Over the past six months, in one way or another, US President Donald Trump has kicked several of the cans inherited from his predecessor Barack Obama down the road. After several attempts to abolish it, “Obamacare” has been kicked into legislative oblivion. Obama’s policy of courting the Castro brothers has been slightly modified but not scrapped. The Paris climate accord has been verbally dismissed but not definitely buried, if only because it will not become binding until 2020.
The latest can to be kicked down the road is the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the curious press release that enumerates things Iran must do about its controversial nuclear project in exchange for the temporary suspension of sanctions.
Last week, the US State Department informed Congress that Trump would extend the waiver for suspending sanctions for a further three months. The department justified the decision by claiming Iran had respected the letter of the JCPOA while violating its spirit.
Trump’s extension of Obama’s favor to Iran comes exactly two years after the JCPOA was unveiled in Vienna and hailed by President Hassan Rouhani as “the greatest diplomatic victory in Islam.”
The truth is that Iran has violated both the letter and the spirit of the JCPOA. For example, it has reduced the number of centrifuges enriching uranium, but not overall productive capacity because new high-powered machines have a higher output than the older ones that are decommissioned.
In any case, since Iran has no nuclear power stations that might need the enriched uranium as fuel, one must assume that whatever uranium is enriched will be stockpiled for other purposes, including nuclear warheads when and if the leadership wants them.
To keep alive the fiction about needing uranium for fuel, Tehran periodically announces plans to build nuclear power stations with help from China or Russia. But everyone knows that Iran does not have the money to spend on such vanity projects, and that neither Russia nor China is keen to invest in an economically insane project. A report by Iran’s Ministry of Energy shows that nuclear power would cost at least 40 percent more to produce than power from natural gas, of which Iran has plenty.
Another example concerns the stockpiles of “heavy water” that Iran has built over the years. The plutonium plant in Arak has been decommissioned, temporarily blocking one of the two ways that Iran might have developed nuclear warheads. But what will Iran do with the reserves it has already built up? Under the JCPOA, they must be sold on the world market.
But what happens when you cannot find a buyer? To defang that question, Obama promised to arrange for the stockpiles to be bought by US companies in case other buyers were not found. Two years later, there are no buyers and it is unlikely that Trump can persuade US companies to buy the Iranian stockpiles, which may or may not be up to their standards.
In three months’ time, the US president will be forced to find a more effective way of dealing with what is described as the ‘No. 1 challenge to US national interests.’
The JCPOA was never meant to solve the problem of Iran’s real or imagined nuclear ambitions. Nor was it meant to reaffirm the authority of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which Iran has publicly admitted violating at least until 2003. It was meant as part of a broader strategy by Obama to “empower the moderate faction” in Tehran and thus modify the nastier aspects of Iran’s behavior.
Two years later, everyone knows what some of us knew from the start: There are no moderates in the regime, and no chance of it significantly changing behavior dictated by its ideological DNA.
This does not mean the regime is unable to change its behavior. It does so only when it has to. In Syria, for example, Tehran has lowered its profile not because it has become aware of the cost of its folly, but because Russia has asserted itself as the master of ceremonies.
The liberation of Mosul has lowered Tehran’s profile in Iraq, if only because Iraqi security forces, endorsed by the Shiite leadership in Najaf and backed by Sunni Arab tribal chiefs, achieved victory. Iran has been reduced to second fiddle in Yemen, if only because the groups it sponsors, notably the Houthis, have all but failed in their war objectives.
Tehran has been forced to eat humble pie on the thorny issue of Haj. Having advanced 16 demands in order to resume pilgrimage by Iranians, it had to withdraw all of them.
With such a panoply of diplomatic setbacks in the background, it is no surprise that the mullahs are clinging to the JCPOA as their chief achievement. Is Trump right in letting them cling on, at least for another three months? The answer must be yes, if only because he does not seem to have fully studied the Iranian problem, let alone devised an alternative policy.
He has spoken of regime change as opposed to change of behavior, without any evidence that the new approach is backed by concrete measures. In such a situation, it would make no sense to denounce the JCPOA and provoke a dispute with European allies without being able to offer them an alternative.
In other words, kicking the can down the road was the least bad option. But the Iranian can will return in three months’ time, forcing Trump to choose between a new version of Obama’s failed strategy, and a more effective way of dealing with what both he and Obama have described as the “No. 1 challenge to US national interests.”
• Amir Taheri was executive editor in chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications and published 11 books.
— Originally published in Asharq Al-Awsat.