U.S.-Iran

A deal undone

Print edition : November 10, 2017

President Donald Trump at a meeting with senior military leaders in the Cabinet Room of the White House on October 5. Photo: THE NEW YORK TIMES

A television grab from the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting, taken on October 13, shows Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaking after President Trump announced in Washington that he would not certify Iran's compliance with the nuclear deal. Photo: AFP

President Donald Trump refuses to recertify the nuclear deal with Iran in order to renew his professed goal of dismantling the deal and reintroducing sanctions against that country.

UNITED STATES President Donald Trump finally made his move against the Iran nuclear deal in the second week of October. In a rambling speech on October 13, he virtually repudiated the nuclear deal the Barack Obama administration had painstakingly negotiated with Iran along with five other governments. Trump announced that he would not certify that Iran was complying with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), as the nuclear deal is called formally.

The deadline for presidential certification was October 15. Trump said he was directing his administration “to work closely with the U.S. Congress and our allies to address the deal’s many serious flaws so that the Iranian regime can never threaten the world with nuclear weapons”. His action does not mean that the U.S. has formally withdrawn from the nuclear deal, but it is a significant step forward in his professed goal of dismantling it and reintroducing sanctions against Iran.

In his speech, Trump used the kind of jargon he used on the campaign trail to describe the U.S.-Iran nuclear deal, calling it “one of the worst and most one-sided transactions the United States has ever entered into”. The Iranian side had made a lot of concessions to make the deal a reality, including the right for intrusive inspection of its nuclear facilities. When the deal was signed in 2015, it was greeted with enthusiasm by the international community barring Israel and the U.S.’ new-found allies in the Arab world such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Iran is the only important country in West Asia that is supporting Palestinians and the creation of a Palestinian state.

The U.S. Congress, dominated by the Republican Party, was overwhelmingly against the signing of the nuclear deal but could do little to stymie it. Trump has now given it another opportunity to do so. Many Republicans are in cahoots with the rich and influential pro-Israeli lobby in the country. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had been trying his best to scupper the deal. He met Trump before the recent developments took place. Trump chose Israel and Saudi Arabia as his first port of call after taking over as President in January 2017.

Trump, in his speech, demanded that the nuclear deal be renegotiated in such a way that Iran was permanently barred from testing its missiles and conducting meaningful nuclear research in the future. His speech against Iran, the most belligerent by any U.S. President so far, contained a litany of lies and was littered with calumny against the Iranian people and their leadership. Trump claimed with a straight face that the deal gave Iran “over $100 billion its government could use to fund terrorism”. The money, rightfully belonging to Iran, was frozen in Western banks as the draconian international and unilateral U.S. sanctions came into play. The funds were used by the Iranian government to prop up the faltering economy. Trump claimed that the Obama administration signed the nuclear deal with Iran when the Iranian government was on the verge of collapsing as a result of international sanctions. Iran has never instigated war against any nation. On the other hand, it has been targeted continuously since the Islamic Revolution of 1979. More than a million Iranians perished in the eight-year-long Iraq-Iran war of the 1980s that was instigated by the U.S. and Saudi Arabia.

When the nuclear deal was negotiated, Iran was only a step away from mastering the technology needed to make an atom bomb. It had enough reserves of enriched uranium to make an atomic weapon within weeks. When the newly elected Iranian government of Hassan Rouhani started engaging in serious negotiations with the U.S. and the P5 (Permanent 5)+Germany on the nuclear deal, the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and many conservative politicians had warned that the U.S. could not be trusted on the nuclear issue.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), prominent nuclear experts and Western governments have all said that Iran was scrupulously complying with all the aspects of the complicated nuclear deal. “At present, Iran is subject to the world’s most robust nuclear verification regime,” the IAEA’s Director General Yukiya Amano said in a statement. Besides, Iran as a signatory to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT) is barred from acquiring nuclear weapons. The Iranian leadership, including Khamenei, has been stressing that Iran has no interest in acquiring a nuclear weapon. The Supreme Leader had gone to the extent of saying that possessing a nuclear weapon is an “un-Islamic” act.

Call to respect deal

The ball is now in the court of the U.S. Congress after Trump refused to “certify” that Iran was in compliance with the deal. Congress now has to decide whether or not to give the deal a burial and reimpose sanctions within 60 days. The governments of Britain, France and Germany, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) allies of the U.S., were quick to issue a joint statement asking the U.S. to adhere to the agreement that was “the culmination of 13 years of diplomacy”. Germany’s Ambassador to the U.S., Peter Wittig, said that the Trump administration’s decision “would send a signal that diplomacy is not reliable and that you cannot trust diplomatic agreements, and that would affect, I believe, our credibility in the West when we are not honouring an agreement that Iran has not violated”.

The European Union (E.U.) has been pointing out that the JCPOA was codified through a United Nations Security Council Resolution. The Security Council has set up a dispute mechanism to resolve issues of non-performance.

The mechanism was not, however, set up to deal with a case in which one of the signatories, in this case the U.S., is intent on sabotaging the JCPOA. Russia and China have also called on the U.S. to respect the nuclear deal. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has questioned the legal right of the U.S. to withdraw from the deal. The JCPOA, he reminded the Trump administration, was approved by the Security Council resolution and “is subject to mandatory implementation”.

Reacting to the U.S. President’s move, President Rouhani said that there was no question of Iran accepting additional amendments to the nuclear deal, such as a ban on the testing of ballistic missiles or an indefinite ban on the country undertaking advanced nuclear research. “The Iranian nation has not and will not bow to any foreign pressure,” Rouhani said in a speech. “Iran and the nuclear deal are stronger than ever.”

U.S. isolated

If the U.S. finally reneges on the deal, then the international community has every right to hold the U.S. responsible for the collapse of the agreement. The Iranian government has said that if the U.S. reintroduces sanctions it will be held responsible for the breach of the JCPOA. The U.S. already finds itself isolated on the issue. All major Western allies of the U.S. have started doing business with Iran. Most experts believe that if the U.S. reimposes sanctions on Iran, its ramifications will have very limited impact this time.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said that Iran would remain in the deal if the E.U. and other signatories also adhered to it. Zarif said that he had already received assurances from European governments that they would stick to the deal. He said Europeans had conveyed to the Trump administration that they would do their best to stop the nuclear deal from unravelling. Europeans are already angry with the Trump administration on a host of issues, especially with his decision to walk away from the global Paris climate accord. After the signing of the nuclear deal, the E.U. had said that it wanted to be Iran’s biggest trading partner. After the lifting of the sanctions, bilateral trade between the E.U. and Iran has risen substantially. The E.U.’s trade with Iran went up by 55 per cent in 2016 and by 94 per cent in the first half of 2017.

For that matter, Trump’s refusal to recertify the nuclear deal is not really relevant to its sanctity. According to disarmament experts, it is the IAEA that is responsible for certifying whether Iran is in compliance with the JCPOA. It was the U.S. Congress that insisted in 2015 on regular certification by the U.S. President on Iranian compliance. The Trump administration certified Iran’s compliance in April and July. Trump was obviously uncomfortable certifying a deal that he has been critical of for a long time.

Many in the region and outside fear that Trump’s actions are a prelude to another war. Israel and Saudi Arabia have been urging the U.S. for a long time to effect regime change in Iran. The pro-Israeli lobby in the U.S. was successful in pushing the U.S. to invade Iraq and help in the abortive attempt at regime change in Syria. Syria, Iraq and Iran were the three countries who stood up to Israel and called for the establishment of a Palestinian state.

A U.S. Democratic Congressman, Gerry Connolly, criticising the Trump administration’s attempts to “cherry-pick” data to build a false case against Iran, said that the U.S. was “sleepwalking” into another war. “The hidden scandal of the Iraq war—the manipulation of intelligence to support a predetermined outcome—is now an overt political strategy to undermine a multilateral non-proliferation agreement,” Connolly said.

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