The US, under President Donald Trump’s administration, has made a habit of reneging from vital multilateral agreements. The latest is the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) which was signed by Iran with the US, China, France, Germany, Russia, and the UK (also known as the P5+1). The announcement of the US withdrawal from the JCPOA and the subsequent reinstatement of nuclear sanctions against Iran is a critical foreign policy blunder.
The US has opened up a Pandora’s box and we now risk Iran going nuclear, possible US efforts at regime change, an exposed and toothless non-proliferation order without the US, considerable friction in the transatlantic alliance, and, here in India, critical geopolitical and economic losses owing to secondary sanctions.
Will Iran’s response be to begin uranium enrichment at full speed or is another deal—a “better" deal—in the offing?
Under the JCPOA, Iran had committed to giving up the development of nuclear weapons, reducing its uranium stockpile, and capping uranium enrichment to 3.67% (weapons-grade uranium requires around 90% enrichment). In return, the P5+1 lifted sanctions, allowed Iran to access its frozen assets overseas (upwards of $100 billion), and allowed it to sell oil in international markets again. A fair deal, most would say. But with the US withdrawal and reinstatement of sanctions, especially without any visible proof of Iranian violations, there is absolutely no reason for Iran to come back to the table (with this administration anyway).
There is no better deal to be made. The US’ wanton behaviour makes it an untrustworthy partner in any subsequent negotiations. In one fell swoop, the Trump administration has emboldened hardliners within Iran who will now target incumbent President Hassan Rouhani and his moderate government for their “weakness" and “blind faith" in the US and the West. While Rouhani may have stated that Iran will remain in the deal with the other five signatories of the JCPOA, it is unclear whether this is a line he will be able to hold for too long. If he is deposed and a hardline government comes in, then all bets are off on a non-nuclear Iran.
Could the US conduct military strikes on Iranian nuclear facilities and try changing the Iranian regime altogether?
This is a distinct possibility. In Tuesday’s address, President Trump did nothing more than reinstate sanctions on Iran. Given the poor historical record of the efficacy of sanctions in stopping prior nuclearization efforts on both Iran and North Korea, one may wonder what’s next.
Hardliners in Washington have long advocated military strikes on Iranian nuclear facilities. Furthermore, President Trump’s closest foreign policy advisers, secretary of state Mike Pompeo and national security advisor John Bolton, are known for their hawkish positions on Iran.
The use of force to solve the Iran issue would definitely be the most foolhardy and imprudent follow-up to an already reckless decision. There is nothing to stop the White House from considering it seriously.
Given these uncertainties for what is clearly a very ill-thought- out move by the White House, as things stand, Iran may well begin enrichment and go full steam ahead on its missile programme. The example of North Korea and the forthcoming negotiations prove one thing: Having a nuclear bomb and a missile programme capable of targeting the US is a very useful bargaining chip.
The effects of President Trump’s unilateral withdrawal from the JCPOA has far-reaching effects, beyond Iran-US relations. The most important domain affected is the non-proliferation order, which has, for better or for worse, been under the US’ stewardship for the last few decades. There is no reason for any other potential proliferators to engage with the US and its allies in serious non-proliferation negotiations.
One can expect North Korea to observe the breakdown of the Iran deal keenly as well. Will it risk denuclearization given the US unreliability and recent penchant for withdrawing from international commitments?
The era of American leadership in the non-proliferation order is over. The question now is, what can France, Germany and the UK, united in expressing their regret over the US withdrawal, offer Iran to adhere to the JCPOA? To what extent will they go to undercut the US’ policies?
There is also the matter of secondary sanctions— sanctions on states and firms doing business with Iran. If the US is serious about enforcing sanctions on Iran, it will have to then go ahead and punish European businesses for engaging with the latter. This will cause considerable friction for the transatlantic alliance partners.
The question of secondary sanctions is most pertinent for India too. Iran is an important trade and geopolitical partner for India. It is India’s third largest oil supplier, and India is deeply involved in development projects in Iran. The most important of these being in Chabahar, which is meant to offset the Chinese presence in Pakistan’s Gwadar port. Given India’s current bonhomie with the US and a number of critical defence and trade deals recently concluded and in the pipeline, will India be willing to push the envelope and carry on business with Iran? Or will the US give India an exemption for the same reasons?
In the past, lots of states trading with Iran have gotten exemptions from the US. However, giving out exemptions to European states and India would render the sanctions on Iran blunt and ineffective. It is highly unlikely that the US has taken the major step of unilaterally withdrawing from the JCPOA and reimposing sanctions only to end up allowing other states to impede its efforts to hurt Iran and take economic advantage.
Debak Das is a PhD candidate at the department of government, Cornell University, and a visiting fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.
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