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Iran nuclear deal: Obama focused on positives, Trump is magnifying negatives

For Barack Obama, the nuclear deal was a chip of the larger plan to build ties with Iran and also reduce US dependency on Pakistan for its Afghanistan operations. Donald Trump also appears to be aware of this

opinion Updated: Oct 17, 2017 09:42 IST
Donald Trump,Barack Obama,Iran deal
Barack Obama (R) with Donald Trump, Washington, US (File Photo)(REUTERS)

Recently, United States President Donald Trump kicked the onus of the US backing out of the Iran nuclear deal to the US Congress. The question is how we interpret this technically, in terms of domestic politics and in terms of geopolitics.

How one analyses this professionally (as opposed to blind Trump hate) depends on which side one takes on the JCPOA, the technical term for the Iran deal. Those supporting the deal point to fact that Iran’s immediate ability to weaponise has been taken away, and that it will not be able to do until 2030 at the earliest, if at all. They also claim that an unprecedented set of intrusive inspections aimed at building trust between the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and Iran will ensure enforcement of the deal and verify Iran’s intent. More important and accurately they also claim that this sets a very good carrot/stick pathway for other errant states to re-enter the NPT fold.

Those who oppose the deal point out that these inspections are subject to a sunset clause, that is when the IAEA certifies continued good behaviour, these intrusive inspections will end, subsequent to which Iran may start cheating again. They also argue that intent can be gauged in other ways – such as Iran’s resurgent ballistic missile programme. After all why would a country committed to staying in the NPT want expensive long-range missiles whose only purpose is to deliver nuclear warheads? What of the fact that China has facilitated an extensive network of nuclear proliferation between North Korea, Pakistan and Iran and has done so with absolute impunity? In fact what is to prevent Iran, when it has perfected its missiles, to simply buy an off-the-shelf bomb from an increasingly desperate and isolated North Korea, as the Syrians bought an off-the-shelf reactor from the same vendor? The problem is supporters of the deal simply refuse to discuss these facts.

A less solid argument from detractors of the JCPOA is that it has done nothing to stop Iran’s aggressive pursuit of foreign policy goals through violent means – specifically support to Shia movements in Sunni-ruled countries and the Hezbollah against Israel. The JCPOA, to them, has given Iran the right to “pursue terrorism free from sanctions”. To be fair the JCPOA was about controlling Iran’s nuclear programme, not about controlling its support of terrorists.

That said there are tangible short to medium term benefits of the JCPOA. But in the interests of absolute objectivity, there are equally good, long term arguments against it. Ultimately whether you choose for or against depends on what remains unsaid by both sides is that this deal, like any other, hinges on trust.

Trust of course is one of the most difficult things to achieve, when your political goals are so diametrically opposed to each other. Under Barack Obama, the JCPOA was seen as merely one chip, in a larger goal towards normalising relations with Iran. This accepted that Iran was indispensable towards stabilising Central Asia, specifically Afghanistan where its interests were more aligned with the West than Pakistan.

After all, if Iran were to provide alternate access to the US to supply its forces there, the salience of Pakistan, and its continuing ability to one hand take US money and on the other have US troops killed with that money, ends for good. On the other hand, Iran’s positions in West Asia are frequently in conflict with the West, be it support for democratisation in Bahrain, the promotion of sectarianism by what is believed to be an Iranian-influenced government in Baghdad, support for Hezbollah and the Syrian government, and a trenchant opposition to Israel.

While the Obama administration preferred to focus on the areas of agreement, the Trump administration focuses on the areas of disagreement. Trump clearly understands the consequences of his actions on his Afghanistan policy as well as on non-proliferation goals in the short term and this may explain some of his reluctance. What we can however be sure about is that he is determined to pass the consequences of his actions onto Congress, in much the same way as Congress chose to pass on the consequences to Obama.

Abhijit Iyer-Mitra is senior research fellow, Nuclear Security Programme, Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi

Twitter: @iyervval

The views expressed are personal