by Mohammed Nuruzzaman | (Informed Comment) | – –
US President-elect Donald Trump’s bluster about the Iran nuclear deal has created a lot of confusions and uncertainties about the fate of the deal. The anti-deal statements he made during and after the race to the White House election campaign ranged from direct threats to “tear up” the deal to renegotiate it, making it clear that he would not accept the nuclear deal with Iran, officially dubbed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), as it is. In reactions, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has said that the deal was not a bilateral agreement with one side being able to ditch it. He averred that Iran had options “if the USA unwisely decides to move away from its obligations under the agreement”.
Iran–US tensions over the JCPOA, not to speak of their brewing hostilities after the 1979 Islamic revolution, have remained high, since the deal was concluded in mid-July 2015. As I have argued elsewhere, the deal was more a marriage of convenience between Iran and the US, less a political and diplomatic accord to address the long standing strategic divergences between the two countries. Iranian leaders agreed to scale back their nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief, while the thorny issues of Iran’s claimed pre-eminence in the Persian Gulf neighborhood, America’s unqualified support to Iran’s Gulf adversaries or recognition of Tehran’s strategic interests in Iraq, Syria and ties to Hezbollah remained unaddressed. Symptoms of adversarial relations, despite hope for “a reset the button”, soon resurfaced. The imposition of new sanctions by the US in October last year over Iran’s testing of suspected nuclear capable ballistic missiles, the US Supreme Court’s order to seize Iranian assets in US banks, Iran’s detention of ten American sailors who strayed into Iranian territorial waters last January etc., largely derailed the expected bonhomie in post-deal Iran–US relations.
President Trump’s threats to sabotage the deal may not be that hollow, in view of America’s past record of violations of international agreements and treaties. In the last one and-a-half decades, the US has walked away or partially pulled out of nearly a dozen bilateral or multilateral agreements or pacts, including the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM), the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), and the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) being some notable examples. President George W. Bush’s administration withdrew from the 1972 ABM Treaty with the Soviet Union, citing national security reasons; the NPT mandates the nuclear-weapon-states not to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear states but the Bush administration insisted it retained the option to nuke non-nuclear states; the US and four other signatories (Britain, France, Germany, and Japan) have breached certain provisions of the CTBT by building or supplying materials to build laser fusion facilities to conduct lab-based thermonuclear explosions, which are not sanctioned by the CTBT. A 2003 report entitled “Rule of Power or Rule of Law”, sponsored by the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research and the Lawyers’ Committee on Nuclear Policy, charged the U.S. with drifting away from rule of law to rule of power, as Washington abides by or violates global security-related treaties and agreements based on its perceptions of self-interests. Prior to launching the invasion of Iraq, President Bush was on record as ditching on international law: “I don’t care what the international lawyers say, we are going to kick some ass”. He was responding touchily to the legal obstacles to his plan to invade Iraq and topple the Saddam Hussein regime.
The nuclear deal with Iran appears more vulnerable to unilateral US actions as it is neither a lawful treaty nor a major agreement ratified by the US Senate; the deal is simply a US (and also Iranian) political commitment to honor the JCPOA as long as both parties maintain their trust in it. The deal has, however, an international dimension – it was enshrined in a UN Security Council Resolution and its major signatories (China, France, Russia, UK plus Germany) so far remain committed to defend it, either because of their growing business interests in Iran or because of too high risks to bury it altogether.
There is a series of US domestic and international factors that militate against the deal. That President Trump is an Islamophobe and, by implications, an Iranophobe is an open secret. In a bit of ominous signal, he is selecting like-minded people to fill his foreign and security policy cabinet. On top of that, a host of lobbies and institutes, including the Israel lobbies and the so-called Foundation for the Defense of Democracies have renewed their efforts to kill the deal finally, after failing to scuttle nuclear negotiations between the Obama administration and Iran. The House Republican Israel Caucus has recently introduced and authorized a new bill to extend the 1996 Iran Sanctions Act, due to expire by the end of the year, for another ten years. The House has also passed a resolution to block the sale of Boeing and Air Bus civilian aircrafts to Iran. Added to this anti-deal domestic frenzy is the issue of America’s perceived and real decline in the Middle East, which the Trump administration hopes to reverse, at least psychologically, by dealing harshly with Iran. There hardly exist any viable options for Washington to force Russia to reduce its role in Syria while Iran remains a relatively soft target to turn the heat on.
Whatever the reasons are, the Iran deal melodrama looks set to unfold in the coming weeks and months. House and Senate Republicans, if not the Democrats, are expected to line up behind President Trump to put the deal in the line of fire. Similarly, the Iranian hard-liners who opposed the deal with the “Great Satan” but nonetheless accepted it due to the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s blessings for it are happy to see Trump’s anti-deal tirade. Their mouthpiece Kayhan International, a newspaper close to the Supreme Leader, called Trump “a shredder of the JCPOA, an agreement which had zero benefit for Iran”. This much echoed the Supreme Leader’s statement made last July concerning a possible breach of the deal by the US: “We will not violate the JCPOA, but if the opposite side violates it…if they tear up the JCPOA, we will burn it”. The Revolutionary Guards sees Trump’s electoral victory as a welcome step to corner the Iranian moderate political forces united under President Hassan Rouhani and former President Hashemi Rafsanjani, who swept to power in the June 2013 presidential election and further consolidated their hold onto power through the February 2016 parliamentary elections.
The unfolding American threats to the deal under the Trump administration, and Iranian hard-liners’ reactions to that, present three possible scenarios. Given President Trump’s highly negative views on the deal and domestic pressures created by the pro-Israel lobbies, the first scenario may be a total rejection of the deal by the US, whatever may be the costs incurred in the process. That means a return to the old-style hostility and confrontation with Iran par excellence. This option is replete with high risks and uncertainties since the Trump administration is highly unlikely to draw the support of even its close European allies, let alone that of China and Russia – America’s contemporary peer-competitors. But a ‘go alone’ policy by the new freaky president cannot be totally ruled out.
The second scenario may hinge on seeking some changes to the deal, what Walid Phares, Trump’s electoral campaign advisor on the Middle East, told the BBC radio on November 11. This would involve some changes the US would seek to make to the agreement – the restoration of some issues or the change of some issues (most probably a demand to ban Iran’s ballistic missile program) to exclusively favor America’s and Israeli security interests. Iran’s stand on such a possibility is revulsive, however. Ali Shamkhani, Secretary of Iran’s National Security Council, has recently said, apparently to oppose Walid Phares’ disclosure, that “They (US leaders) cannot sit in glass palaces saying they would [either] tear up the JCPOA or renegotiate it.” This is a totally no-option for the Revolutionary Guards who defines and views ballistic missiles as effective deterrents against American or Israeli aggressions. At the same time, a complete refusal by Iran to renegotiate the deal, which sounds rational from Iranian viewpoint, may push the US down the road to adopt the first scenario as a possible option.
The third scenario – sticking to the post-deal status quo is more favorable to Iran. The Rouhani administration negotiated the deal by defying powerful conservative opponents and remains committed to observing the terms and conditions of the deal. If President Trump opts to walk away from the deal, he can do so at the risk of getting global flak but Iran stands to reap benefits from such actions: Iran will continue to hold the global moral ground, and would be free to do business with European and Asian partners, despite continued unilateral US sanctions which the nuclear deal was not meant to dismantle. Whether the Trump administration ditches the deal or not, Washington can no longer force Iran to return to a pre-deal situation of international economic isolation. Still, some reckless or even accidental military actions by either the US or Iran may seriously destabilize the whole Middle East region.
Subscribe to Informed Comment by email and never miss a posting!
Related video added by Juan Cole: