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How Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal could impact Africa

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How Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal could impact Africa

John Stremlau

17 May 2018

6min min read
  • International relations

US President Donald Trump's Iran misadventure is a timely reminder that America may be too big and powerful for Africa to ignore, but also too dangerous to try and accommodate when wrong, writes Professor John Stremlau.


rump’s unilateral decision to withdraw from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal ignored the views and entreaties of America’s closest European allies, the repeated and uncontested findings of the International Atomic Energy Agency that Iran was abiding by the terms of the accord, the similar findings by US intelligence agencies and the advice of his own Secretary of Defense. It also provoked a rare public rebuke from his predecessor Barack Obama, who led the multilateral process that produced the accord.  

In the aftermath of the president's decision to exit from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA, as the nuclear accord is titled, all other countries face two dilemmas: how seriously does this decision affect their interests and what lessons does it offer them on how to deal with Trump in the future. What follows is an initial attempt to answer these questions primarily from an African and South African perspective.   

The broader significance of Trump’s decision was indicated just prior to its announcement, on 8 May, when an international group of 29 leaders of the world’s most prominent think tanks, the Council of Councils, issued their latest report card on the current state of international cooperation and the 10 greatest dangers facing the world in the year ahead. They conclude that international cooperation has continued to deteriorate over the past year and merits a barely passable C- grade. As for global threats, the most urgent and alarming are the faltering international efforts to prevent nuclear proliferation and risks of a nuclear war, which they downgraded from a B- to D-.

No other weapons, of course, can destroy entire cities and pose greater threats to sustainable democracy, our global economy, world order and, ultimately, human civilisation. As a spokesperson for the New York Council on Foreign Relations noted, nuclear proliferation was voted the most important global priority, one where international cooperation has been poorest, and dead last in terms of likely breakthroughs in the year ahead. This also suggests dim prospects for a viable and fully verifiable deal resulting from Trump’s upcoming meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un on 12 June.

Impact on South Africa

Among African countries, South Africa is likely to bear the greatest immediate and practical costs of Trump’s withdrawal from the non-proliferation agreement with Iran. Iran was South Africa's third largest source of foreign oil in 2011 before the multilateral sanctions regime, which SA supported, cut off virtually all economic trade. With the lifting of trade restrictions that began two years later under JCPOA, South Africa has rekindled its economic ties with Iran. South African officials hoped bilateral would reach nearly R100 billion, including crude oil, by 2025. In addition, SA telecom company MTN, whose large Iranian investments had been frozen under the sanctions, hoped to reinvest and repatriate much of its nearly R3 billion still banked there.  

"Among African countries, South Africa is likely to bear the greatest immediate and practical costs of Trump’s withdrawal from the non-proliferation agreement with Iran."

A major policy dilemma now looms for South Africa. If the EU, China and Russia try to sustain the JCPOA without the US and try to protect their companies from its threats to deny any country that attempts to maintain or expand trade and investment ties with Iran access to US markets, then South Africa, too, must decide whether to support the majority or cave to US pressure. 

Other African countries with less developed economies do not have grapple with this problem. However, countries like South Africa, who rely on foreign oil to meet their current energy needs, will likely have to deal with greater volatility and already evident higher prices, as a possible consequence of the Trump’s unilateral actions.  

US-Africa relations

There are several other broad effects, direct and indirect, of his decision to pull out of the JCPOA that could impact on US-Africa relations.  

One is that if the US is no longer a reliable partner of its allies, it will be even more negligent and untrustworthy toward Africa. In normal international relations, states are expected to uphold their obligations. In this case, however, the US violated its part of the bargain, while Iran, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency's reports, did not.  

American domestic politics often confound diplomacy. In this case, Barack Obama’s US played a key role in brokering what many regard as the most important nuclear non-proliferation pact in a generation. The agreement, however, does not have the force of a treaty because a Republican-dominated US Congress that adamantly opposed virtually any action – foreign or domestic – that Obama undertook, would never have agreed to ratify a treaty, so a JCPOA was the result. A fundamental question facing America’s partners in other carefully negotiated and presumably mutually beneficial diplomatic agreements is: can the US be trusted to meet its partnership obligations? In the Trump era, apparently not. 

Second, are potential hazards for African countries arising from the escalating Middle East conflicts in the wake of Trump’s decision on Iran. America’s only important allies in the volatile Middle East are now two theocratic states: Saudi Arabia and Israel. By aligning with the former, the US has effectively chosen the Sunni Arab side in any conflict with Shiite Iran and its allies. And within hours of Trump’s announcement of breaking the agreement with Iran, Iran and Israel were attacking each other with advanced weapons near the Syrian border. Such conflicts could exacerbate flows of refugees and radical elements that have already created an ‘arc of instability’ in the Horn and East Africa, across North Africa, and down into the Sahel Region into Nigeria. This has not only inflicted terrible losses on these already fragile states, but prompted US and other foreign military engagement, which Africans have tried to manage but with mixed success. 

"Can the US be trusted to meet its partnership obligations? In the Trump era, apparently not."

Moreover, Trump’s hawkish advisors appear to believe that by breaking the agreement and unilaterally restoring sanctions against Iran the US might precipitate regime change in Tehran. Africa has had many bad experiences with foreign efforts to bring about regime change on the continent and many leaders have criticised US interventions to do so in post-independent Africa, Latin America, Asia, and most recently Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya. Whatever happens in Iran, African fears that US might be seeking regime change will further hurt US-Africa relations. 

A third and even more subtle but significant effect of Trump’s behaviour toward Iran is that it runs counter to Africa’s emerging international norms, enshrined in the African Union’s Constitutive Act, that seek to strengthen cooperation and development, regionally and globally. One norm is the broad commitment to finding multilateral solutions to common and shared problems in Africa, at AU level or within/among Africa’s eight regional economic communities. A related norm favours the principle of subsidiarity, encouraging problem-solving by the fewest number of states with the greatest interests at stake in a particular problem.

Although still fragile, the AU’s endorsement of human rights is gaining momentum for practical reasons of conflict prevention, stemming the refugee crisis and other common problems. In a similar vein, the AU has adopted a “principle of non-indifference” regarding the internal affairs of member states, including fulfilling obligations enumerated in the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance. All of these are contrary to how Trump operates. The autocratic manner in which he is carrying out US policies in the Middle East and elsewhere implies contempt and disregard for these norms and, as I argue in another SAIIA publication, are likely to be more in tune with the leadership attributes of African autocrats than African democrats.  

Trump’s disregard for the interests and concerns of America’s closest allies, in this case, raises one other issue for African countries that he has publicly denigrated and disparaged. Would Africa’s interests not be better served if they were less willing to try and get along with Trump, and more focused on building ties to opposition political forces within the US?  

Africa’s ties to American history, culture, and politics run very deep and, despite the crimes of slavery and its aftermath, are today a politically potent element in opposing Trump. His Iran misadventure is a timely reminder that America may be too big and powerful for Africa to ignore, but also too dangerous to try and accommodate when wrong. In sum, African governments and citizens that are able and willing to work internationally and within the US, and who oppose the attitudes and actions of the Trump presidency, should find politically effective ways of doing so. 

(Main image: President Donald Trump signs a National Security Presidential Memorandum as he announces the withdrawal of the United States from the Iran nuclear deal during a 'Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action' event in the Diplomatic Reception Room of the White House on 8 May 2018 in Washington, DC. – Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of SAIIA or CIGI.