First, the basics. The United States has not yet exited the nuclear deal with Iran, formally known as Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Instead, President Donald Trump has simply ‘decertified’ the 2015 deal between Iran and six countries, the US, the UK, Russia, China, France, and Germany.
Under American law, the president has to certify that Iran is adhering to the deal every 90 days. Trump reluctantly did so twice before, but balked the third time around, on Friday.
This puts the ball in the court of the US congress. It has 60 days to re-impose suspended sanctions, which would surely kill the deal. Trump has, in effect, shoved JCPOA to a cliff’s edge, but has not pushed it over yet. Or to use another metaphor, the US president has rocked the boat but not sunk it. This raises an obvious question: If Trump has a game plan, what is it?
Much of the American president’s hostility towards the deal probably stems a from a desire to undo Barack Obama’s legacy. But there also appears to be a genuine conviction that he can produce a deal that’s tougher or Iran.
Trump doesn’t have much of a pretext to withdraw from the agreement. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) says Iran is complying with the deal and much to Trump’s chagrin, key members of his own cabinet concur with that assessment.
In his speech on Friday, Trump once again called the deal ‘one of the worst and most one-sided transactions the United States has ever entered into,’ and compared it to ‘terrible trade deals’.
He also cited alleged Iranian violations of the agreement. Trump said that the Iranians had twice ‘exceeded the limit of 130 metric tonnes of heavy water.’ This is technically true. Iran did exceed heavy water production twice, once by 0.7% and another time by 0.08%. But when confronted, it agreed to ship the excess quantities overseas. More pertinently, the slight excess production was of little consequence since Iran doesn’t have a heavy water reactor that can make plutonium.
Trump also declared that: ‘Until recently, the Iranian regime has also failed to meet our expectations in its operation of advanced centrifuges.’ The vague language here seems to stem from a realisation that this objection is trivial. According to the IAEA, Iran continues to comply with the limit of 5,060 centrifuges. The country had also agreed to restrict itself to ‘roughly 10’ centrifuges for research and development, but reportedly operated up to 13 at one point. As Trump’s own words indicate, that problem, negligible to begin with, has ceased to exist.
The US president also claimed Iran ‘intimidated international inspectors into not using the full inspection authorities’. Here again, the phrasing is revealing. Trump cannot claim a material breach on the part of Iran and so uses words like ‘intimidated’. Yes, Iran has sometimes resisted opening up facilities to inspectors. But it has always relented. Inspectors and local authorities are in an adversarial relationship and occasional friction is not unusual.
Trump did point to Iran’s ballistic missile programme. And it’s true that this programme contravenes UN Security Council Resolution 2231, which enabled JCPOA. But it’s not a violation of JCPOA itself.
More substantially, Trump charged Iran with sponsoring terrorism and violence in the region. These allegations have a large degree of truth to them. But JCPOA is a nuclear deal, and does not cover every aspect of Iranian behaviour. Outside of re-imposing the wide-ranging sanctions that were in place until 2015, the US and other countries are free to pursue any other actions to tackle perceived Iranian malfeasance. These might include targeted sanctions, strengthening of alliances, or fighting Iranian proxies in Yemen and Syria.
In a show of unity, five of the countries involved in the deal have said they’re worried by Trump’s decision. A joint statement from the leaders of the UK, France, and Germany said they were ‘committed’ to the agreement and were ‘concerned’ by Trump’s decertification. Separately, Russia’s deputy foreign minister called Trump’s decision ‘extremely troubling’ and a spokesperson for China’s foreign ministry hoped ‘all parties can continue to preserve and implement this deal’.
The EU’s foreign policy chief added to the chorus by pointed out that JCPOA is ‘not a bilateral agreement. It doesn’t belong to any single country — and it’s not up to one single country to terminate it.’
There’s been no word yet from India, though significantly, finance minister Arun Jaitley met his Iranian counterpart in Washington on Saturday and later announced that the two sides had resolved most of their pending issues on oil payments.
India will be extremely reluctant to participate in any new sanctions regime against Tehran. Indeed, early reactions indicate, most major economies are likely to continue doing business with Iran, despite any potential US sanctions.
This will limit the power of any new US sanctions and actually reduce its leverage over Iran. Trump will also face growing resistance from Iranians themselves. In 2015, residents of Tehran came out into the streets to celebrate the signing of the nuclear deal. Two years later, Trump’s decision to declare Iran non-compliant has unleashed a ‘mix of anger and anguish’. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani called Trump’s speech ‘a pile of delusional allegations’ and warned that the country ‘has not bowed down to any power, and will not do so in the future’. It’s likely most of his countrymen and women agree.
Does Trump have a strategy?
If threatening to scrap JCPOA is obviously a losing proposition why is Trump following this course of action? The most common explanation is that Trump simply wants to get rid of the deal. If the US congress reimposes sanctions, it will probably precipitate an Iranian withdrawal from the deal. If congress chooses to do nothing, as some hope, Trump could simply terminate the deal, as he explicitly threatened in his speech. A US withdrawal would not end the agreement, though it would leave it more vulnerable to other actions by the Trump administration.
Some argue that Trump has a plan. According to political scientist Peter Feaver, by threatening to jettison the deal, Trump is pressuring both his congress and other countries to agree to a set of actions that will counter Iran in non-nuclear spheres like its ballistic missile programme and support for violent actors. If this works, Trump would then persuade congress to amend US law and ‘remove the 90-day certification, thus buying more time for other lines of pressure to come to bear on Iran.’
Even if this is indeed Trump’s strategy, he would face several challenges in implementing it. For one, Iran would not sit by idly and would find ways to retaliate. It would also seek to exploit differences between the US and other signatories to the deal, especially Russia and China. Secondly, even US allies in Europe would be reluctant to go along with such a plan. And finally, as Feaver himself freely admits, the Trump administration has not shown the sort of finesse required to pull off something like this.