The pressure is on Tehran with President Donald Trump ending waivers on Iran that were lifted by the Obama administration as part of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear deal. Characterising Iran’s government as a “regime of great terror” that used monies released by the previous US administration to continue enriching uranium and funding terrorism, Trump announced the US is withdrawing from the deal, reinstating “powerful sanctions,” and will punish other countries that assist Iran. Yet Trump also stated he is ready to make another deal with Iran.
The Trump administration’s position is a tough negotiating tactic, one intended to push Iran into supplementing rather than abrogating Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action restraints.
Re-imposing sanctions, as Trump has decided to do, may not deter a regime that survived years of economic restrictions. Military strikes would provide only short-term fixes, in addition to eliciting Iranian counteractions. Essentially, if not handled deftly, Washington’s restoration of sanctions could end up freeing Iran to resume nuclear weaponisation and continue other hostile activities, adding instability to the Middle East and the world. This is also the argument of the European allies and of Russia and China who helped negotiate the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
Falling in line
Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif repeatedly intones that Iran is not willing to renegotiate the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Behrooz Kamalvandi, spokesman for Iran’s Atomic Energy Organisation, even claimed on March 5 that Tehran could resume enriching uranium to 20% in less than two days. But Iran’s development plans require continued access to foreign technologies and substantial increase in trade with the world. Rising oil prices make Iranian reserves even more necessary to ensure energy security and price stability. While competitors like Saudi Arabia are not be pleased to see Iranian oil and gas keep entering the global supply chain, Iran could spend more on imports while rebuilding foreign currency reserves if it regains US sanctions waivers.
Indeed, despite the public bravado, Iran’s government has already been falling in line with US demands. The International Atomic Energy Agency reported on February 22 that Iran continues adhering to its Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action commitments. Iran had rectified all its technical breaches of the nuclear deal. Iran also remains within the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, although it is suspected of having illicitly shared technology with North Korea for the past two decades. US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo assessed on April 12 during confirmation hearings that Iran is unlikely to race toward nuclear weapons deployment even if the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action ends.
Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps Commander Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari stated on November 1 that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s policies limit the range of Iran’s missiles to 2,000 kilometers – well short of intercontinental ballistic missile capability against the United States and the European Union though still a threat to Israel and the Arab states. Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani quickly followed Trump’s announcement by declaring: “If we come to conclusion that five countries [of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action] are committed to their commitments, then we can get peace and tranquility.”
Aware of Trump’s stance, Britain, France, and Germany – the E3 – have become diplomatically active toward curtailing Iran’s ballistic missiles and Middle East interventions. EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini stressed on March 19 that talks were underway with Iranian officials to find solutions. French President Emmanuel Macron and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani agreed in a April 29 phone conversation to work together to preserve the deal. Macron even reassured Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that Israel’s security concerns would be central when enlarging the current deal.
Netanyahu himself had little new to add when alleging on April 30 that Iran continues cheating, although he provided more evidence of past development of weapons of mass destruction. Britain’s Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson emphasised in a tweet that Netanyahu’s presentation “shows why we need to keep deal & build on it to take account of US & allies’ concerns.” China’s Foreign Ministry quickly reiterated support for pursuing diplomatic solutions.
In tandem, the US Department of State has tried to generate international consensus to enhance the original deal. The department’s Policy Planning Director Brian Hook presents the goal as closing existing loopholes and adding new restrictions. He stresses, “Over the last few months we have been working pretty diligently with the British, the French and the Germans on achieving a supplemental agreement that the president has requested.”
US and EU administrations and negotiators are on the correct path.
Now free from periodic deadlines for reviewing the sanctions’ exemptions, the Trump administration can expend the time needed to work with allies and even competitors to craft comprehensive, binding, long-term, agreements that fix major flaws of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action such as limited verification, lack of access to suspected sites, short time periods before nuclear activities can resume, and lack of curbs on nuclear weapons delivery systems. Supplements are standard fare in arms control and fit well within international governance. Therefore Iran could enter into those additional agreements without seeming to yield to pressure to amend the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action itself.
Truth, lies, and trust are of limited value in disarmament. Verification is the key to success and must be bolstered to ensure full compliance – thereby assuaging concerns of the United States, the European Union, Israel, and Gulf nations. Iran needs to open all its past and current nuclear and weapons development sites, including military locations, to international inspections. Even if Iran will not agree to a permanent cessation of nuclear capability, the horizon for reaching breakout capability can be pushed back another 25 to 75 years beyond 2025. Iran must also agree to comply fully with the non-proliferation treaty by ceasing to exchange technologies with North Korea and other nations. Short- and medium-range Iranian missiles are already being used by secessionist groups like the Houthis to target civilians. Therefore a missile treaty needs to supplement the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action to freeze, even roll back, all missile development, deployment, and transfer by Iran for several decades.
Iran’s political expansionism across the Middle East, its striving for regional hegemony much-feared by nearby Sunni Arab kingdoms, and its support of other despotic regimes such as Bashar al-Assad’s in Syria are more difficult to address, especially as Russia is on its side. Yet here, too, compartmentalising the particular problem for negotiating purposes is likely to produce success. After all, the end game in this matter is to stop Iran from threatening Israel and Saudi Arabia.
Trump’s ultimate goal “to ensure that Iran never, and I mean never, acquires a nuclear weapon” is laudable. His administration should focus on achieving the results he seeks through concerted multilateral diplomacy rather than haphazard unilateral threats. Most essential, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action and supplements or its replacements need to be explicitly acknowledged as having international legal status as treaties or agreements rather than falling under the vague rubric of plans of action.
The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action was neither the worst deal nor the best. Better to skip hyperbole and nail down the details; take what has been agreed to and enhance it. Most important, the United States must work with global partners and rivals who already came together for the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action to present a united front against the expansionist, destabilising and dangerous actions of the autocrats in Tehran. Only then will the Islamic Republic of Iran’s nuclear ambitions be kept in check and other harmful ambitions be curbed. And the US would demonstrate to other countries, such as North Korea, that denuclearisation and reintegration into the global order brings considerable benefits.