Pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal will have long-term ramifications
As expected, US President Donald Trump announced on Tuesday afternoon his decision that the US will withdraw from the five-nation agreement with Iran over the latter’s nuclear program. The agreement was reached by five countries, along with the UN, in April 2015 after prolonged negotiations which lasted more than a year.
There was hard bargaining by Iran but, at the end, it yielded to the pressures of Western powers and the UN, agreeing to limit enrichment capacity and stockpile of plutonium substances, not to produce weapon-grade plutonium products, and to regular monitoring of its nuclear facilities by international atomic energy regulators. In return, countries like the US, Russia, and China, agreed to waive or lift the sanctions imposed against Iran.
The fallout of this US withdrawal from the deal, otherwise known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), would be known gradually. But, immediately, the decision has been cheerfully received by Israel, which had been against the deal before it was even reached, while it has been deplored by other signatories to this agreement, which include UK, France, and Germany. The Arab countries, in particular Saudi Arabia, are reticent, because Iran is not on friendly terms with most of its Arab neighbours.
But will the US walkout from the deal mean much in the long term?
Not a hard and fast deal
First of all, this unilateral action by Trump does not necessarily bind the other signatories to this agreement from following suit. In fact, prior to this defiant act by Trump, European countries such as France, Germany, and the UK have been urging Trump to not trash this agreement, which required years of hard work on all ends.
Only a few weeks before, President Macron of France and Chancellor Merkel of Germany personally visited the US to impress upon Trump to not trash this deal but work on making the agreement stronger with some changes deemed necessary by the US. UK’s foreign secretary similarly urged his visiting counterpart only a day before not to renege on this deal.
But Trump was unmoved, because he considered this not only a bad deal, but one that allowed Iran to go ahead with its “rogue” activities in the Middle East, and secretly carried on with its nuclear activities.
Trump did not have any evidence when he complained of Iran’s clandestine nuclear experiments except that it was aired by Israeli TV where its prime minister demonstrated a stockpile of files in a vault purported to be relating to Iran’s nuclear program.
Independent sources confirmed that the material shown by the Israeli PM on TV had belonged to, for a decade, the JCPOA. European countries have regretted the US’s decision, and from statements by EU leaders, it does not seem that other Western countries will leave this agreement anytime soon.
How does the average American feel?
Second is the impact of this action in the US and Iran. For the common people in the US, the Iran deal is another foreign policy issue that has little influence on their daily lives. Therefore, they are not going to debate its abrogation or acceptance in a serious way.
That said, it has important political implications since the Republican Party, which now seems to be totally usurped by Donald Trump, was never a supporter of this Iran deal. To the majority of the Republicans, the deal was anathema because they view the Iranian government to be a US adversary, and a sworn enemy of Israel.
They feel Iran has to be punished not only for its nuclear program but also for its ambition to be the dominant power in the region. This Republican view was not only shared by Israel but also actively cheered by them. When the JCPOA was forging ahead with the Obama leadership, a desperate Netanyahu rushed to the US and addressed a largely Republican congress at the latter’s invitation, urging it to reject any nuclear agreement with Iran.
Many Republican legislators led by Senator Cotton, in fact, wrote a letter to the Iranian supreme leader (going over the head of President Obama) informing him that any agreement with full congress voting and consent would be void. But the agreement did happen, much to the chagrin of the Republicans, and five countries signed it.
What Trump has done is to fulfill one of his campaign promises, but also placate the irate Republicans over this issue. Therefore, it does not seem likely that there will be much uproar domestically in the US over this, except for some righteous indignation from the liberal media and the Democrats. But, given the proximity of mid-term elections, the Democrats are also not likely to raise a hue and cry over it beyond a few days.
Internationally, European countries may not be happy, but they will carry on their business with Iran as long as the US does not impose further sanctions which force them to stop dealing with the country. Russia and China are least likely to stop dealing with Iran to please President Trump. In other words, the US walking away from the JCPOA does not bust the whole deal.
It may continue to be active and Iran may continue to receive benefits of sanction-less trade, at least with the EU, so long as Iran itself sticks to its agreement. One of the chief characteristics of the current US administration is the unpredictability of its president and his running of the administration more with gut feeling than any rational analysis. He is bolstered by Israel and the hostile attitude of Arab governments (led by Saudi Arabia) towards Iran.
He feels his decision to ostracize Iran further will find good reception in many quarters of the Middle East. What his gut feelings may not tell him is that walking out on an international agreement to restrain Iran from developing its nuclear potential may not keep peace in the Middle East for long (Iran has already stated that it will do so).
Although Iran has stated it will not renege on its own commitment, the US walkout presents it with an opportunity to do so on the pretext that a major player of the agreement is out of the deal. Iran may feel free to pursue its own strategic goals now that an opportunity has presented itself.
We do not have a crystal ball. Given the way he has expressed his views on a variety of issues, domestic and international, no one can say with certainty what a future Trump policy towards the Middle East will look like and how long it will stay. For now, Trump has delivered on a campaign promise and that makes his core supporters happy.
Ziauddin Choudhury has worked in the higher civil service of Bangladesh early in his career, and later for the World Bank in the US.