The US President Donald Trump has waived sanctions on Iran for “one last time,” and set a 120-day deadline to fix what he described as “serious flaws” in the nuclear deal signed in 2015. That ultimatum is addressed not only to Iran, but mainly to the European countries that support the agreement.
Before Trump’s announcement late on Friday, those European allies placed enormous pressure on the president to remain committed to the agreement. So far, these diplomatic efforts, along with advice from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, have allowed the deal to survive.
However, Trump’s conditions for again waiving sanctions in 120 days’ time are the imposition of new restrictions on Iran’s ballistic missile program, which is not covered by the nuclear deal, and — more significantly — an agreement with European countries that the current 10-year limitation on Iran’s nuclear program become permanent. “If at any time I judge that such an agreement is not within reach, I will withdraw from the deal immediately,” the president said on Friday.
Thus, while Trump has not actually killed the Iran nuclear deal, he has weakened it to the extent that it now dangles on a very thin rope that could break even before the 120-day deadline expires.
During his presidential election campaign, and in the year since he took office, Trump repeatedly castigated the nuclear agreement as “a very bad deal,” and threatened to scrap it. He was persuaded not to because of America’s obligations under international law, and to its European allies.
Last October, however, the president refused to certify that Iran was in compliance with the agreement, and he did so again last Friday. He also imposed new sanctions on 14 Iranian individuals and entities that have committed human rights abuses or supported the country’s ballistic missile program. The most prominent target is the head of Iran’s judiciary, Ayatollah Sadeq Larijani.
Supporters of the nuclear deal hoped it would change Iran’s behavior in the region, and improve its dysfunctional relationship with its neighbors. More than two years on, however, nothing much has changed in Iran’s conduct, and nor have Iranian people enjoyed any significant improvement in their economic and living conditions.
With his new ultimatum, Donald Trump may succeed in dismantling the agreement without the need to rip it up.
In addition, uncertainty about the Iran deal, and concern over the regime’s role in Syria and Yemen and its support for terrorism, have made investors and international banks hesitant to conduct business with Iran. The poor state of the economy was the main reason for public dissatisfaction and anger with President Hassan Rouhani and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, which led to the recent demonstrations. Iranians questioned the regime’s international behavior and the way it spends their money on fighting wars in other countries in the region. They blame their own rulers for their poor living conditions, not the US or anyone else.
The political leaders in Tehran, who invested so much in the nuclear deal and the economic benefits they counted on it bringing, understand very well the consequences the nation will face without it.
The main sanctions on Iran’s oil and gas industry and banking system were lifted, and investors were encouraged to enter this untouched market of 80 million people who so much wanted a Westernized and open society. But all those dreams Iranians had for a better political and economical life, based on the nuclear deal, once again look so far away and so unreal.
The White House has now demanded, within 120 days, an agreement on permanent bans on Iranian nuclear enrichment and missile development. Is it possible, at such short notice and given the response so far from Iran, that these demands can be met? Or is it more likely that, by limiting Tehran’s choices in so short a time frame, Trump’s goal is to dismantle the nuclear agreement without actually ripping it up?
It may be that, given Trump’s conditions, it will not be the US that walks out on the nuclear deal — but Iran itself.
• Camelia Entekhabifard is an Iranian-American journalist, political commentator and author of Camelia: Save Yourself By Telling the Truth (Seven Stories Press, 2008).