Donald Trump announced on October 12 that he won’t certify that Iran is abiding by the nuclear agreement Washington negotiated with Teheran in 2015. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) requires the US president to recommit to the deal every 90 days and, by refusing to confirm Iran’s compliance, Trump now leaves it to Congress to reimpose nuclear-related sanctions on the Islamic Republic.
The White House's decision, mostly symbolic in itself, signals a more aggressive American posture towards Iran. Trump’s electoral promises to scrap the deal notwithstanding, much has changed in the Middle East since 2015 and the US needed to ruffle some feathers.
America’s ultimate goal is to prevent any power from dominating its own region. In the Middle East Iran and Turkey are the only two powers which Washington fears could achieve such a feat. However, whereas the Turkish government is still preoccupied with imposing its rule on all sectors of the State and with defusing the Kurdish threat to its domestic stability and international clout, in the past two years Iran’s position has largely improved.
Contrary to what was happening in 2015, across the Middle East the Sunni insurgence is eventually abating and Iran is greatly benefitting from the outcome. Two years ago Washington thought it could use the nuclear deal to freeze Iran’s nuclear program and predicted the Islamic Republic would be busy battling Sunni insurgents for years.
But then Moscow joined the fray in Syria so as to gain a credit Putin thought could cash in Europe (i.e. in Ukraine) and Washington chose to remotely lead mostly Kurdish fighters against the Islamic State to prevent the Sunni insurgence from turning into a full-fledged Caliphate.
Since then Teheran has dealt a serious blow to Syrian rebels and Islamic State fighters, revamped its missile program and is now trying to secure its sphere of influence, ranging from the Persian Plateau to the Mediterranean Sea. Whilst Turkey seems prone to appeasing a stronger Iran and Saudi Arabia is flirting with Russia.
A dreadful scenario for Washington that now feels compelled to thwart Iran’s gradual rise. It is no coincidence that Trump has officially decertified the nuclear deal while Raqqa, de-facto capital of the Islamic State, is bound to fall and while Washington and Ankara are engaged in a tense diplomatic spat.
Washington doesn’t want to scupper the nuclear agreement altogether. By threatening to do away with the JCPOA, Trump hopes to force Teheran to halt its missile program, to coax European allies into following his lead and to make it clear for Moscow that Washington won’t make any concession in Ukraine.
In the end, the Trump administration is betting that Congress won’t impose new sanctions on Iran, as such a move would spell the end of the JCPOA. But the US administration wanted to tell the world that it is willing to disregard any promise it has made in the past if it believes it is no longer fit to pursue its ultimate strategy.