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‘Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran deal will increase tensions with Europe’: Q&A with Prof. Alexander H. Montgomery

As the Iranian people brace for the next round of economic sanctions by the United States to be introduced in early November, debate about the unilateral withdrawal of the U.S. from the landmark July 2015 nuclear deal between Tehran and six world powers continues in the international media.

These days, a great deal of the mainstream media coverage of the Middle East goes to Iran and every new development pertaining to Iran is somehow linked by experts and pundits to the U.S. sanctions and the departure of the United States from the nuclear deal, be it the imminent suspension of British Airways and Air France flights to Tehran or the introduction of an assistance package by the European Union “for projects in support of sustainable economic and social development” in Iran.

On August 6th, President Donald Trump unveiled the first set of U.S. sanctions against Iran after announcing the de-certification of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action in May and his Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said an Iran Action Group has been created within the Department of State to coordinate the U.S. policy towards Iran focusing on “nukes, terrorism, and the detention of American citizens.”

I had the opportunity to interview Alexander H. Montgomery, a distinguished American political scientist about the nullification of Iran nuclear deal by President Trump and its impacts on the strategic U.S.-EU partnership, the future of Iran-U.S. relations in the light of the stringent U.S. sanctions and Tehran’s efforts to eschew the harmful impacts of the U.S. punitive measures.

Alexander H. Montgomery is an Associate Professor of Political Science at the Department of Political Science of the Reed College in Portland, Oregon. Most recently, he was a Residential Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. He has also served as a Council on Foreign Relations International Affairs Fellow in Nuclear Security in the U.S. Office of the Secretary of Defense (Policy), working for the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction. The following is the text of the interview with Prof. Montgomery.

President Trump unilaterally withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal. Will his decision complicate United States’ relations with the European Union, which has made it clear will continue abiding by the agreement?

Yes. Due to the potentially wide-reaching effects of the secondary sanctions on businesses in the EU, this will add to the tensions that have already been created by other aspects of Trump’s foreign policy, including new tariffs on allies, undermining NATO, and the failure of the most recent G7 summit.

Do you think President Donald Trump’s foreign policy decisions, including pulling out of the JCPOA, are mature enough and representative of the qualities of a U.S. commander in chief or is he simply trying to undo the achievements of Barack Obama?

There are many possible explanations that are commensurate with Trump’s foreign-policy decisions. Undoing Barack Obama’s achievements certainly matches some of these decisions [such as] JCPOA, TPP, but others seem to be driven by a different kind of logic, for example igniting trade wars, undermining allies, and cozying up to authoritarian rulers don’t specifically undermine any of Obama’s achievements. This logic looks more like a 19th-century, nationalist-mercantilist approach, in which trade is seen as zero-sum and authoritarianism is a respectable, stable method of governance, but even that doesn’t explain undermining long-term allies. Few if any of these decisions have been considered mature or representative of qualities of any great power for the last 150 years.

Ordinary Iranian citizens usually talk of Russia as an unfaithful ally. Under current circumstances, considering all the dynamics of U.S.-Russia and Iran-Russia relations, do you think President Putin will support Iran in the wake of growing U.S. pressure, the forthcoming sanctions and the demands by the American officials directed at Iran’s oil clients to stop buying Iran’s crude?

Both Russia and China stand to gain leverage in Iran in particular and in the Middle East more generally due to their superior ability to insulate themselves from secondary sanctions through clandestine and illicit means. I would expect quiet support for Iran where Putin thinks he can gain a strategic advantage.

Will President Trump’s unilateral withdrawal from the Iran deal set a bad precedent for countries to abandon their international obligations, especially when these obligations are upheld by the UN Security Council?

It sets a bad precedent for present and future U.S. commitments; how can any country think the U.S. will keep its word on practically any issue now? While it may provide an “excuse” for abandoning international obligations, it will probably not alter the actions of many countries. The exception would be in the area of human rights, but this changed behavior is more due to the U.S. no longer holding other countries accountable rather than a withdrawal from the JCPOA.

Is it possible to foresee a better future for Iran and the United States given the ongoing skirmishes between the two governments and the verbal aggression their leaders are exchanging?

Yes, but not in the near term. The Iran Deal required leaders in the U.S., Obama, and Iran’s Rouhani who were willing to engage with each other both symbolically through rhetoric and actions and pragmatically through negotiations. The renewed sanctions make it less likely that Rouhani will be re-elected and do not bode well for an Iranian president in the near term who will be willing to engage in such a way, and the 2020 elections in the U.S. are too far off to make any useful predictions.

Moderates in Tehran are hopeful that Trump will be replaced by a Democrat in the next presidential election and Congressional hawks will also lose their seats. It is then when negotiations with the United States will be possible. What’s your assessment of the current political climate in the United States? Does Trump have a hard job being reelected?

The deep political divides and the willingness of the Republican Party to resort to white nationalist rhetoric and voter suppression make for a poisonous climate, yet one in which the Republicans for at least a while retain their hold on federal power despite being a minority government in terms of the national distribution of votes and representation. The willingness of Trump and his party to undermine institutions and engage in race-baiting makes it difficult to assess re-election chances. While Trump’s popularity is quite low at around 40%, incumbency advantages and these underhanded techniques will make it more of a toss-up than it would be otherwise.

Many experts say President Trump’s d-certification of the Iran deal and his passionate engagement with North Korea indicate his willingness to devise his own foreign policy signature, which is denuclearization in the Korean peninsula. Do you think Trump’s North Korea plans will go ahead as he expects?

No. North Korea has not agreed to disarmament, which is what Trump appears to think North Korea will do; the North Koreans have clearly indicated that denuclearization of the entire peninsula, and possibly the entire world is a long-term aspirational goal that can only be achieved after a peace treaty and elimination of the threat posed by the U.S. Abrogation of the Iran deal will only make it more difficult for North Korea to move forward.

Finally, do you think President Trump is getting advice from the right people about Iran, its domestic dynamics and the repercussions of his withdrawal from the nuclear deal? Is John Bolton, whose partisan views about Iran are well-known, a reliable adviser on Iran?

No. The State Department has been hollowed out, with many key posts still left unfilled, which is where any president would get good advice from regarding domestic and international dynamics. Bolton has made no secret of his desire to punish countries that do not entirely surrender their capabilities with military strikes and regime change, and consequently makes for a very poor national security advisor, whose job is to coordinate rather than drive policy.