It is no surprise that Donald Trump is eager to cancel the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, one of the few Obama policies that increased the prospects for world peace. Trump is closely allied with the extreme right of the Republican Party, which opposed the deal from the start and which is eager to eliminate the Islamist government in Iran either through a direct U.S. invasion or by outsourcing the deed to Israel.
The surprise is that most of the U.S. foreign policy establishment wants to preserve the deal and lobbied hard, though unsuccessfully, to push Trump to recertify Iranian compliance. The future of the deal is now in the hands of Congress under the terms of the legislation that allowed Obama to suspend the sanctions. Sanctions will be reimposed only if majorities in the House and Senate vote to do so. We can expect intense lobbying from the military, from former diplomats, and behind the scenes from the State Department to prevent Congress from acting. Important U.S. business interests have also signaled their opposition to sanctions. This split among elites over Iran policy is longstanding, but since 2015 has matured into more institutionalized form.
The split reflects the contradictions that face the United States in its role as the declining hegemonic power in the world. On the one hand, U.S. dominance over allies is largely based on its ability to act as the guarantor of stable relations among nations. It does that by using the threat of its overwhelming military power to prevent countries from invading their neighbors and to enforce the web of treaties and agreements among nations. On the other hand, the U.S. has specific interests, and particular companies that stand to make money, in each part of the world, and the pursuit of those interests tends to destabilize the affected regions. U.S. credibility among other governments is severely strained by its far-flung military operations – which almost always amplify violence and humanitarian crises, both directly and indirectly – and by its own disregard for many key treaties and agreements. The increasingly multipolar nature of global power increases the costs of U.S. hypocrisy, rendering U.S. hegemony more and more tenuous.
U.S. military and diplomatic elites have powerful reasons to want the web of international agreements to continue without disruption. The military enjoys access to hundreds of bases around the world thanks to treaties between the U.S. and other governments. Normally hawkish military officials have warned against cancellation of the Iran agreement, predicting that it would further undermine U.S. hegemony. In September General Joseph Dunford, the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, warned that cancelling the Iran deal despite Iran’s compliance with its terms “would have an impact on others’ willingness to sign agreements” with the United States, for instance in talks on North Korea. The desire to preserve U.S. credibility is why Trump’s generals asked him to keep recertifying the deal, as he did twice earlier in 2017. It’s also why so many current and former diplomats, establishment policy intellectuals, and leading media outlets also oppose cancellation.
Corporations have a similar stake in preserving global agreements, from which they derive many of their profitmaking opportunities. The United Nations, World Bank, International Monetary Fund, and other “global” agencies were all created under U.S. direction in the post-World War II period, and are structured to give the U.S. the dominant voice and often veto power over decisions, thus bolstering U.S. corporations’ economic advantage. These legacies of U.S. global dominance would all be endangered if the Trump administration set a precedent with the Iran agreement of allowing countries to simply withdraw in pursuit of momentary advantage or to satisfy narrow domestic pressure groups. This concern may partly explain business opposition to unilateral U.S. sanctions, even among businesses that will never do significant business with Iran.
The specific economic deals that some U.S. companies have pursued with Iran have further galvanized corporate opposition to cancellation. Boeing, with its $20 billion in contracts to supply commercial aircraft to Iranian airlines, has been a vocal defender of the 2015 agreement. Fossil fuels corporations likewise opposed last summer’s sanctions bill targeting Iran, North Korea, and Russia, and were able to modify its provisions on energy investments to their advantage. Last month a Bloomberg editorial warned that “decertification may also keep U.S. companies out of legitimate business deals in Iran, leaving those opportunities open to European and other competitors,” who have made clear they will maintain and even expand their ties with Iran, regardless of what the U.S. does. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has issued similar warnings. The European Union’s ambassador to the United States recently stated that the EU “will act to protect the legitimate interests of our companies with all the means at our disposal.”
If those were the only pressures on Trump and the Republicans in Congress, then the deal would easily survive. However, in the U.S. empire, just like in its British and other predecessors, there are some elite groupings that see foreign affairs and war as opportunities to enrich themselves or to advance narrow ideological agendas, even at the cost of their national elites’ larger collective goals. Whereas broad sectors of the business, military, and diplomatic elite seek to reap benefits from rapprochement with Iran, narrower but more vociferous elite segments advocate a belligerent stand. It was these latter groups who opposed Obama’s 2015 deal with Iran and pushed Trump to decertify Iran’s compliance.
As we noted at the time of the 2015 Iran deal, the opponents of diplomacy do not actually believe that a nuclear-armed Iran would launch a nuclear attack. As U.S. and Israeli intelligence sources have long observed, Iran’s military strategy (like North Korea’s) is designed “to deter an attack” by outside aggressors – in Iran’s case, the United States and Israel. That is precisely why Iran’s opponents want to prevent it from getting nuclear weapons: to preserve the option of invading Iran and changing its regime.
The contradiction here, however, is that decertification and new sanctions against Iran would probably increase the Iranian government’s interest in acquiring nuclear arms, as many establishment sources have warned. While the evidence suggests that Iran gave up its nuclear weapons program in 2003, cancellation of the 2015 deal could lead it to rethink that choice. And tighter sanctions would not even be able to prevent a determined regime from acquiring nuclear arms.
Why, then, are the opponents of the Iran deal willing to take that risk? The reason is that their opposition ultimately has less to do with nukes than with broader concerns about control of the Middle East. Opponents of the 2015 Iran deal seek, first and foremost, to prevent the economic and geopolitical ascent of Iran, which could threaten the position of existing powerholders in the region.
One major source of opposition is Israel and a portion of its backers in Washington, who worry that the nuclear deal is merely the first step in a broader rapprochement between the U.S. and Iran. If the two countries draw closer, and work together to resolve conflicts in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and elsewhere, Israel would no longer be the United States’ only credible proxy in the Middle East. Under those conditions the U.S. could end its unquestioning support for Israel’s unending occupation and land expropriations in the West Bank, its territorial and economic conflicts with its near neighbors, and its competition with Iran as the hub of the Middle East regional economy.
The Gulf dictatorships, led by Saudi Arabia, are a second source of opposition. A sanctions-free Iran would be able to export more of its massive oil and gas reserves, undercutting Saudi Arabia’s dominant position in those markets. The expansion of Iranian exports would lead to lower oil and gas prices, costing Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies part of their incomes. The political implications are just as threatening. If the U.S.-Iran relationship were to improve, the U.S. would not necessarily take Saudi Arabia’s side in its brutal war against Yemeni civilians, or in disputes over Egypt, Bahrain, and other countries where the Saudis support repressive Sunni regimes. The Gulf regimes’ fears are echoed by their advocates in Washington, including U.S. policymakers who view the regimes as reliable protectors of the Middle East status quo, the U.S.-based think tanks funded by the Gulf states, and the U.S. defense companies that sell them billions of dollars in weapons.
As a result, a powerful segment of the U.S. foreign policy elite sees its interests best served by continued U.S. support for Israeli and Saudi belligerence and continued marginalization of Iran. That segment includes most of the Republican Party, which openly champions a militaristic unilateralism. Bush-era war criminal John Bolton, writing recently in The Wall Street Journal, argued that U.S. leaders should feel free to “withdraw from international agreements that contravene their vital interests,” and cited Charles de Gaulle’s statement that international treaties “are like girls and roses; they last while they last.”
Which side will win – the broad circles of diplomats, military leaders, and business executives who stress the costs of cancelling the 2015 deal, or the narrower elite interests embodied by Bolton, who would jeopardize the long-term interests of their class for the sake of their own economic, political, and ideological agendas?
The multiple moving parts in this conflict, along with Trump’s erratic behavior, make the outcome difficult to predict. On one hand, Trump has altered the balance within the Executive branch by eliminating many of the top diplomats that might have advocated for preservation of the deal and by elevating far-right military and civilian leaders. On the other hand, even some of Trump’s top appointees opposed Trump’s October 13 decertification of Iranian compliance, and will probably help limit the impact of that announcement.
One possibility is that any new U.S. sanctions against Iran will include major exemptions for key corporate interests. The U.S. energy sector won a partial exemption in last summer’s sanctions bill, and Trump’s decertification will apparently not jeopardize Boeing’s lucrative aircraft deals. If the exemptions proliferated, the sanctions would become all but meaningless. If the exemptions were given out sparingly, it would mean greater competitive advantage for Europeans and other foreign investors, who will not be subject to U.S. sanctions. In either case, a new sanctions regime with exemptions would likely be less than satisfactory for both sides.
The outcome of this contest over Iran policy has enormous implications – for the current crises in the Middle East, for the health and welfare of the people of Yemen, Syria, and the other current hot-spots, and for the agenda of military aggression of the United States. As is so often the case, a debate among a handful of elites could mean the difference between annihilation and survival for whole populations.
In the near term, the outcome of this fraught process will also tell us a lot about the current policy dynamics in the United States. Is there still a cohesive ruling elite that can override narrow parasitic interests? Or can a fraction within the elite use a focused campaign – fueled by money and well-placed political allies – to determine policy on a single issue and/or region to benefit their narrow interest, even at the cost of disrupting the systemic stability that benefits the rest of their class?
Richard Lachmann is professor of sociology at the University at Albany, State University of New York. He is the author of Capitalists In Spite of Themselves: Elite Conflict and Economic Transitions in Early Modern Europe (Oxford, 2000) and States and Power (Polity, 2010). His book, First Class Passengers on a Sinking Ship: Elite Politics and the Decline of Great Powers, which examines the decline of dominant economic and military powers in early modern Europe and the contemporary United States, is forthcoming from Verso. He also is researching media coverage of war deaths in the United States and Israel from the 1960s to the present.
Michael Schwartz, an Emeritus Distinguished Teaching Professor of Sociology at Stony Brook State University, is the author of six books and scores of articles and political commentaries, including award winning books on popular protest and insurgency (Radical Protest and Social Structure), and on American business and government dynamics (The Power Structure of American Business, with Beth Mintz). His most recent book, War Without End, analyzes how the militarized geopolitics of oil led the U.S. to dismantle the Iraqi state and economy while fueling sectarian civil war inside Iraq. His recent work on the Middle East can be found at Tom Dispatch and Academia.edu. His email address is Michael.Schwartz@stonybrook.edu.
Kevin Young is an Assistant Professor of History at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. He is the author of Blood of the Earth: Resource Nationalism, Revolution, and Empire in Bolivia (University of Texas, 2017). His other writing is available at https://umass.academia.edu/KevinYoung and http://kyoung1984.wordpress.com.