Insulating the nuclear deal is mission almost-impossible

Insulating the nuclear deal is mission almost-impossible

As concerns mount about the future of the Iran nuclear deal, the blame for a crisis in the making is already being laid at the White House’s door. Yet all the noise surrounding the present US administration is masking a problem with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA): It was never going to remain insulated from the wider regional context, as key proponents of the nuclear deal would have it.

The Trump administration only has itself to fault for being too easy a target for its many critics. Some of it comes down to the seeming absence of diplomatic expertise, to which the quandary of the State Department surely contributes.

Although the US certified Iran’s compliance with the JCPOA in July, various key members of the administration, President Donald Trump included, have talked openly about ditching the deal and betting on regime change in Iran.

Trump reportedly tasked his national security and intelligence staff, including his chief strategist — the far-right ideologue Steve Bannon — to search for avenues to either re-negotiate the agreement or abandon it altogether.

A demand for a new round of inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) of various Iranian military sites — which Iran and other signatories of the deal, such as China or Russia, would surely reject — seems to be part of the plan. If the deal collapses due to a hasty US withdrawal or sabotaging that can easily be blamed on Washington, it will be a gift to Tehran and its most hard-line factions.

As Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker recently noted: “You want the breakup of this deal to be about Iran. You don’t want it to be about the US because we want our allies with us.” The latest reports from Washington suggest that the more moderate and experienced figures in the administration are gaining the upper hand over the firebrands.

Tehran has already obtained a substantial victory with the lifting of the global sanctions regime, which would be almost impossible to reinstate. China, Russia and Iran’s various trade partners in Asia, such as India or South Korea, will not be talked back into a similarly comprehensive arrangement. There are even serious doubts about what Washington’s European NATO allies will do if the US simply walks away from the deal without a legitimate reason.

Plus Iran would probably resume its nuclear program in its entirety. The presence of the chairman of North Korea’s Supreme Assembly in President Hassan Rouhani’s recent inauguration is a chilling reminder that Iran has a de-facto nuclear weapons state as a willing partner.

This clumsy posture of the Trump administration is driving attention away from a major weakness of the nuclear deal: Its narrowness and absence of a wider framework to address all other Iranian actions that threaten regional and global security.

The presence of the chairman of North Korea’s Supreme Assembly in President Hassan Rouhani’s recent inauguration is a chilling reminder that Iran has a de-facto nuclear weapons state as a willing partner.

Dr. Manuel Almeida

An obvious argument is that insulating the nuclear negotiations from all other regional crises was the only possible way to reach a deal. But this excessively narrow view of the agreement, one that also puts its spirit on the backburner, constitutes probably its main weakness.

Various prominent nuclear experts emphasize that Iran is complying with the technical aspects of the deal. Yet last week, the US, France, Germany and the UK sent a letter to the UN secretary-general saying Iran’s launch on July 27 of a missile carrying a satellite into orbit was “inherently capable of delivering a nuclear warhead.”

These actions make a mockery of Iran’s commitments under the nuclear deal and UN Security Council Resolution 2231. The latest missile launch follows a new set of sanctions on Iran approved by Congress, and on Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) by various US government departments.

Obsessed by what it considered its major foreign policy achievement, the Obama administration was comfortable overlooking Iran’s imperialist agenda based on myriad armed militias, crucial backing for the Syrian regime’s mass murder machine, and support for extremist groups on both sides of the sectarian divide.

But that would never have been an acceptable position for the next US administration (possibly with the exception of a Bernie Sanders presidency), nor for various regional US allies, such as Israel, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Inevitably, attempts to fend off Iran’s hegemonic plans would eventually threaten the JCPOA.

The deal was never only about Iran’s nuclear program. Its regional and global implications are much wider, and the deal’s main backers always knew this. Crucially, without a larger initiative to find a new security architecture in the region and address and diffuse regional crises — many of which have Iran and its regional hegemonic ambitions as a central element — the nuclear deal may not survive.

Dr. Manuel Almeida is a political analyst and consultant focusing on the Middle East. He is the former editor of the English online edition of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper and holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from the London School of Economics and Political Science.

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