“What we left, we lost,” reads the epitaph for Edward and Mabel Courtenay, who died of the Bubonic Plague in 1419. Those haunting words may come to describe America’s having departed from world leadership. With President Trump’s impulsive hand weaving a chaotic course through world affairs and his profligate fiscal policy narrowing the nation’s strategic flexibility, that once unthinkable destination may now be coming into sight.
President Trump’s decision to withdraw the United States from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) achieved a longstanding campaign promise. What comes next is unclear. At present, the Trump Administration knows only what it “left,” but not what it may have “lost.”
Determining what was lost may have less to do with Iran’s response than how the United States deals with the European Union (EU) and the EU’s response. The United States could essentially confine itself to imposing unilateral sanctions on Iran while holding European companies harmless for pursuing activities that are permissible under the JCPOA. Such a path would significantly limit the impact of the new sanctions on Iran.
It would also entail the least risk. Iran, the European Union, along with Russia and China, would try to salvage what’s left of the JCPOA. Iran has already expressed an intent to do so. The European Union has announced that it will “remain committed to the continued full and effective implementation” of the agreement as long as Iran honors its commitments. The end result would be Iran’s continuing to limit its nuclear activities combined with American companies’ being locked out of Iran’s markets. The only meaningful loss would be foregone economic benefits for the United States.
The second path would be riskier. It would involve an American attempt to punish European companies that continue to do business with Iran. That path contains two major scenarios. The EU could accept American sanctions and its companies could curb their Iran-related transactions. Both the U.S. and EU would suffer economic losses. The more substantial sanctions would produce an economic shock in Iran that could trigger civil and political instability. Iran’s theocratic regime could violently crush the dissent, as it has in the past. With little to gain from restraint, Iran could restart all of its nuclear activities while simultaneously deepening its relationships with Russia and China. U.S. national security and that of its allies would be damaged.
As the EU’s economic exposure to Iran is substantially greater than U.S. exposure, the EU could reject any American attempts to sanction its companies. It could reluctantly accede to those demands later with all of the consequences cited in the above paragraph, along with a weakened bilateral relationship with the United States. The Trump Administration could also back down. Capitulation would weaken its credibility, leave a residue of mistrust in trans-Atlantic ties, but limit economic losses to American companies.
However, neither party might back down. Then, the U.S. would move to impose sanctions on European companies doing business with Iran. If Europe yields under pressure, trans-Atlantic ties would suffer potentially serious damage. All parties would experience economic losses. Iran would suffer a significant economic shock leading to possible social and political consequences. Iran would likely resume its earlier nuclear activities.
Europe could also choose to fight back. Under that scenario, the EU would impose retaliatory measures against the United States in response to American punishment of its businesses. Trans-Atlantic ties could then be shattered, a trade war could erupt, and the NATO alliance face a de facto demise, even if it survives in formality. These developments could trigger a dramatic rebalancing of world affairs in which the U.S. role is substantially limited and the U.S. is broadly viewed as an unreliable, if not disruptive. In the short-run, the world could experience a regional or global economic shock. Iran could rapidly pursue nuclear weapons. Geopolitical risk could reach levels at least rivaling those during the first decade of the 20th century.
In this American-produced “nighttime,” historians may well recall the senior State Department official’s explanation following President Trump’s withdrawal from the JCPOA. “We did not talk about a Plan B.”
The world’s peoples who would bear risks that were once thought to have been left behind at the conclusion of the 20th century, might ask of the Trump Administration, “What were they thinking?” The cold answer: “They were not thinking.”
The Trump Administration tipped a domino yesterday without the knowledge of what comes next. In doing so, it left an important part of the future to chance.