The Iran deal is on its last legs


Picture of Emma Scott
Emma Scott

Analyst on Iran, works with Project Alpha in the War Studies Department of Kings College London, and former assessor of Iran for Transparency International’s Defence and Security programme

Emma Scott is an Iran analyst, and a former assessor of Iran for Transparency International’s Defense and Security programme

Donald Trump has no experience in public office. He has no public record upon which to judge him. So it is difficult to determine the likely foreign policy of the United States President-elect. But we can analyse him based on his campaign rhetoric, his choice of personnel and his personality.

Adopting a strong Republican posture, Trump has been quite consistent in terms of his opposition to Iran. He has selected a team that is strongly against Iran and the 2015 nuclear deal.

During the presidential campaign, Trump variously called the deal – aimed at limiting Iran’s nuclear capacity in return for an end to sanctions – as “incompetent”, “dumb” and a “nuclear rip-off”. But when it comes to criticism based on the terms of the agreement, Trump is short on specifics. Instead, he simply claims that he can renegotiate a better deal.

Mike Pompeo, Trump’s pick to lead the Central Intelligence Agency, is against uranium enrichment on Iranian soil – a core element without which there would be no negotiated settlement. But neither Pompeo nor like-minded Republicans have proposed an alternative to the 2015 agreement.

Trump is short on specifics about his opposition to the Iran deal. Instead, he simply claims that he can renegotiate a better deal

Despite his complaints, Trump will probably not walk into the Oval Office and scrap the deal on Day 1. This is primarily because even some of the deal’s most ardent opponents in Washington DC, and across the Middle East, are now arguing that the agreement is useful. It is, after all, constraining Iran’s nuclear enrichment capacity and activities.

The United States cannot single-handedly destroy the deal or reinstate international sanctions because the agreement is between the United Nations Security Council veto powers plus Germany, and Iran. Without a consensus, the US can at most withdraw from the agreement and try to sabotage the provisions of the agreement by using its political and economic leverage. The notion of renegotiating the agreement is a fallacy, since none of the other signatories have any incentive to do so.

So the opponents to the deal are undertaking a different approach to undo President Barack Obama’s engagement with Iran. They argue that Iran is already violating the agreement.

The Republicans quickly jumped on reports that Iran had been stockpiling heavy water in greater quantities than those permitted by the agreement. However, Iran quickly rectified such slips, and the International Atomic Energy Agency has found Iran to be complying with the agreement.

This shows that the agreement is working – Iran’s nuclear programme is constrained, capped, and under constant surveillance by the IAEA. In the rare instance that Iran does make a slip, the US Congress is in any case not the arbiter because the deal provides the necessary mechanisms for resolving any disputes that may arise between the signatory powers. All of this demonstrates the agreement’s steady and sturdy nature.

The deal’s opponents aim to re-impose Congressional – and possibly multilateral – sanctions against Iran via the deal’s ‘snapback’ mechanism. In the first instance, there is a danger that the Trump administration will renege on the lifting of US Congressional nuclear-related sanctions. As part of the deal, the US president is periodically required to waive these sanctions if Iran abides by its obligations under the deal. Failure to do so constitutes a violation of implementation of the deal.

The EU needs to work with Iran to ensure its reintegration into the world economy and address the broader security dilemmas affecting the Middle East

For its part, the snapback mechanism, enshrined in UN Security Council Resolution 2231, allows for reinstatement of seven former Security Council resolutions against Iran that imposed the stringent multilateral sanctions regime. So far there has been no reason to invoke this mechanism as Iran has not violated the agreement.

The US Congress has just extended the Iran Sanctions Act, originally adopted in 1996. The Republicans’ argument for the extension is to have in place a statutory foundation for snapping the US sanctions back “to keep Iran in check”. It is likely to adopt further sanctions against Iran as admonishment for its non-nuclear activities, including ballistic missile activities, support for armed groups across the Middle East and human rights abuses. Trump is likely to back these sanctions, having promised to act against such conduct during the campaign.

As has been proven in the past, sanctioning Iran leads to economic pressure on the country that risks empowering the hardline elements of the Tehran elite who oppose engagement with the Western world. A wiser course would be to seek greater interaction with Iran as this will bolster the credibility of the moderates who oversaw the nuclear negotiations and who favour engagement with the international community. Under a more hardline government, the Iranians may pull out from fulfilling their obligations under the current deal.

To secure the nuclear agreement, the EU needs to work with Iran to ensure its reintegration into the world economy and address the broader security dilemmas affecting the whole of the Middle East region. Otherwise, the now shaky-looking deal is at risk of being seriously undermined.

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