“YOU DON’T have any background in politics. You don’t have any background in law. You don’t have any background on international treaties. How can a tradesman, a merchant and a tower constructor make judgements about international affairs?” These are just some of the scathing words Iranian President Hassan Rouhani directed at U.S. President Donald Trump, ever since Trump announced to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal. Previously, North Korea drew the world’s attention as a hotspot of insecurity, but perhaps Iran now poses a greater concern, as ramifications of a nuclear agreement without the United States elicit everything but peace and stability.
In 2015, Iran signed an agreement with a group of six world powers—the United States, France, the United Kingdom, Germany, Russia, China—and the European Union concerning its nuclear program. Colloquially referred to as the Iran nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was designed to address concerns regarding the belligerent intentions of Iran’s clandestine uranium enrichment program. The deal’s main provision was to restrict Iran’s nuclear stockpiles and enrichment capacities, thus impeding its capability to create a nuclear bomb. Moreover, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) would function as a watchdog over Iran’s nuclear endeavors, ensuring the implementation of its commitments under the deal. In return, crippling oil and financial sanctions on Iran’s economy would be alleviated.
Now, what was advocated as the cornerstone of former President Obama’s presidency—a major requisite for peace in the Middle East—has been bluntly rejected by Trump, who on May 8th publicized his decision to pull the United States out of the JCPOA and reinstall sanctions on Iran. Globally, this decision was met with fierce criticism, as well as concern for its many implications. While member states expressed their regret about the news, Obama wrote on his Facebook that “Walking away from the deal turns our back on America’s closest allies, and an agreement that our country’s leading diplomats, scientists, and intelligence professionals negotiated… I believe that the decision to put the JCPOA at risk is a serious mistake.”
The JCPOA is indeed at risk. Even though member states are determined to preserve the deal, the Iranian spokesman pledged that Iran would resume its nuclear activities if the goals of the agreement are no longer met without the United States. The European powers bear great responsibility and face pressure to make the deal work and prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power—something that could destabilize world politics and the status quo in the Middle East as we know it.
In sum, America’s allies are enraged, risk of conflict in the Middle East is increased and global oil supplies are bound to be crippled by resumed sanctions. And what for? Why would the United States abandon the Iran nuclear deal in the first place?
Grounds for leaving
The urgency of Trump’s desire to terminate the deal is perhaps best understood in context of the ongoing chasm between the United States and Iran; for decades, the two states have been entangled in disagreement and conflict. Consider the war in Syria, where the Assad regime supported by Iran has been fighting U.S.-backed moderate rebels. More generally, American and Iranian hostilities can be characterized by numerous conflicts in the Middle East, much of which relate to U.S. interference in Iran’s domestic affairs and the antagonistic face-offs that resulted thereof. For that reason, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, in an April visit to Saudi Arabia, simply labels Iran as “the greatest sponsor of terrorism,” stating that “we are determined to make sure it never possesses a nuclear weapon.”
In other words, allowing Iran to acquire nuclear capability will bring an already existing threat to dangerously new heights. This is not only because of the nuclear arms race it can trigger in the Middle East, but also because of the possibility of Iran-backed terrorist groups obtaining nuclear weapons. The former would undeniably increase worldwide tensions and endanger the way in which the United States operates in the Middle East, while the latter would present an enormous threat unprecedented in history. Pompeo adds that “in its current form, the deal does not provide that assurance.”
His rationale stems from “the sunset clause” of the JCPOA, which will release restrictions on Iran’s nuclear enrichment program by 2025, thereby permitting Iran to resume its nuclear program once the agreement expires. Besides, the deal does not address Iran’s ballistic missile program. These reasons, put in the context of Iran’s regional endeavors, provide the breeding ground for immense danger to the United States and its allies—consequently, the United States’ conviction for leaving the deal.
A Trans-Atlantic divergence
For the administration, perhaps the most compelling proof of the weakness of the agreement stems from the recent disclosure of secret files by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. By revealing hidden facilities and nuclear weapon designs, snapped from Iran this January, the documents allegedly convey that the regime lied to the IAEA, violating the deal by continuing its nuclear operations.
Nevertheless, the files did not demonstrate Iran violating the 2015 nuclear deal, since the evidence gathered exposed data originating from 2009 and prior. Rather, it is said to exemplify Iran’s fundamental desire to develop nuclear capabilities, lefting the Trump administration’s abandonment of the deal. The assertion supported by the Israeli documents, however, is meaningless in attempting to undermine the JCPOA, provided that there had been no nuclear non-proliferation agreement during the respective time. Iran had no internationally imposed limitations on its weapon development and therefore, no terms to violate. Nor have they, according to the IAEA and the U.S. State Department, violated terms of the first and only framework in place: the current Iran nuclear deal. European powers were also not convinced by this data. French President Emmanuel Macron recently visited Trump to convince him to stay in the Iran deal, an opinion shared by all other member states of the agreement.
For these nations, the Iran nuclear deal is indispensable. According to Macron, tackling Iran’s clandestine activities appears more productive under the current system than under no system, given that the current “is one of the most exhaustive and robust monitoring and inspection regimes in the history of nuclear non-proliferation.” Furthermore, all other member states correctly argue that the JCPOA has imposed strict limitations on Iran and achieved great results, ranging from the complete elimination of its stockpiled highly-enriched uranium—the key ingredient necessary to making a nuclear bomb—to the removal of approximately two-thirds of its gas centrifuges.
The irrationality of withdrawal
It is true, Pompeo and the Trump administration rightfully recognize the dangers posed if Iran were to acquire nuclear weapons. Nevertheless, how does withdrawing from the only existing framework of restricting its nuclear proliferation safeguard America’s interests? There are undeniably flaws to the current agreement, most notably the sunset clause. Yet, leaving the agreement does not address these flaws. The European powers have in fact declared their determination to hold provisional talks, ideally encompassing the development of Iran’s nuclear agenda after 2025, its ballistic missile program, as well as the wider Middle East conflicts present. Even though Iran refused any alterations to the existing framework, in the space of a decade, a provision to the treaty would have seemed feasible—if the United States did not withdraw.
Now, if the deal is to fall apart without the United States, Iran will not receive corresponding benefits, and therefore, have nothing holding itself back from enriching uranium again. The alternative of reviving its economic sanctions on Iran, will not be a more effective tool in containing Iran than the JCPOA. For sanctions to be successfully implemented, international support is needed. The member states are unlikely to support the U.S. sanctions on Iran, as they are dedicated to preserving the current agreement. Thus, Iran’s nuclear ambitions will be left unhindered and unchecked, with the blustering threats of the United States only promising to jeopardize the situation further. Allowing Iran to have the freedom to pursue its nuclear ambitions at will does exactly the opposite of what the Trump administration proclaims to desire.
Nevertheless, there is hope of the deal’s preservation, as Iranian parliament speaker Ali Larijani said*, “If Europe and important countries like Russia and China fill this international vacuum [in the deal], perhaps there will be a way to continue.” In this case, the United States will find itself purposelessly sanctioning a state that is already complying to a sufficient framework of nuclear non-proliferation. The ensuing result will be the perception of a stubborn U.S. government that does not commit to its international pledges. For this reason, the United States should have remained devoted to the 2015 nuclear deal. In the absence of a better alternative, the status quo should be preserved or improved upon, instead of abandoned.
Uncertain times ahead
The idea of the Iran deal being imperfect is best embodied in Rouhani’s words towards Trump, words that can be interpreted as an acknowledgement of the inevitability of compromise in interstate affairs: “Have you not learned anything? Are you the discoverer of all things bad?”
By withdrawing, the United States deviated from its testified, professed objective: preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. Even though the Iran deal was not perfect, it remained the “lesser evil,” the best option on the table. The JCPOA was the best means to effectively set restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program and accordingly, it functioned. The workability of the JCPOA is now at risk, where one can only hope for a successful continuation led by efforts of the European powers, as well as Iranian compliance regardless of the United States’ blunders.
The Trump administration, once again, branched off from the path of its predecessors in international affairs. Generally speaking, a state’s steadfastness to international commitments is likely to determine the outcome of its perceived legitimacy. So, how can a state that abrogates its international pledges expect to be taken seriously by Iran, the EU, North Korea or any other state for that matter? Abandoning the Iran deal did not only inflame Iran, but it served no national security purpose and eroded the United States’ credibility as the global leader.