President Donald Trump’s decision yesterday to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal will most likely ratchet up regional tensions, alienate U.S. allies, and exacerbate the economic and political situation in Iran.
The events that followed Trump’s announcement provide early signs of what will follow in the coming months. Israel reportedly struck Iranian targets in Syria with airstrikes and ordered citizens in the Golan Heights to open bomb shelters. The Houthi rebels launched a missile towards Riyadh. Hardliners set on fire the American flag in the Iranian parliament. And America’s closest allies decried the decision as a mistake.
The conflicts and humanitarian crises in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen will likely worsen given the nuclear agreement’s collapse. Iranian forces and their allies will be more aggressive in confronting Israel in Syria. In recent months Israel has struck two Iranian facilities and killed Iranian soldiers. Tehran, presumably waiting for Trump’s decision on the nuclear agreement, has yet to respond. Now, the guardrails will come off. Iranian-allied forces may also begin threatening U.S. forces in Syria and Iraq and increase confrontations with U.S. ships in the Persian Gulf. Iran will likely increase its fairly minimal support for the Houthi rebels in Yemen and encourage them to target Saudi civilians and oil production facilities.
Both Israel and Saudi Arabia lauded Trump’s decision as a clear-eyed assessment of the Iranian threat. But U.S. allies, especially in Europe, were deeply concerned. The European partners are strongly committed to the nuclear deal. They consider an Iranian nuclear weapon as a security threat, and the nuclear agreement as the best tool to block it. In addition, many European companies have established lucrative commercial relationships in Iran. For the past four months, Britain, France, and Germany—the three European signatories to the nuclear deal—worked with U.S. negotiators to craft compromises to “fix” the deal. In his speech yesterday, Trump definitively rejected these efforts. Europe has promised to maintain the agreement and shield major companies from U.S. sanctions, but these efforts are unlikely to succeed given the power of the sanctions.
The collapse of European trade and investment in Iran will exacerbate the contentious political climate in Tehran and Iran’s fragile economic recovery. The nuclear agreement was President Hassan Rouhani’s signature achievement. For Rouhani, a relative moderate, the deal presented an opportunity to reduce high tensions with the West and was a model for (limited) engagement with the U.S., which Iranian hardliners consider the “Great Satan.” Economically, Rouhani counted on foreign investment to restart Iran’s moribund private sector and generate strong economic growth. Rouhani put on a brave face in a speech to the nation yesterday, but his political standing will likely deteriorate, and Iran’s economy will enter dire straits. These conditions will likely facilitate the ascendancy of hardline factions, including the Revolutionary Guard.
Trump reiterated that the Iran deal “didn’t bring calm, it didn’t bring peace.” But withdrawal from the agreement is unlikely to do so either.
Henry Rome is Iran Researcher at the Eurasia Group.