Towards the top of President Trump’s hit list of Obama-era policies, somewhere close to the Affordable Care Act and the Paris climate accord, is the Iran nuclear deal. If the President decertifies the historic agreement Friday, as is expected, he will undo years of work to stabilize U.S.-Iranian relations.
In his recent address to the United Nations General Assembly, President Trump lambasted Iran for its missile program and destabilizing activities in the Middle East. Evoking the spirit of George Bush’s “axis of evil”, employed by the former President in 2002 to describe countries seeking to build weapons of mass destruction, President Trump referred to Iran as being part of a small group of “rogue regimes” alongside North Korea. He further accused Iran of being a dictatorship that supports terrorist groups, and called upon “Iran’s government [to] end its pursuit of death and destruction.”
President Trump’s rhetoric has raised anticipation of the United States’ withdrawal from a unprecedented nuclear weapons deal, concluded in 2015 by Iran, the P5+1 countries (the United States, the United Kingdom, China, France and Russia, plus Germany), and the European Union, which limited Iran’s nuclear capabilities in exchange for lifting Western-imposed economic sanctions. During his U.N. address, President Trump stated that the deal was “one-sided” and an “embarrassment to the United States,” partly for enabling Iran to build “dangerous missiles.”
Iran started its nuclear program in the 1950s under Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi at the Atomic Center of Tehran University. Initially, Iran cooperated with Western countries to develop its program. The United States even assisted the Iranians, who agreed to use nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. In 1958, Tehran joined the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and, in 1970, signed the nuclear non-proliferation treaty.
But, following the Islamic Revolution in 1979, Iran temporarily abandoned its nuclear program, only to resume it in the nineties under the leadership of a government with far more enemies in the world, including the once-friendly United States and Israel.
Iran’s revived interest in developing its nuclear capabilities resulted in the imposition of crippling economic sanctions. At the same time, the P5+1 countries began devising a strategy to put limits on the rogue country’s nuclear program. Following years of negotiations, the Iranian government under President Hassan Rouhani finalized the deal. Under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), Iran agreed to reduce its uranium enrichment capabilities and to place centrifuges in storage facilities monitored by the IAEA. Iran’s Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant became a research center, and IAEA inspectors obtained extended monitoring rights over the country’s nuclear plants and facilities.
After confirming Iran’s compliance, the United States and its allies agreed to lift nuclear-related sanctions, including financial restrictions and oil embargoes, while also releasing $100 billion in frozen assets. Despite restricting its nuclear activities, Iran was permitted to maintain 300 kilograms of uranium in a stockpile and to keep the uranium enrichment level at 3.67 percent for fifteen years in order to produce fuel for nuclear power plants.
President Trump’s recent comments have raised concerns regarding his intention to walk away from the nuclear deal. The IAEA has confirmed Iran’s compliance, stating that Iran’s stockpile of low-enriched uranium is currently 88.4 kilograms, which is considerably below the allowable limit. Moreover, the IAEA director Yukiya Amano claimed that the agency had access to all areas “without making distinctions between military and civilian locations.” Another IAEA official told Reuters that while the Trump administration might be trying to get rid of the deal, the international community would not “give them an excuse to [do so].”
However, while President Trump repeatedly criticized the deal on the campaign trail, he recently accused Iran of violating its “spirit.” U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson suggested that despite Iran’s technical compliance, its destabilizing activities, such as funding opposition groups in Yemen and Syria, remained problematic.
President Trump has already made a decision on the deal, which he will likely announce on Friday. If he does not certify Iran’s compliance, Congress will have sixty days to decide whether to reinstate sanctions against the Islamic Republic.U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley does not believe that President Trump’s criticism of the deal implies his intention to decertify it, although his comments have not assuaged fears, particularly among the Iranian authorities. Moreover, President Trump’s rollbacks on a number of Obama-era policies and programs have further fueled suspicion. In addition to pulling out of the Paris Climate Agreement, Trump no longer supports outreach to the Cuban government, and is currently planning to end the program protecting undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children, also known as the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.
Iranian officials have criticized President Trump’s comments. During his own address to the General Assembly, Iranian President Rouhani referred to his American counterpart as a “rogue newcomer,” stating that while Iran would not be the first to violate the deal, it would respond decisively to its violation. He also said it would be a “great pity” if the deal were decertified, accusing the U.S. administration of destroying its credibility and international confidence.
Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has also rejected the idea of amending the nuclear deal through further negotiations, and suggested that the United States was “sending the wrong signal.” He accused the U.S. administration of wanting to extract one-sided concessions through renegotiation without offering Iran further benefits in return.
The nuclear deal is currently set to expire in 2025, after which Iran would be allowed to use centrifuges and enriched uranium. If the United States withdraws now, Iran could immediately restart its nuclear program. Instead, the United States should consider ensuring Iran’s constructive political and economic engagement in the international community, and focus on devising policies regarding its nuclear program after the deal expires.
The United States should work with its allies in engaging Iran to help promote stability in the Middle East. After President Trump’s U.N. speech, Iran stated that it could revive its nuclear program “within hours.” Later, Iranian authorities announced that they successfully tested a new ballistic missile with a range of 2,000 kilometers, and would continue to develop the country’s arsenal. As the acceleration of missile build-up in response to criticism and potential nuclear proliferation could cause further disruption in the Middle East, Washington should seek to improve relations with Tehran, and remain committed to stabilizing the region.
Washington should also consider promoting Iran’s global economic integration. Despite President Trump’s personal disapproval of the nuclear deal and the possibility of U.S. withdrawal, European diplomats see no reason to reintroduce sanctions as long as Tehran complies with the agreement. Trade between Europe and Iran has witnessed a significant surge since 2015. During the first half of 2017, it totaled €9.9 billion, a 95% rise from the same period in 2016. Companies, such as Quercus, a British renewable energy investor, plans to invest €500 million in solar power projects in Iran. French companies, such as automaker Renault and energy company Total, along with Chinese National Petroleum Company, have already signed contracts to set up joint ventures.
According to the E.U. Ambassador to the United States David O’Sullivan, if the United States applies sanctions to Iran and countries doing business there, the European Union would protect its interests. Rather than alienating its allies, the United States should support them in strengthening their economic ties with Iran, which would assist in maintaining collaborative efforts to reshape Iran’s nuclear policy after the current deal expires.
In preserving the nuclear deal, and promoting its political and economic engagement, the United States could improve its relations with Iran. The successful negotiation of the nuclear deal in 2015 revealed Iran’s willingness to collaborate with the international community by curtailing its nuclear program. Despite ongoing challenges, including its support of opposition groups in the region, promoting efforts to seek Iran’s collaboration in stabilizing the Middle East while supporting its improved economic ties with the European Union could, in the long run, ameliorate U.S.-Iranian relations. ♦
Nina Chitaia is a contributing writer for the Paris Globalist. She is completing a master’s degree in international public management at Sciences Po.