The most important element to building strong relationships between nations gravitates around the issue of trust. When turning to this attribute, for one to foment strength in reciprocity, it must be underpinned by staying true to one’s word.
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has served as a beacon for successful interstate relations for nearly 70 years. Accordingly, as the organization has burgeoned, it has maintained relevancy in trying times by stepping up during periods of precarious challenges, from missions in Bosnia and Kosovo in the mid-to-late 1990s to the enduring NATO mission in Afghanistan. It has outlived the Cold War and shown contemporary relevancy in peace keeping and combat operations alike. Recently, the alliance has a renewed importance with a more assertive Russia in Europe.
Four of the six critical partners to the implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA (otherwise informally referred to as the Iranian Nuclear Deal) are NATO members. The likes of Germany, France, the United Kingdom, with the United States were instrumental in working with China and Russia to bring Iran to the table in an effort to cajole this country to suspend uranium enrichment in exchange for the easing of sanctions. The efforts worked and by almost all accounts (to include those that work for the intelligence community), the Iranians are no longer pursing the weaponization of nuclear material. This was a success for NATO because it was one less potential existential threat that could have a future impact on the alliance.
What’s more is now that the U.S. has extricated itself from the agreement, it has sustained a self-inflicted wound; it can no longer conduct in-country inspections of nuclear sites. More so, there are secondary effects reverberating from the withdrawal from the JCPOA – seeds of distrust could proliferate among allies like those in NATO that might see the possibility of the United States not living up to its agreements. Not only could Iran restart its nuclear weapons program, but rising tensions in the Middle East, could ensue as a result of the U.S. pulling out of the Iran deal. This could send signals to Russia, that there is a fragmentation in priorities within the NATO structure.
Russia sees the North Atlantic Treaty Organization as a real threat regardless of its actions in Europe through annexing Crimea to conducting paramilitary operations in Ukraine. Moreover, those in NATO are counting on the United States to honor commitments to the alliance under the provisions of Article 5 (an attack on one is an attack on all).
By rescinding our support in the Iran deal, we fear other NATO countries might call into question whether the U.S. will remain steadfast and resolute in its commitments to security concerns in Europe. On the other side, Russia could look to foster fragmentation in the alliance while attempting to delegitimize the U.S. by framing it as a country not to be counted on.
Relationships matter. Trust is important in keeping them strong. NATO nations need to believe that the U.S. will keep its word with regards to its commitment to this enduring alliance, for now and well into the future.
NATO has created an enduring image of a security blanket that Europe depends upon, the United States fulfilling a major part of that role as the shadow of the potential threat of Russia is cast over the continent. The administration’s unilateral gamble for a better Iran deal or a possible regime change in the end may succeed, but history shows that increased sanctions seldom give the desired effect. More likely is the increased risk to alliance cohesion, as Russia takes advantage of the opportunity to cultivate divisions.
Tom Røseth is associate professor at the Norwegian Defence Command and Staff College in Oslo, Norway. John M. Weaver is assistant professor of intelligence analysis at York College of Pennsylvania.