, executive director of the independent group.

“Through his reckless actions, Trump is precipitating a proliferation crisis rather than working with our allies to develop a long-term diplomatic strategy to build on the agreement in the years ahead,” he noted.

The consequences for the Iranian economy, international trade relations and the balance of power in the Middle East remains as yet unclear. Does Iran have expansionist ambitions – not just military, but also political and economic? Or is it merely seeking to secure its borders and autonomy, and ward off the crises that are destabilizing the Middle East?

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