Iran nuclear deal: Donald Trump’s actions will isolate and harm US credibility
The Iranian nuclear deal was solely aimed at alleviating international concerns about Tehran’s nuclear programme. Donald Trump’s criticism of the deal citing Tehran’s human rights record, support to terrorist networks or ballistic missile programme is blatantly unfairUpdated: Oct 14, 2017, 20:10 IST
Ending weeks of speculation, United States President Donald Trump laid out a major re-orientation of US policy towards Iran and the wider region. As part of this new strategy, Trump refused to certify that ‘Iran is taking measures to terminate its illicit nuclear program’. Under the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act 2015, such a presidential certification is required for continued suspension of American sanctions on Iran. Trump has gone against the advice of his closest advisers including secretary of defence General James Mattis, secretary of state Rex Tillerson and even the commander of the US Strategic Command, General John Hyten. The president’s refusal however will not translate into an immediate reimposition of sanctions on Iran. The US Congress has 60 days to debate the issue and then decide on reimposition of economic sanctions.
In a bid to pressurise the Congress and American allies, Trump indicated that the US could unilaterally walk out of the Iran deal in case a solution could not be found by working with the Congress and US allies. However, neither the Congress nor US allies seem to be taking Trump’s bait. The European Union, Britain and France have expressed their commitment to full implementation of the Iran deal. Trump is unlikely to find any support in Moscow and Beijing.
The joint comprehensive plan of action (JCPOA), which was concluded in July 2015, was not a bilateral agreement between the US and Iran but a multilateral agreement reached after two years of intensive negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 (US, Russia, China, France, Britain and Germany). Further, it was incorporated into the United Nations Security Council Resolution 2231. The bottom line is that if Trump carries out his threat and terminates US participation in the deal, he would damage America’s international credibility and leadership. Such an action would isolate the US among its allies with the exception of Israel and Saudi Arabia who would support Trump’s gambit.
Going through Trump’s statement, very little of it is specifically about Iranian violations of the deal apart from two specific allegations. Without providing any details, Trump stated that Iran has exceeded the limit of 130 metric tonnes of heavy water on two occasions. On both these occasions, Iran has shipped the excess stock of heavy water to Oman and the same has been verified by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Trump also alluded that until recently, Iran had failed to meet American expectations in its operation of advanced centrifuges. However, here also Iran has remained true to the provisions of the deal and has agreed to limit its research and development efforts on advanced centrifuges.
A large portion of Trump’s tirade against Iran was restricted to Tehran’s support to terrorism, human rights abuses, its expanding ballistic missile programme and allegations of collaborating with North Korea. It is prudent to recall that the JCPOA, popularly known as the Iran nuclear agreement, was limited to the Iranian nuclear programme and did not delve into Iran’s role in the various crises in West Asia or Tehran’s ballistic missile programme. In fact, the limited scope of US’s negotiations with Iran were the result of decisions taken during the Bush administration. Trump should re-look at past American decisions before terming the Iran deal as one of the “worst and most one-sided transactions” the US has ever entered into.
The Iran deal was very successful in blocking the uranium and plutonium route available to Iran to build nuclear weapons. Prior to the agreement, Iran was operating close to 19,500 centrifuges, had a stockpile of about 7,000 kg of low-enriched uranium hexafluoride gas (UF6), stockpile of 200 kg of UF6 gas enriched up to 20%. It was also working on starting its heavy water plant at Arak.
As part of the agreement, Iran gave up about two-thirds of its centrifuges, shipped abroad 95% of its stockpile, including all weapons-grade fissile material, accepted to 300 kg limit on its entire uranium stockpile for 15 years. Iran also agreed to modify the Arak heavy-water reactor thereby blocking the plutonium route to producing fissile material for nuclear weapons. Tehran also agreed to one of the most intrusive IAEA verifications regime accepted by any country.
The most important achievement of the agreement was increasing the break out time (time required for Iran to build nuclear weapon) from two months to 12 months. This was the result of the restrictions imposed on Iranian nuclear programme.
It is possible to point out flaws in the Iranian deal. Like most international agreements, the agreement too is far from being perfect. Given that negotiators have to accommodate competing concerns of various actors and seek to achieve the “best possible” agreement, international multilateral agreements seldom are perfect. The Iranian nuclear deal was solely aimed at alleviating international concerns about Iran’s nuclear programme and the possibility of Tehran building a nuclear weapon. Criticising the agreement for not being able to improve Tehran’s human rights record, curb its alleged support to terrorist networks or limit Iran’s expanding ballistic missile programme is blatantly unfair.
The US has the sovereign right, like all nation-states, to terminate its participation in the Iran deal. It is however likely to find itself largely isolated in such a move with none of its major allies supporting reimposition of sanctions on Iran. In the medium to long term such a move will harm US credibility, worsen the security situation in the region and harm its national security interests.
Arun Vishwanathan teaches at the school of international studies, Central University of Gujarat, Gandhinagar, and is co-editor of Troubling Tehran: Reflections on Geopolitics
The views expressed are personal