As expected, Donald Trump has walked away from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the international agreement that prevents Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. Together with his decision to abandon the Trans-Pacific Partnership and in-line with his decision to withdraw from the Paris summit; this belongs to Trump's foreign policy strategy dubbed by some as "Unisolationism" (a combination of unilateralism and isolationism). Only time shall tell the significance such a move holds and the consequences they carry.
Most people forget that back in the 1950’s, the Americans actually gave Iran its first nuclear reactor. Back then, the west had a good relationship with Iran’s leader, the Shah and Iran promised that it only wanted nuclear energy. But the tables turned when Iran’s enemy, Israel, acquired a nuclear weapon and Saddam Hussein started his hunt for the same. To make matters worse, the Shah was overthrown in 1979 in the Islamic Revolution, ending cooperation with the west on developing nuclear energy.
The new ruler, Ayatollah Khomeini, didn’t make the nuclear program much of a priority at first. However, Hussein’s Iraq wasn’t just Iran’s neighbor; it had been at war with Iran for the last decade in a brutal struggle that’s resulted in over a million dead. By the mid-90’s, it’s clear to the Americans that Iran was quickly expanding its nuclear enrichment capabilities, even though they were telling the world they wanted the Middle East free of nukes. President Clinton began sanctioning Iran by prohibiting any U.S. entity from trading with Iran in an attempt to stop the spiraling arms race in the region.
This is where history starts sounding like the plot of a movie more than a sequence of events played out in the international arena. With 9/11, American interest in the region spiked and by 2005, as a direct consequence of the American aggression in the region, the hyper-conservative Mahmoud Ahmadinejad became the President of Iran, calling for the expansion of Iran’s nuclear program and Israel's utter destruction. The Israelis began planning an air attack against Iran’s nuclear facilities as a response to the threat but were brought in on a top-secret plan by the Americans called Olympic Games, a cyber-attack operation targeting vulnerabilities in the security of the computer systems at Iran’s most important nuclear facility. Iranian centrifuges at Natanz started having a variety of problems with breakdowns that are designed to seem to them like random accidents.
Come 2009, President Obama took office and started fresh, high-level talks with the Iranians, but progress on the diplomatic front was slow at best. Ahmadinejad won re-election but was occupied by the “Green Movement”, the largest civil uprising in Iran since the revolution. Millions across the country hit the streets in protests that last seven months. The government resorted to extreme violence and a crackdown on human rights thus beginning the worst phase in Iranian history. More than 1,000 critical centrifuges proceed to fail at Iran’s prized nuclear facility at Natanz, setting back the country’s pursuit of a bomb by up to two years and the Western alliance crippled Iran by cutting it off from the international financial system. The US went further and blocked Iranian oil exports. Two Iranian nuclear scientists were killed in car bombings (the Israelis are widely suspected) and a month later; another top Iranian nuclear scientist was assassinated. But Iran kept increasing its uranium enrichment capabilities despite the high cost.
To everyone's relief, Hassan Rouhani, a moderate, was overwhelmingly elected as the President. He campaigned on repairing ties with the west and negotiating to get the sanctions removed. Iran agreed to temporarily freeze its entire nuclear program to give the negotiators room to reach a deal. Throughout 2014, Iran agreed, step-by-step, to dismantle parts of its program and announce the major framework for a comprehensive deal to roll back Iran’s nuclear program, culminating in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
The Nuclear Deal
I'm sure that by now most people would be well versed with the requirements imposed by the deal, including the reduction in fissile material, the enrichment and centrifuge restrictions and the inspections that were agreed upon. This article does not intend to walk you through the specifics; rather, I am focused on how this affects us and what it means for the global order.
In all honesty, the terms of the deal are staggeringly in favor of the western powers. JCPOA is structured in a way that the president must certify every 90 days that Iran is implementing the agreement. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) confirmed for the eighth time that Iran continues to comply with JCPOA. For that reason, arms control and non-proliferation experts overwhelmingly support the agreement and have urged all sides to continue implementing it. European leaders urged Trump to consider the implications of the pulling out, however, much to the horror of the Europeans, Trump's decision has triggered a 60-day period for Congress to consider re-imposing sanctions suspended under the accord, including sweeping “secondary sanctions” that target foreign firms and banks conducting business with Iran (including those from France and Germany).
Trump’s action raises the risk of conflict in the Middle East and casts uncertainty over oil supplies in an already tight market. Crude oil prices rose to 3-1/2-year highs following the decision. Trump has given hard-liners in Tehran an excuse to resume their march towards nuclear-weapons capability, and the region could be back on the path to a major war. European leaders have suggested additional arrangements to address issues not covered by the nuclear accord; they are however adamantly opposed to renegotiating the JCPOA itself. Consequently, the U.S exit has left the Trump administration, not Tehran, diplomatically isolated making a re-negotiation an unlikely possibility.
As of now, the immediate goal might not be to directly dismantle the Iran deal. Instead, the idea would be to use decertification to try to leverage additional non-nuclear sanctions to force Iran to renegotiate the deal on more favorable terms for the US. It is no secret that Donald Trump fancies himself as a master negotiator; this in a long series of diplomatic blunders only goes to show the current administration's policy of coerced democratization. To demand changes - to toughen nuclear constraints, address sunset clauses, strengthen inspection provisions, and address Iran’s ballistic missiles and sponsorship of terrorism - might end up having the opposite effect. Iran shall be reluctant to negotiate with the United States now that Trump has shown that America’s word simply cannot be trusted.
Adding economic pressure on Tehran via sanctions till popular discontent grows and the current regime collapses is not a solution, just wishful thinking. Just look at the effect of the same strategy with Cuba and North Korea. Conversely, to provoke Iran into restarting its nuclear program would, on one hand, give Washington the excuse to launch a preventive war. But then, all of us can recall quite a few examples of unstable, anti-American regimes engaged in state-sponsored terrorism.
America's allies strongly urged the US and Trump to stay committed to the deal. The deal - signed not just by Iran and the United States, but also the UK, France, Germany, Russia, China, and the European Union- is what has kept Iran from developing a nuclear weapon so far. This is why a U.S exit is so significant, especially right now on the cusp of negotiations with North Korea over its own nuclear program.
To say the damage has already been done isn't too far from the truth. To re-negotiate a deal without the backing of American allies gives greater leverage to Iran. Washington has yet again proved to the world that they cannot be trusted to keep their word and at a time when North Korea is showing signs of peace and reconciliation, there is simply no reason to manufacture nuclear conflict in the Middle East. For now, all we can do is pin our faith in the Congress and pray that they reconsider re-imposing sanctions on Iran.