The controversy over President Trump’s decision to withdraw the U.S. from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) has diminished somewhat in the shadow of the summit meeting in Singapore between Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jung-un. But the Iran deal continues to simmer in the background as angry European leaders and their advisers try to put together a strategy to maintain their sanctions relief to Iran and support their individual renewed economic relations with Iran.
Trump and his advisers believe that the agreement is seriously flawed and he intends to bring maximum economic pressure on Iran to bring them back to the bargaining table. He is correct with respect to the flaws but renewed negotiations will not be easy if even possible.
The written text of the Iran nuclear agreement, contains a ten and fifteen year program to reduce Iran’s stock of gas centrifuges which are used to enrich uranium and to limit the remaining enrichment levels to 3.67%, far less than that required for weapons grade uranium. The basic intent of the agreement is similar to the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty which Iran joined in 1970, and the conditions of which are monitored by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) through the standard use of a separate agreement. The details of these conditions, which include self declarization by Iran of all it’s existing nuclear research facilities and subsequent use of an inspection regime by IAEA experts seem detailed and comprehensive as far as they go. Thus the major “flaws” cited by the agreement’s critics, with the exception of the fifteen year “sunset” clause, are not so much what is contained in the agreement as what is not contained. However, the “sunset” clause is huge. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty contains no such temporary conditions. Once states enter the treaty they are permanently committed to its terms as long as they are members. The fundamental requirement is that states that do not possess nuclear weapons or the technology to create them will not pursue such abilities. Thus the JCPOA contradicts the provisions and intent of the NPT.
The process which would inevitably lead to Iran becoming a nuclear weapons state (NWS) represented an outcome so serious and destabilizing to the entire Middle East region that the West and UN Security Council which includes Russia and China, had imposed strong economic sanctions against Iran several years prior to the commencement of current negotiations. A nuclear armed Iran represents an existential threat to the state of Israel which Iran has sworn to destroy; a major threat of nuclear weapons proliferation by Arab states, especially Saudi Arabia, whom Iran considers an adversary, and a shift in the ability of other states with vital interests in the stability of the region to confront Iran’s aggressive behavior.
Why would the P-5 + 1 negotiators (U.S, Great Britain, France, Germany, Russia, China, & EU) agree to anything but a permanent ban on Iran’s ability to manufacture highly enriched fuel whose only purpose is the creation of nuclear weapons?
The simple answer is that Iran refused to make such a commitment and the other states conceded the point. Russia, which is currently allied militarily with Iran in the Syrian civil war in support of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, and which has achieved a Mediterranean naval base in Syria, obviously sees benefits in remaining an ally of Iran as well as the possibility of renewed negotiations to keep Iran from developing nuclear weapons in the future as a position of leverage against the Western powers who make up the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s core membership. China, well known for its long term approach to geo-political expansion would have a similar interest in having an anti-West state in an important region of the world maintain a negotiating position of strength while thus giving China’s support for one side or the other, significant influence in future negotiations.
U.S. President Obama was determined to find an accomplishment that would enhance his “legacy” and Great Britain, France, Germany and their collective representative from the Europen Union were anxious to get something done to take the problem of a nuclear Iran off the table for the time being and reestablish profitable economic trade and investment in that country. But essentially they were simply out negotiated by an intransigent Iran whose diplomats were willing to walk away if they were pressed to agree to permanent safeguards.
The agreements critics believe that it cannot be credibly evaluated in isolation of the wider political and security contexts within which is must operate. It is here that the agreement represents its greatest weaknesses and the failure of the Western nation’s negotiators to take advantage of the significant leverage they had but which now is for the most part gone.
The regional security context:
A simple look at a map of the Middle East and the related conflicts therein, make Iran’s regional ambitions obvious. Iran established itself as a Shi’ite Islamic republic after the 1979 revolution which over threw the Western installed and supported Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi. Internecine conflict between the two major sects of the Islamic religion in the Middle East cannot be underestimated. It played a horrific role in the expansion of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq (ISIS), and served as an instrument of repression by the Sunni minority government of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. Iran now uses the religious identity of Shi’ites as a tool and a wedge to expand its influence in the region.
Iran supports the Shi’ite Houthi insurgency in Yemen which has evolved into an armed conflict with Saudi Arabia and its Gulf state allies who have Sunni majorities and governments. On Iran’s western border, the Shi’ite majority has taken power in Iraq after the U.S. led overthrow of Saddam Hussein, opening the door for Iranian penetration and influence. The recent political victory of Iraqi Shi’ite leader Muqtada al-Sadr over more moderate Shi’ite leaders may lead to further Iranian influence. Iran has also moved one state further west with its military intervention into the Syrian civil war on behalf of the dictator, Hafez al-Assad and his Alawite (an off shoot of Shi’ism) minority government. Iran has long supported the armed Shi’ite militia, Hezbollah which controls southern Lebanon and which is fighting along side Assad’s government troops against the Sunni rebels. Hezbollah represents an on going threat to Israel on its Lebanon and Syrian borders and supplies arms, including missiles, to Hamas, the radical anti-Israeli political leaders of Gaza.
Thus President Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have taken the wider view that Iran’s nuclear fuel enrichment program is just part of the national and regional security threat that Iran poses. They believe that the narrow scope of the agreement and the fear of its disruption by Western European nations as well as China and Russia, all of which have strong economic motives for its perpetuation, provides cover for Iran’s expansion and aggression in the region.
Pompeo has said that Iran “must end all nuclear activity completely, halt its support for Hezbollah, Hamas and the Houthi rebels in Yemen, and cease development of any nuclear-capable missiles.” He has threatened the imposition of even harsher economic sanctions than those in place prior to the signing of the nuclear agreement.
The JCPOA is not a treaty. President Obama did not submit it to the U.S. Senate for approval because he knew that it did not have anywhere near the two thirds majority support necessary for ratification. Concerned about his “legacy” and confident that his former Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton would win the 2016 presidential election, he agreed to the narrow scope of the agreement required by the Iranian negotiators as well as the return of 1.5 billion dollars in sequestered Iranian funds which represented a significant incentive for the Iranians to reach a deal and could have been withheld as leverage for additional concessions by Iran with respect to regional issues, missile development or a permanent agreement on nuclear enrichment.
Despite the parade of European leaders from Britain, France, Germany, who came to Washington to try and convince Trump not to withdraw from the agreement, Trump was unwilling to let Iran pursue it’s regional aggression and strategic missile development threats as well as leaving the door open for Iran to become a nuclear weapons state in the future.
The agreement is seriously weakened, if not mortally wounded without U.S. participation. Trump’s threat to hold private entities in the other member states of the agreement liable for violation of U.S. sanctions on Iran with sanctions on them as well has caused enormous hand wringing and threats of defiance among them. In an effort to avoid such a confrontation, some have suggested limited renegotiations to expand the agreement in ways to address Trump’s concerns.
President Macron of France approached Iranian leaders with such a proposal but it was soundly rejected, as should have been expected. Iranian President Hasan Rouhani is quoted as saying;
“I have spoken with Macron several times by phone, and one time in person at length. I have told him explicitly that we will not add anything to the deal or remove anything from it, even one sentence. The nuclear deal is the nuclear deal,”
The political fallout from Trump’s decision is, in terms of rhetoric, extreme, as would be expected. The European Left, which didn’t like Trump before and whom many in their ranks have had open disdain, if not hostility, for the U.S. for decades, are claiming that Trump’s decision and threats of collateral economic sanctions on defiant European businesses is an assault on their state’s sovereignty. The American Left is claiming that Trump is “destroying our relationship with our closest allies”. But international relationships are always based on national interests, not “special friendships” between political leaders who are temporarily in leadership positions.
Reagan and Britain’s Margaret Thatcher had a famously close relationship but it was based on an identity of conservative political ideology. The U.S. and Western European nations continue to share an identity of interests in international security as exemplified by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) which recently survived Trump’s demand that the membership boost their defense spending to reduce their dependence on the American defense “umbrella”.
Even in the face of Trump’s current demand that trade relations with Europe be liberalized and his imposition of tariffs on selected goods to make his point, trade and investment between EU nations and the U.S. is enormous and ties these economies together with the U.S. no matter what the character of the political leadership in the separate states.
The outcome of this issue is difficult to predict but is sure to create much political grandstanding. What is probable is that Trump will impose harsh economic sanctions on Iran and collateral sanctions on European businesses that continue to violate these sanctions. Several businesses are already cutting back their relationships with Iran and most will probably fall into compliance with Trump’s sanctions. Efforts by individual governments may be made to protect businesses from the effect of U.S. sanctions or retaliatory sanctions may even be attempted on U.S. manufacturers in a face saving political effort.. However the sheer size of the U.S. economy and its global web of relationships should eventually bring compliance.
Iran has already threatened to restart its nuclear fuel enrichment process and will probably make a show of doing it. The outcome will come down to the level of economic pain Trump’s new sanction regime imposes on Iran and how much political pressure the other members of the JCPOA, including China and Russia can apply to the Trump administration.
There are a number of processes which could lead to a reduction in tensions. It is possible that under political pressure Trump may negotiate some individual sanctions relief for JCPOA businesses in return for trade concessions unrelated to Iran which would also defuse the current tariff controversy between the U.S. and Western Europe.
A negotiated withdrawal of Iran’s military from Syria could also be a partial solution to the U.S./JCPOA sanctions battle as would a cessation of Iranian support for Yemen’s Houthi Shi’ites. A return by Iran to accelerated nuclear fuel enrichment represents a negative outcome for all sides as it would not take Iran more than one to two years to acquire enough weapons grade uranium to create a nuclear device. Such and outcome would also enhance the possibility of a military strike by Israel against Iran’s nuclear facilities as well as the perception by Saudi Arabia that it would need a nuclear arms program of its own as a deterrent against a hostile Iran.
Thus President Trump’s decision to leave the JCPOA was a bold step to address Iran’s current regional aggression and medium term goal of becoming a nuclear power. Like much of what Trump does, what it lacked in finesse it made up for in common sense as neither of Iran’s policies could have been ignored or put off without serious consequences.