n April 2015, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)—known more commonly as the Iran nuclear deal—was still to be formalized, but Republicans preparing to run for president in the following year were already denouncing it. At a public forum in New York City, the Washington Post columnist David Ignatius asked Javad Zarif, the Iranian foreign minister, whether he worried that one of these Republicans, if elected, might overturn the deal.
Zarif answered confidently that any successor to Barack Obama would be constrained by international law, by America’s commitments, formal and informal, to allies and partners, and by all the norms that governed relations among nations today. “I believe,” he said, “the United States will risk isolating itself in the world if there is an agreement and it decides to break it.” The result of any such action, he predicted, would be “chaos.”
Zarif’s comments prefigured the strategy that Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei is following today in his brinksmanship with President Trump. Playing on the fear, especially prevalent among European elites and American Democrats, that Trump is, precisely, an agent of chaos, Khamenei has taken a leaf from the book of Chinese leader Xi Jinping, who in 2017 appeared at the World Economic Forum as the representative of enlightened globalism. “We should adhere to multilateralism to uphold the authority and efficacy of multilateral institutions,” Xi declared. “We should honor promises and abide by rules.”
The chords struck by Xi were still resonating in the halls of the G20 summit in Buenos Aires last December, where the assembled leaders adopted a joint communiqué affirming their commitment to “a rules-based international order.” In the Trump era, this old phrase has taken on a new meaning. In the minds of the defenders of globalism, it is shorthand for the norms and values threatened by Trump’s abrasive personal style, aggressive diplomacy, and disruptive trade wars. By pressuring the American president to join them in affirming the “rules-based order,” the G20 leaders were treating him to a passive-aggressive reprimand.
The next meeting of G20 takes place in Japan this coming Friday and Saturday, June 29-30, and fears of “chaos” have hardly abated—especially among Europeans, who will constitute fully a quarter of all attendees. The recent European elections saw a significant rise in the power of nationalists who seek to weaken the European Union (EU), leaving its leading representatives, all of whom will be present in Osaka, feeling caught between the hammer of Trump’s America First policies and the anvil of European populism.
Khamenei intends to leverage the fears that haunt these Europeans by raising the specter of war and simultaneously offering a cooperative, multilateral way to exorcise it, namely, by returning America to the JCPOA. His goal is to place Trump’s renunciation of the Iran nuclear deal on the unofficial agenda of the summit, in the hope that it will win a place on the short list of Trump’s major sins against “a rules-based international order,” right up there with the American president’s economic protectionism and his disavowal of the Paris climate accord.
Khamenei’s strategy is as every bit as clever as Xi’s presentation of himself, of all autocrats, as a defender of high internationalism. If it succeeds, it has a good chance of accelerating Iran’s relentless push to obtain nuclear weapons.