BY MINOAS VITALIS
On October 13, 2017, US President Donald Trump gave a speech in the Diplomatic Reception Room of the White House where he announced a new strategy on Iran and the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, more commonly known as the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. Before I move forward with an analysis and the reaction of the other signatories of the JCPOA to the speech of President Trump, I believe that it is necessary to provide some background on the deal first.
The JCPOA or 2015 Iran deal is an international agreement on Iran’s nuclear programme reached on 14 July 2015 between Iran, the permanent members of the Security Council of the UN plus Germany and the European Union. Under the JCPOA, Iran must reduce its uranium stockpile by 98% to 300kg and keep its level of enrichment at 3,67%. Additionally, among other things, Iran doesn’t have permission to build heavy- water reactors and must give broader access to inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency to monitor its nuclear sites. In return, Iran receives relief from US, European and UNSC nuclear-related economic sanctions.
Under the Obama Administration, the United States wasn’t only a fervent supporter of the nuclear deal, but it wanted a relationship with Iran that was going to be based on cooperation and not on hostility. Everything changed last month. President Trump in his speech mentioned that Iran has broken parts of the agreement, that the agreement was too lenient and called on Congress and US allies to change the deal to US terms. Moreover, the President made clear that if the negotiations do not reach a solution then “the agreement will be terminated”. Last but not least, the President decertified the agreement. This move means that according to the President of the United States the agreement is not in the national interests of the country. Although this doesn’t mean that the US has withdrawn from the JCPOA, it has opened the door to the re-imposition of sanctions by the US Congress.
The reaction by the other signatories was quick. Federica Mogherini, the EU’s foreign policy chief, said that not even the US could change the deal and there can be no renegotiation and that there had been no violations by Iran. The governments of the UK, France and Germany issued a statement restating their commitment to the agreement. Furthermore, the upper house of Russia’s parliament prepared a statement which urged US Congress to save the deal from President Trump. Last but certainly not least, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN nuclear watchdog, issued a statement restating that Iran was abiding by its obligations under the deal.
The position of the US Congress on the subject is less clear. Some elements within the Republican Party, which has the majority in both houses, call for a renegotiation of the agreement and the re-imposition of some of the earlier sanctions. Other Republicans are still undecided, and others are against. I will be focusing on Republicans that can be characterised as hawkish and want to reimpose sanctions. Republican Senators Bob Corker and Tom Cotton are two of them. Recently, they announced that they would be introducing legislation to unilaterally change the Iran deal for it to conform with the approach of the Trump White House.
Many analysts and experts reacted to the statement made by the two Senators, urging them not to abandon a deal that works. What the two Republican Senators are trying to do is risky. If they succeed in passing their proposed legislation, not only will they set Iran back on the path of acquiring a nuclear bomb, but they will put the United States on a path toward military confrontation. One has to ask himself what are the reasons behind this move and the change of strategy on Iran by the White House. And the answer would most probably be that the hawkish elements of the Republican party and the White House would like to see a change of regime in Iran and they are willing to risk war in the region to achieve their aims.
On the other side of the aisle, Democrats stand in support of the agreement and do not wish to see it scrapped. Even certain Democratic Senators that didn’t support the deal two years ago, now stand firmly behind it and that includes Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and Sen.Ben Cardin, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
In my opinion, the Trump White House is wrong to believe that the Iranians will continue to abide by the agreement if the US re-imposes sanctions. The Iranians even said as much. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in his first reaction since Donald Trump’s speech, said that “we will not tear up the nuclear deal so long as the other side has not torn it up, but if they do, we will cut it in pieces”. What is clear at the moment is that Donald Trump’s actions have far-reaching effects. For one, the credibility of the US in the international stage has been damaged by the recent rifts with its allies and the decision to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement. Moreover, the decertification of the Iran deal risks alienating China at a very crucial time when the US needs China’s support with regards to North Korea. If the current US administration continues down this path which may lead to a two-front war, one in North Korea and one in Iran, they will have no one to blame but themselves.
To conclude, there was a time when only a statement from a US President could persuade other international leaders to support the United States and its interests. An example of the above can be found during the Cuban missile crisis when President Kennedy decided to inform French President De Gaulle about his decision to stage a naval blockade of Cuba. When the emissary of the US President offered to show evidence of missile sites in Cuba, De Gaulle waved them away and responded by saying “The word of the President of the United States is enough for me.” That is not the case anymore. President Trump’s apparent disdain of the achievements of his predecessor has damaged the standing of the United States on the international stage and has made the option of military confrontation, although unlikely, more viable every day.